The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the American Sleep Association, and the National Sleep Foundation all use the term sleep hygiene to refer to healthy habits, practices, and routines that improve regular, day-to-day sleep quality—in short, methods that promote a consistent good night’s rest. This makes sense, as typical hygiene is observed in order to maintain health and prevent disease. We all know how to do this: washing hands often, bathing regularly, trimming nails and hair, brushing and flossing teeth. While these actions border on common sense, we still sometimes forget to do one or more of them. The same can be said for sleep hygiene.
First and foremost when it comes to these healthy habits is to make sleep a top priority. It’s not just something that comes after everything in your to-do list is done; in fact, the accepted minimum seven hours of shut-eye should actually be on that list. Once this shift in priorities is internalized, all other related practices will be more effective. Of course, we’ll discuss specific methods in more detail in articles to come; but for now, let’s look at six basic principles of sleep hygiene.
Start with Great Daytime Habits
If you want a good night’s rest, you need to prepare for it; and that starts way before the sun sets. More exposure to natural daylight—even through a window—leads to an increase in nighttime sleep duration, as well as sleep quality, as a 2014 study published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows. Also: If you like taking naps during the day, limit each nap to 20-30 minutes. Not only will too many naps potentially mess up your sleep-wake cycle, but no amount of napping can make up for not getting enough hours of sleep at night.
Watch What You Eat and Drink
Your diet is important. Food and beverages that can cause indigestion—carbonated, citrus, fatty, fried, heavy, rich, spicy, any combination thereof and just large meals in general—should be avoided, because these can all cause heartburn. It’s hard to feel sleepy when you’re feeling discomfort. Taking in less fluids hours before bedtime is also a good idea, so you can reduce the need to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
Exercise, Even Just a Little
A 2011 study—published by a journal called Mental Health and Physical Activity—shows that a weekly dose of little under two hours of at least moderate activity can improve sleep quality by as much as 65 percent. That’s less than 30 minutes a day! Intense exercise right before bedtime may disrupt your sleeping patterns, though; as your brain is likely to be more active, your adrenaline and body temperature higher, and your heartbeats faster. You may find it harder to get to sleep. However, another 2011 study—this time published by the Journal of Sleep Research—shows that strenuous exercise late at night does not disturb or affect actual sleep quality.
Avoid Physical, Mental, and Emotional Stimulants
Similar to avoiding strenuous exercise is avoiding stimulants. You want to create an atmosphere that promotes sleepiness; in fact, that’s also the goal of your before bedtime routine. The obvious no-no’s are caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. The first two keep you up; and the latter, though well-known to induce sleep, actually makes it harder for you to stay asleep as the night progresses and your body begins to process it. Other stimulants include artificial light and devices; so turn off televisions, tablets, and smartphones at least 30 minutes before sleeping. It’s also advisable to avoid having emotionally charged confrontations and conversations late at night.
Stick to a Schedule and Establish a Routine
Pick a bedtime that will allow you at least seven and a half hours of slumber, and stick to it. Creating a routine helps condition your body to recognize the signs that it’s time for sleep. Some great additions to a before bedtime routine include light stretches, a warm shower, or quiet cuddle time with a pet. On top of a routine, it will also help to train yourself to associate lying in bed with only sleep or sex; don’t read, watch TV or use your smartphone while in your bed. And, if after 20 minutes of trying to sleep, you find that you’re still wide awake, get out of bed and try out some other sleep hygiene practices before making another attempt.
Create a Comfortable and Peaceful Sleep Environment
Finally, make sure that your bedroom is conducive to quality sleep. On top of comfortable pillows and mattresses, consider going the extra mile and investing in products to control light exposure, sound levels and temperature. Blackout curtains and eye masks will get you in the mood to sleep faster, as well as doing away with lamps and night lights. A white noise machine or simple ear plugs can help you sleep through the night completely; particularly if you live in a noisy neighborhood, share a bed with a chronic snorer, or use a fan or air conditioner that emits a droning or humming sound while it’s on. Speaking of the latter, remember that the optimal temperature for sleeping is between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. With a thermostat to keep room temperature constant, it’s worth considering wearing light clothing and doing away with blankets, as well.