A good night of sleep is arguable one of the most important factors in maintaining good health. Sleep quality has been linked with optimal immune system function, reduced inflammation, increased cognitive capacity and is thought to be protective against age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Good sleep optimises daily productivity and improves our overall quality of life. However, it’s all too common for us to struggle to get those elusive eight hours amidst our fast paced, technology driven society.
Whether dealing with a formal sleep disorder, or just trying to improve our overall health, we all need to be aware of the practices which improve sleep quality. The practices and habits which are necessary for a good night of sleep are referred to as sleep hygiene. These behaviours are as important to our health as any other hygiene practice.
In this article, we’ll explore what sleep hygiene is and discover the key practices required for good sleep hygiene. With this knowledge, we can synthesise these factors into an actionable behaviour check-list and routine.
What is sleep hygiene?
The tell-tale signs of poor sleep hygiene are noticeably disrupted sleep and day-time sleepiness. Do you experience low energy of grogginess throughout the day? Do you rely of caffeine to drive you through daily tasks? Have you had trouble focussing on reading this article? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s likely you need to re-think your sleep hygiene practices.
Sleep hygiene are a variety of practices which help to optimise night-time rest and reduce day-time sleepiness. These practices are actionable behaviours that are underpinned by sleep science.
Before forming a checklist of science-based behaviours, it’s important to understand some of the main factors that disrupts sleep.
Research has shown that temperature can have a huge effect on the quality of our sleep. While we often associate bed-time with warmth and comfort, having a bedroom environment that is too warm can disrupt sleep. The recommended room temperature for optimal sleep is around 18°C. Elevated body temperature has been linked to problems falling and staying asleep.
- Blue light
Over exposure to blue light may be considered a modern problem. Blue light is the wavelength of light that is emitted from smart-phones, tablets and computer screens. This wavelength of light disrupts the normal physiological sleep-wake cycle, or ‘circadian rhythm’, by giving ‘wake-up’ cues to our brains which boost alertness. This is because blue light blocks the production and onset of a key sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin. The more blue light we’re exposed to, the less melatonin released in the brain.
In a natural environment, this spectrum of light is most prevalent in the morning and decreases throughout the day. However, modern Americans now spend around 7 hours per day exposed to blue light, with much of this exposure being shortly before bedtime.
Almost all of us consume caffeine in some form throughout the day. Caffeine disrupts a process known as ‘sleep pressure’. Sleep pressure induces feeling of tiredness and helps us to fall asleep. This process is triggered by slowing of neural activity which is caused the binding of adenosine to its receptors. Caffeine blocks the ability of adenosine to bind to these receptors which temporarily staves off feelings of tiredness.
While the substance is known to have a variety of benefits, over consumption of caffeine and caffeine exposure late in the day can have detrimental consequences to our sleep. This is because caffeine can take as long as 6-8 hours to be fully excreted from the body, meaning that the stimulating effects of an early evening coffee can last well into the night-time hours.
Colloquially, alcohol or a small ‘night cap’ might be seen as a sleep aid. However, alcohol is a particularly damaging substance for sleep. While consuming alcohol might make us feel sleep and fall asleep faster, the quality of sleep we achieve can be severely compromised. Regular alcohol consumption before bed have been linked to increased incidence of sleep apnea, snoring and disrupted sleep-wake cycles. On a biological level, alcohol disrupts hormones which are critical for sleep, such as melatonin and human growth hormone.
- Anxiety, stress and emotional issues
Multiple studies have shown that emotional state can have a huge impact on sleep quality. Excessive anxiety, stress and other negative emotions can disrupt our ability to fall and stay asleep. In fact, some researchers suggest that emotional issues, over-thinking and a ‘cluttered mind’ may be one of the most damaging factors to sleep quality.
These are just a few of many factors which can affect sleep quality and account for poor sleep hygiene. Luckily, there are many science-backed behaviours that can improve our sleep hygiene practices and restore our night-time rest.
An Evidence-Based Sleep Hygiene Checklist
- Ensure proper exposure to natural light
Studies have shown that exposure to natural day-light regulate our sleep-wake cycle. This is particularly important for people who work indoors most of the time. Try to get adequate sun exposure throughout the day, particularly in the morning.
Equally as important is darkness at night. You should aim to remove all light from your bedroom while you sleep. It’s also helpful to reduce the levels of light within your home throughout the evening. Try ambient lighting, such as small lamps, instead of harsh overhead lighting.
- Exercise frequently, but not near bedtime
We all know that exercise provides many health benefits and this include sleep. In fact, studies have shown as little as 10 minutes of exercise per day can improve night-time sleep. In terms of sleep hygiene, it’s important to avoid excessively strenuous or active work-outs close to bedtime. For some people, this can trigger over stimulation which can make falling asleep difficult.
- Set regular sleep and wake times
Setting regular sleep and wake times in essentially to sleep hygiene. Multiple studies have found that people who have a regular sleep routine, which avoids excessive or irregular napping, have improved sleep quality. Over time, a regular sleep cycle will become natural. This often results in less reliance on alarm-clocks.
Scientific studies have found that mid-day naps can improve alertness and productivity. However, these shouldn’t exceed 20-30 minutes.
- Cut out caffeine and stimulants close to bed-time
As we discussed previously, caffeine isn’t fully removed from the body until around 6-8 hours after consumption. This can vary between individuals, and you may find that you’re more or less sensitive to caffeine. However, as a general rule, it’s best to switch to non-caffeinated beverages after 4pm.
- Reduce phone, tablet and laptop use in the evening
Blue light is well-known to disrupt the production of the sleep-aiding hormone melatonin. Melatonin levels have to rise over the course of the evening in order for us to feel sleepy around bed-time. In order to reduce the inhibiting effects of blue light on melatonin, it’s best to limit evening use of electronic devices. It’s good practice to entirely eliminate exposure 1-2 hours before bed and ban phones, tablets and laptops from the bedroom!
- Build relaxation into your routine
Strong emotions such as anxiety, stress, anger and sadness can prevent us from sleeping well. Excitement and overstimulation can contribute to this too. Good sleep hygiene practices include habits which helps us to relax. These activities will vary across individuals, but many people find reading, meditation and gentle yoga helps. It’s also important to switch off email alerts from work, avoid working late into the night and reduce overstimulating or upsetting conversations before bed.
- Harness the power of a warm bath
Having a warm bath or shower can be relaxing and helps us to unwind before bed. However, there’s another physiological reason which underlies why warm baths constitute good sleep hygiene practice. A warm bath facilitates a ‘heat dump’. This heat dump happens after we transition from a warm bath to a lower ambient temperature; our bodies expel the built up heat into the environment in order to cool down. The net effect of this heat dumps results in a lower body temperature before bed which fosters better sleep.
- Avoid late-night meals and drinks
Although late-night drinks and snacks can be tempting, it’s best to avoid this if possible. Research has shown that eating before bed can negative effect the levels of sleep-inducing hormones. If you find yourself frequently waking up throughout the night to urinate, you may also consider stopping all liquid intake around an hour before bed.
Finally, as we discussed, alcohol can limit the depth and quality of sleep which we can attain. Avoiding alcoholic beverages and other substances (such as nicotine and cannabis) before bed are important components of sleep hygiene.
Sleep Hygiene Routine Example
Sleep hygiene will look slightly different for everyone. However, with some personal adaptations, we can build a bed-time routine that optimises these research-based sleep hygiene practices. We encourage you to experiment and explore habits which work best for you. If you’re looking for some inspirations, here’s an example of what a healthy sleep hygiene routine might look like.
- Set a regular wake-up time and stick to it.
- Incorporate outdoor exercise (e.g. running or a brisk walk) into your morning routine to harness the benefits of physical activity and natural daylight exposure.
- Avoid post-lunch naps.
- Have your last coffee between 3 – 4pm. Switch to decaf or herbal tea instead.
- Eat a balanced dinner earlier in the evening.
- Turn the lights down and create an ambient atmosphere within your home.
- Cut off phone and laptop use 2-3 hours before bed. This includes work email!
- Try meditating, gentle yoga, reading or a non-technology-based hobby as an evening activity. Avoid emotionally upsetting tasks or conversations in the evening.
- Take a warm bath for 30 minutes, listen to a relaxing audiobook or podcast. Avoid anything over-stimulating.
- Open a bedroom window or cool your bedroom temperature before sleep.
- Turn out all of the lights before sleep.
This basic routine can be switched up and adapted to your needs. However, these are some of the first small steps you can take toward better sleep hygiene.