Lots of people have trouble sleeping. In therapy this is one of the most common complaints I hear about in people’s lives. In fact, the American Sleep Association reports that up to 30% of Americans have trouble with insomnia. Luckily there are lots of things you can do to help you sleep better. In this post I’m going to talk about what is known as “sleep hygiene”.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene basically refers to routines that that can help support better sleep. Just like having good physical health requires good diet and exercise, good sleep can be had through incorporating sleep hygiene into your daily routine. Sometimes I get some push back from people around the idea of sleep hygiene. Nobody wants to hear that they are going to have to do some work to get what they want. But on the other hand, it is good to know that there are some solid things you can do to help improve your sleep
I personally struggle with insomnia. That’s what actually inspired me to write this post. I had been struggling with insomnia recently, had several relatively sleepless nights, and then finally broke down and structured some sleep hygiene into my life. The following are several tips for better sleep that have been supported by research and that have helped me in my own sleep struggles. Provided you don’t have any medical conditions that are contributing to your sleep problems, these tips should help you get better sleep.
9 Tips to Help You Sleep Better
Create a sleep schedule and stick to it
One of the most important components of good sleep hygiene is to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Figure out what works for you and stick to it. If you need/want to be up at 7 every morning do your best to get to bed (lights out) by 10 or 11, so you get 8-9 hours of sleep. This is really hard to do at first. Especially for those who have been struggling with insomnia for a while. To combat this, it can help to get up at the same time every morning no matter what (unless you’re sick or something obviously). This is probably the most beneficial bit of sleep hygiene that has helped me. If you can get up at the same time every day and not take naps, then you will soon get to a place of feeling sleepy at night and awake in the morning.
Be mindful of your caffeine intake
People love their caffeine!…me too :-p . But its important that you avoid it pretty much any time after noon. The earlier in the day you can stop drinking caffeine and the less you can get away with drinking, the better. There was a pivotal point in my life one day in college when I learned that the half life of caffeine in the body of an average healthy adult is 5-6 hours. This means that if you drink a cup of coffee at noon, one quarter of it is still in your body at 10-12PM. If drinking a quarter of a cup of coffee at 11 at night seems like a bad idea, then you shouldn’t be drinking a whole cup at noon….because that’s what you’re doing. Stop that! :-p
Alcohol actually inhibits REM sleep
Occasionally I meet people who drink alcohol late at night thinking it will help them sleep better. Alcohol is weird when it comes to sleep. As a “depressant” alcohol makes people “loosen up”, feel sleepy, and ultimately pass out at the right dosage. It’s true that alcohol can make a person sleep. However, alcohol also inhibits REM sleep; the active, dreaming stage of sleep that we actually need to stay healthy. In the absence of REM sleep, you aren’t so much asleep as you are unconscious.
Exercise can help you get better sleep
In addition to being good for your overall health, exercise can help you get better sleep too. It’s generally said that the importance of exercise when it comes to sleep is that the body pretty much holds onto residual energy at the end of the day if it isn’t given the opportunity to use it. When using exercise as a part of your sleep hygiene routine, it’s important to avoid exercising 3 hours before you go to sleep. Exercise is good for your sleep, but if you do it right before bed you’re basically telling your body its time to be physically active…which is the opposite of sleeping.
This one has been a longstanding belief in the area of sleep hygiene. There has been recent research however, that suggests that this effect is different for different people and that exercise (even late in the day) can be better for your sleep than no exercise.
Light exposure can negatively effect sleep
Light exposure has been center stage in sleep studies recently. This is because we are getting more artificial light exposure late at night than people have in the past. Studies have generally found that exposure to light of any kind can get in the way of your sleep. This is because the body relies on visual darkness cues to signal the release of melatonin; the primary hormone responsible for sleepiness. Simply put, if you’re exposed to light then your brain thinks it’s day time. If you’re in the dark, the brain will think it is time to sleep.
Recent studies have specifically looked at the effects of blue light on the release of melatonin in the brain. Blue light specifically seems to effect melatonin more than other wavelengths of light. It is thought that this is the case because blue is the color to the sky during daytime. This is a problem because a lot of the electronics we use emit blue lights. The screen your reading right now for example looks mostly black and white, but the white space is actually made up of red, blue, and green light in each pixel.
Interestingly, I am writing this blog on a new laptop I bought a week ago. When I was setting it up I went into the settings menu and found a setting that allows me to put my computer on a schedule that reduces blue light after certain hours of the day. The tech world is slowly getting savvy to the negative effects of blue lights on sleep and is taking steps to try to counteract this.
So! as far as light goes.
-Avoid bright lights 1-2 hours before bed
-Avoid using your phone in bed
-Turn the TV off an hour or more before you go to sleep.
-If you use an alarm clock, make sure it uses red light.
-Make your bedroom dark. If you have anything that emits even a small amount of light, try to block it in some way or turn it off.
Do your best to make your bedroom comfortable and sleep inducing. Make sure its dark and quiet, and that your bed is nice and comfy. Do whatever fits you in this regard. Maybe fresh sheets feel nice to you, or making your bed in the morning so that when you go to bed at night its all set up for you. Sometimes people find themselves in situations where they aren’t able to get quiet in their bedrooms. Consider getting a white noise machine like the ones I use right outside my office doors. They’re pretty cheap and can help you block out any noises that might keep you from sleeping.
Bed for sleep only
Its really important that you use your bed only for sleep and sex. If you hang out in bed during the day then you’re breaking the association your brain makes between bed and sleep. Probably the worst thing you can do in this regard is to lie in bed while watching TV. Don’t do that.
Make your bedroom cooler at night
In addition to things like light exposure, your brain picks up on other cues that signal its time to sleep. One of these is room temperature. If you think about it, this makes sense. It gets cooler at night, so a drop in temperature, like a drop in light, is a good indication that it might be time to sleep. Also, your body temperature tends to drop a degree or two while you’re sleeping, so reducing ambient temperature can kind of jump start this.
It can really help to set up some kind of bed time routine for yourself. Maybe its helpful for you to take a bath before bed. Maybe reading a book is relaxing for you. Whatever it is, the important thing about a bed time routine is that you recognize the importance of sleep, what will help you sleep, and that you protect that space for yourself. This looks different for everybody. Sex before bed, for example, can be relaxing for some and invigorating for others. Recognize your needs and take care of yourself!
Provided you don’t have any medical conditions contributing to your sleep problems, these tips should help you get better sleep. If you find yourself in a place where something else is going on in your life that is contributing to your sleep troubles, you might benefit from counseling. Anxiety, stress, and trauma can contribute to insomnia. Give me a call sometime and we can talk about how I might be able to help.
Joe Borders, MFT
Counseling and Therapy in Roseville and Sacramento
1722 Professional Drive,
Sacramento, CA 95825
775 Sunrise Ave., suite 110
Roseville, Ca 95661