12 Tips for Maintaining Good Sleep Hygiene

sleeping well

Every animal sleeps. From gnats to gorillas, sleep plays an essential role in the health and function of almost every creature. Even migrating birds will sleep mid-flight! Most people have experienced the benefits of good sleep and the costs of sleeplessness. Unfortunately, humans are the only species that have significant trouble sleeping. But what is it about being human, or specifically a modern human, that can make sleep so fickle and elusive for some?

What the Body Needs to Sleep Well

What do we need to sleep like a dog? First, we need to feel safe. For sleep to occur, our nervous system must shift into the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest”, state. This is the opposite of the sympathetic, or “fight and flight” state. If someone is being chased by pack of hyenas, it is probably not a great time for a snooze. On the contrary, a lioness sleeping on the Serengeti surrounded by the safety of her pride can sleep regardless of the roaming packs. Safety is a relative concept, but an essential one for sleep.

Secondly, we need darkness. Humans are ‘diurnal’ meaning that we typically like to be awake during the day and sleep at night. The long red wavelengths of light associated with sunset, candlelight, or a crackling fire stimulate our pineal gland to make melatonin and other sleep hormones because it signals that darkness is coming.

We also need to be fed. Think like a caveman on this one. If he did not have success hunting or foraging that day, then he would need to get back out there and find some food before starving.

Lastly, we need to feel comfortable. Like safety, a sense of comfort is relative but for many sleepers it involves quiet, a sense of calm, a cool environment but bodily warmth, and freedom from pain.

 

What is Sleep Hygiene and How Does it Help Us Sleep?

While the modern world has made life more convenient, it has also made sleep more difficult for many. The prerequisites of sleep are disturbed by indoor lights after sunset, the buzz of notifications from phones at the bedside, the midnight sugar crash after a big pasta dinner, and the circling ‘hyenas’ of email inboxes, to do lists, financial pressures, and social expectations make it difficult to rest. Sleep hygiene reduces these noxious influences and creates a more natural sleep-promoting environment.

 

Sleep Hygiene Checklist

Following are the top tips for establishing a solid foundation for sleep.

  1. Have a scheduled bedtime ritual. Just like a dog who has to spin circles before lying down, certain repetitive behaviors can remind the brain that it is time to wind down. This could involve a cup of herbal tea, an evening meditation or prayer, taking a warm bath, reading a book, etc.
  2. Avoid LED lighting, phone screens, and TV for the last hour before bed. The blue light emitted from these sources tricks the brain into thinking it is mid-day. Instead, use a warm dim incandescent bulb and engage in a less stimulating activity like reading a book, talking with a partner, or practicing an art or craft just before bed. Rooms should be dark. Cover blinking lights, turn off electronics, and install ‘black out’ curtains.
  3. Avoid watching the news before bed. These programs broadcast all the ‘hyenas’ of the world into our mind just before we fall asleep. This makes it difficult to feel safe and prevents our nervous system from switching into the parasympathetic state. Try watching the news in the morning instead.
  4. Keep/charge your phone in a separate room on ‘do not disturb’ mode. The constant buzzing of notifications on a smartphone acts like a back door to let the ‘hyenas’ into your bedroom. Say no to hyenas.
  5. Keep your room cool but have enough bedding to stay warm. Open a window, turn down the AC/heat at night, run a fan, or get a cooling blanket or mattress to improve sleep.
  6. Get comfortable. This is a difficult one because comfort is different for everyone. Make sure that you are not waking up multiple times per night to change positions due to pain in your neck, back, or hips. If you are, it might be time for a change of pillow(s), bedding, or mattress.
  7. Eat healthy fats, proteins, and fiber rich foods before bed. Many adults eat dinner around 6-7pm and go to bed around 11pm. As a result of poor dietary choices, it is possible to experience hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, at night. This leads to the release of the stress hormone cortisol whose job it is to wake people up and get them moving! Try eating nuts/nut butters, whole grains, cheeses, meats, or legumes before bed to stabilize blood sugar throughout the night. Avoid sugary snacks and treats before bed.
  8. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine has a half-life of 6-8 hours in most individuals. This means that there will still be ¼ to 1/8th of the caffeine from that morning cup of coffee hanging around at bedtime. Try to avoid caffeinated beverages and foods after noon. Similarly, although alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, it often leads to waking episodes around 3-4am due to its impact on blood sugar levels.
  9. The bed and the bedroom should be for sleep and sex. Avoid eating in bed, watching TV in bed, and especially working in bed. Making the bedroom a ‘hyena free zone’ and space of rest is part of establishing a healthy bedtime ritual.
  10. Breathe. After lying down in bed, focus on nasal breathing which helps the body shift into the parasympathetic state. Breathe in for four counts and out for six counts. When the mind wanders off to tasks, agendas, deadlines, and worries, notice your thoughts and bring them back to the counting of breaths. This technique, as well as other breathing and mindfulness techniques, can be very helpful.
  11. Don’t sleep with pets. Many people love their pets and experience a sense of comfort sleeping next to them. But the noise, movement, and allergens that pets bring into the bedroom are proven sleep disruptors.
  12. If after establishing your sleep hygiene routine, if you still experience insomnia, frequent waking, or poor quality sleep, contact your holistic healthcare professional for support. You may need additional support to achieve optimal sleep. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to invest in sleep. Supplemental support, stress reduction exercises, environmental changes, and pharmaceutical treatment may be necessary for you to experience your best night’s sleep.

Related reading from the Sleep Foundation: What is Sleep Hygiene?

Take a deep dive by reading Why We Sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD.

Discuss Your Sleep Hygiene Checklist and Solutions for Better Sleep with Dr. Ryan Phillips. Call to make an appointment: 303-884-7557.