Sleep Hygiene explained
So many people are looking for that "magic pill" that will take all of their stresses and worries away, how to calm down. Ideally, this pill should fix things. It should make life better — easier, happier, and more enjoyable overall.
Many people seek this pill in the form of a new relationship, a better job, an improved physique, or even an actual medication or drug. And while some of these solutions certainly may work to better your life, what if you had an even better “magic pill” right in front of you? A full-proof, cures everything, 100% free, available in unlimited supply, all-natural magic pill.
Of course, this pill does exist. And its name is sleep.
If you think this sounds too simple, think again! Sleep is nature’s remedy for nearly everything that ails us as humans. At the same time that it is critical to our physical health, it is also crucial to our emotional and mental health. People who get enough sleep on a regular basis are healthier, happier, and better adjusted.
Sleep addresses nearly every one of life’s potential issues yet is also one of the most overlooked and uncultivated habits for most people.
Who’s Getting Enough Sleep?
While sleep experts tout the indisputable importance of getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, an astonishing 35% of Americans get less than that on a regular basis.
In a way, this is perfectly understandable. You don’t have to sleep to get through the day, after all. It’s possible to eek by on a few hours here and there. The point is, however, that getting through the day is almost always easier, less-stressful, and overall more enjoyable when you’ve had enough sleep. Furthermore, in the long-term, better sleep has been scientifically proven to help you live a longer, healthier, happier life.
So how do you do it? How can you sleep better?
It all starts with developing and cultivating better sleep hygiene.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Just as we all must take care of our physical hygiene, dental hygiene, and home hygiene, we also must take care of our sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene can be defined as healthy habits and behaviors that, when combined, contribute to more and better sleep on a regular basis. These healthy sleep habits may include things like setting a bedtime, keeping digital devices out of the bedroom, and keeping a sleep diary. While your individual sleep habits may vary, there are many standard sleep habits that nearly all good sleep hygiene routines will benefit from.
What is Sleep Deprivation?
Poor sleep on a regular basis can be defined as sleep deprivation. While this is not a unique disease with specific symptoms, it is a general state of being that can have negative ramifications to your overall health and well-being.
Essentially, the disorder of sleep deprivation refers to the state caused by not getting enough sleep for many nights in a row or for many nights within a set period of time — for example, within a month’s time.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Experts at The National Sleep Foundation recommend that those aged 18 to 64 get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Those over the age of 64 may need less sleep, but only by a small amount. The recommended sleep amount for these individuals is seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
Children also require more sleep than those 18 and over. Preschoolers aged three to five should get between 10 and 13 hours of sleep each night. School age children between six and 13 should get nine to 11 hours of sleep each night. And Teens aged 14 to 17 should get between eight and 10 hours of sleep each night.
Babies (especially newborns) will generally sleep for most of a 24-hour period. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following sleep limits for babies and toddlers:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours a night/day
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours a night/day
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours a night/day
How Do You Know If You Have Good Sleep Hygiene Habits?
With good sleep habits, you should be getting the recommended amount of sleep every night on a regular basis. If you miss one or two nights here and there, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have poor sleep hygiene. But if you rarely, if ever, get enough sleep or if you have trouble staying asleep and end up tossing and turning for long periods of time on a frequent basis, you may want to look at your sleep habits more closely.
Specifically, here are several signs that you may need to improve your sleep habits:
- Consistently late bedtimes and early rising times
- Trouble getting to sleep in the first place close to bedtime (lying awake for 30 minutes or more before you can fall asleep)
- Waking up regularly during the night, not getting the quality sleep you need
- Waking up during the night and being unable to fall back asleep for 20 minutes or more
- A diagnosis of insomnia
What Causes Poor Sleep Hygiene?
Causes of poor sleep can be both unavoidable and avoidable. However, most of the time, poor sleep hygiene is something you can fix or improve with a few simple changes to your routine and habits.
Let’s go through some of the most common avoidable and unavoidable reasons for poor sleep hygiene below.
Avoidable Reasons for Poor Sleep Hygiene
- Not honoring a set bedtime, not going to bed at the same time every day
- Drinking caffeine just before bed
- Exercising right before bed
- Using screens before bed (smart phones, tablets, computers, etc.)
- Watching TV in bed
- Using recreational drugs
- Not creating a bedtime routine and practicing good sleep
- Not cultivating a positive sleeping environment
- Allowing anxieties and stresses to flood your mind before bed (sometimes, this is unavoidable)
Mostly Unavoidable Reasons for Poor Sleep Hygiene
- Being a new parent
- Excess stress caused by a life trauma, such as the loss of a loved one or the diagnosis of a serious illness
- Working overtime
Do you think you may have poor sleep hygiene and be sleep deprived? Learn more about sleep deprivation and the science of sleep ahead or skip to the end of this page and go directly to the “Healthy Habits = Healthy Sleep: How to Improve Your Sleep Hygiene” section. Here, you can learn how to improve your sleep habits for better sleep as soon as tonight.
The Science of Sleep and Why Sleep Is So Critical To Your Health
All mammals sleep. And for all mammals, including humans, sleep is absolutely essential. Of this, scientists, researchers, and doctors all agree.
However, there are still a lot of mysteries about sleep and why exactly it’s such an important part of our lives. After all, every one of us will spend approximately one-third of our lives … asleep.
For several centuries, sleep was known to be important to humans, but was basically thought of as a time where we got to “rest” and our minds and bodies essentially “shut off.” While it’s true that our bodies do, in a sense, “shut off” during sleep (in that they don’t really move), it’s since been debunked that our minds are not active during sleep.
Quite the contrary, in fact. It has been found that our brains are often just as active during sleep as they are in our waking lives. So, what are our brains doing during sleep, and what is sleep really for?
Part of the reason that these are such difficult questions to answer lies in the fact that you cannot deprive someone completely of sleep to study what happens to them without it. Not only would this be cruel and unusual, but it’s also virtually impossible.
For this reason, scientists and researchers looking at sleep must rely on other study methods in their efforts to answer this often-complex question. Below, we dive into a few of the strongest and most-compelling theories surrounding the reasons why we sleep. Several of these theories have essentially been accepted by most doctors and other experts, but some aspects have still neither been proven or disproved.
Why Do Humans Need Sleep?
There is no doubt that sleep plays a critical role in the function of our brains as well as numerous other systems, including the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, and more. However, questions about the evolution of sleep as a necessity remain. Here are three theories that experts have about why we sleep.
The Brain Plasticity Theory
This is one of the most recent theories about sleep. Essentially, it posits that we must sleep so that our brains have time to reorganize and restructure. The theory centers around brain plasticity, which is the brain's ability to develop and change over time. This used to only be applied to newborns, infants, and small children who were obviously using sleep time to develop their young brains into adult brains. Today, however, scientists believe that adult brains are "plastic" and can change as well.
The Repair, Rejuvenation, and Restoration Theory
This theory posits that during sleep, our bodies repair themselves and restore things that are lost during our waking life. For example, byproducts produced in the brain can build up during the day; however, they can be flushed out at night during sleep. Specifically, a cell-produced byproduct called adenosine, which is made in the brain, can be cleared during sleep. This causes you to feel more alert and awake in the morning.
The Energy Conservation Theory
For most people in the world today, there aren't worries about not having enough to eat. This wasn't always the case, however. Long ago, humans and other mammals had to have adequate food sources in order to supply their bodies with enough energy. Because this could oftentimes be a challenge, there is a theory that sleep was meant to be a period of regular inactivity, during which the need for energy/food would decrease significantly. In times of sparse nourishment, this was meant to help regulate and conserve energy resources.
What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Above, we described sleep deprivation as “poor sleep on a regular basis” (less than seven hours a night).
The peculiar thing about sleep deprivation is, again, that it’s not a specific illness. While it can be diagnosed, it doesn’t have a specific set of symptoms and effects. On the other hand, you’ll be able to see the negative effects of sleep deprivation quite clearly if they happen to you.
This is another way to explain why we sleep. We’ve already touched on the fact that it's virtually impossible to know for sure why we sleep. However, researchers and scientists can look at what happens if people don't get enough sleep and make assertions from there.
What Are the Effects of Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation has both short-term signs and symptoms and long-term effects.
Top Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
If you are concerned that you're not getting enough sleep, it may be a good idea to examine your own behaviors and try to notice any of the following symptoms of sleep deprivation. Additionally, if you are concerned that your child or teenager isn't getting enough sleep, look for the same symptoms.
- Frequent irritability and mood swings
- Regular feelings of drowsiness
- Diminished energy
- Frequent yawning
- The desire to take naps during the day
- Forgetfulness and/or clumsiness
- Feeling like you have a “fuzzy” head
- An increased appetite
Short-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation
In the short-term, after just one or two “sleepless night,” you may notice the following effects:
- A higher likelihood of accidents (car, on-the-job, or in-home accidents)
- Trouble learning new concepts at school or work
- Severe moodiness (being short and irritable with friends, family, and coworkers for example)
- A diminished sex drive
- Clear signs of fatigue in your skin, especially in the face (bags under the eyes, sagging skin, dry skin)
- Chronic forgetfulness (a feeling of being “fuzzy” and not being able to focus or concentrate for more than a few moments at a time)
- Judgement impairment or not being able to make sound decisions that have been come upon by prudent, rational thought (eating cookies for breakfast or driving without a seatbelt, for example)
Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Long-term, the consequences of sleep deprivation are more dire and can continue to get worse. You may notice the following effects of sleep deprivation if you go for weeks, months, or years in a sleep-deprived state:
- Weight gain, thought to be caused by an increase in appetite because of lack of sleep
- Depression and/or anxiety disorder, both of which can cause and be caused by lack of sleep
- A higher propensity for disease and illness, which is thought to be caused by a reduction in immune system function because of a lack of sleep
- A less-sharp mind and worse memory, caused by not allowing your brain enough time to rejuvenate and consolidate memories (functions that are usually carried out during sleep)
Disease and Sleep
Research has shown that most people with insomnia also have at least one additional health condition. Insomnia and other sleep disorders may be a cause of these health conditions, and/or the other health conditions may be a cause of insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The most common physical diseases associated with sleep deprivation are:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart failure
- Heart attack
Healthy Habits = Healthy Sleep: How to Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Anyone can improve their sleep hygiene, and healthy sleep habits come in many forms. It’s crucial to find what works for you.
Below, we go over some of the basic tenets of improving your sleep as well as a few specific suggestions for making your bedtime and sleep routines more enjoyable and effective.
4 Basic Tenets for Better Sleep
The following is a list of basic tenets for better sleep, before we get into specific tips and suggestions.
- It’s important to make sleep a priority in your life.
First, remember that you have to make sleep a priority. It is true that you can't get by in life without sleeping, but there's a lot of wiggle room too. Lots of people think they can run on four or five hours of sleep a night and it won’t be a problem. Don't allow yourself this wiggle room. Make getting at least seven hours of sleep each night a priority for your overall health and well-being.
- You must figure out how much sleep you need.
Above, we outlined the recommended amounts of sleep for different ages of people. However, it must also be noted that it's not uncommon for individuals to actually need varying amounts of sleep, depending on their genetics, lifestyle, and other behaviors. We tell you how to know how much sleep you optimally need below when we discuss keeping a sleep diary.
- Avoid being a “weekend warrior” when it comes to sleep.
In other words, if you tend to lose sleep during the week, don’t try to make it all up on the weekends. Sleep doesn’t really work like that.
While it’s okay to go to bed early or sleep in to catch a few extra “Zzzs” on the weekends, you shouldn’t rely on this additional sleep time as a “makeup” for lost sleep Monday through Friday.
- Remember that the “best sleepers” invest in their sleep.
So many people take sleep for granted — and it’s certainly easy to do. But if you want to improve your sleep hygiene, it’s critical to invest some time, energy, and money into your sleep routine.
The good news is you can have some fun with it!
Spend time creating a bedtime routine that works for you. Buy some comfy pajamas and bed sheets. Create a sleep playlist. The sky’s the limit when it comes to developing better sleep habits. We’ll have more related tips for doing this below.
A Note on Screens and Sleep
In this day and age, everyone seems to have a smartphone, and many people also have a tablet device and a computer in their possession. These devices are used all the time, and other home digital devices like personal assistants, televisions, and more cause us to be staring at screens and using technology virtually all the time.
Technology is undoubtedly helpful in many ways; however, it can also be a detriment to our health when it interferes with sleep.
Sleep experts, doctors, and other health practitioners advise keeping technological devices — and especially those with screens like smart phones and tablets — out of the bedroom altogether. The light from these screens has been proven to tell your brain that it's daytime and that you should stay awake, which can contribute to difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep.
Sleep Tips for Optimal Sleep Hygiene
- Try keeping a sleep diary to see how much sleep you need.
To help yourself understand how much sleep you personally need, try keeping a sleep diary. Write down when you go to bed each night and when you wake up each morning for at least a month. Beside each day, write whether or not you had a decent night of sleep (did you toss and turn or get up multiple times?), and also write down how you felt throughout the day.
At the end of the month, look at your sleep diary to examine any patterns that can help you understand the optimal number of sleep hours you should be getting each night.
- Try meditation during the day to improve your sleep at night.
Meditation can help you sleep better because it mimics sleep in many ways. If you've never meditated before, the basic practice of sitting meditation has you sitting still, yet alert in a static position for a set period of time. During this period, one of the focuses is often to concentrate on your breath, calm the mind, and intentionally try to notice the sensations and physiological changes that are happening in your body and around you from moment to moment.
During meditation, research has shown that practitioners’ blood pressure drops, their pulse slows down, stress hormones decrease, and breathing slows as well. All of these things contribute to a calmer physical, mental, and emotional state. This state can resonate for the rest of the day and into the evening when it's time to go to bed. In fact, you might think of meditation as practice for sleep.
- Introduce yourself to Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra is a meditative and yogic practice that helps you achieve a deep level of relaxation. The level of relaxation is so deep, in fact, that it puts you on the brink of sleep, without actually tipping you over into sleep. Yoga nature is best practiced with guided meditation by a professional teacher; however, you can also listen to recorded audio of guided meditation to assist you in achieving this state.
Many people use Yoga Nidra to help them sleep better because it gets you so close to sleep. These individuals will often allow themselves to pass through the Yoga Nidra relaxation state into sleep. Alternatively, the practice can be carried out on a regular basis during the day, and its long-term effects can help you sleep better and give you some of the best sleep you ever experienced.
- Optimize your sleep environment.
Investing in your sleep environment can be a great way to improve your sleep. It can also be fun. You can optimize your sleep environment by removing digital devices, creating a nice sense of soft light at your bedside, improving the smell with essential oils or other scents, and getting cozy and comfy sheets and pajamas. Making your sleep environment more comfortable simply makes sleeping more enjoyable and you might experience some of the best sleep in a long time.
- Build a sleep routine.
You should start getting ready for bed, close to bedtime, at least 30 minutes before your desired bedtime. During this time, you should have a routine that helps you "wind down." For example, you might start by putting on your pajamas, turning the lights down low, putting on some soft music or calm music, and reading a book or listening to a guided meditation. This routine can help tell your brain that you'll be going to bed soon instead of abruptly shutting off the lights all at once and expecting your body to go to sleep. It will also help improve the quality of sleep you get during the night.
- Beware careful with naps.
Sometimes, naps are great. Other times, they can be disruptive. It’s always best to avoid naps when you can because the minimal seven hours of sleep you require should be carried out all at once for optimal health. Instead of naps, try to stick to a sleep schedule to ensure quality sleep. A strict sleep schedule allows for your body to get into a rhythm and a sleep cycle, helping it to know when it's time for sleep and with that get quality sleep during the night.
Sleeping Aid to Help Improve Your Sleep
Besides the methods mentioned above to help improve your sleep hygiene, there are a number of aids you can use in order to help improve your sleep quality at night. A healthy sleep schedule along with some of these aids might be the sleeping tips you need to get a good night's sleep.
- Sleeping Mask: Using a sleeping mask to eliminate bright light could help improve your sleep quality. Many individuals have issues sleeping due to bright lights or due to the light from outside and here is where a sleeping masks such as the laneige sleeping mask might be an excellent solution
- Earplugs for Sleeping: Besides light, another disturbing factor to the sleep cycle or ability to fall asleep at night could be sound. Some of the market's best earplugs for sleeping will help you alleviate these issues. This could be anything from sounds from outside to a partner that sleeps to loud. Earbuds for sleeping are not only easy to use, you don’t really notice them while you are trying to fall asleep.
- Noise Cancelling Headphones for Sleeping: If you like listening to calm music, or if you are travelling and simply want to try and get some sleep during the trip a set of good noise cancelling headphones for sleeping could be your solution. Headphones for sleeping isn't really something new but the technology has really progressed in terms of noise cancellation meaning they today serve the same function as some of the best earbuds for sleeping offer. This is why you see so many travelers today wearing headphones for sleeping during flights or waiting for flights at the airports.
- Choose the Best Pillows: A crucial element to a good night's sleep is to have a good pillow to lay your head on which is why you really need to take your time choosing the best pillows to suit your needs and that feels most comfortable for you. To avoid constant and recurring neck pain, make sure you choose the best pillow for neck pain. If you sleep on the side, make sure you pick the best pillow for side sleepers.
- Sleeping Chair: If you have problems sleeping in a bed, or simply want to get a nap in during the daytime, a sleeping chair could then be the solution for you. It will recline and help you into a more comfortable position. Listening to some calm music along with it, or if noise bothers you, use earbuds for sleeping along with a sleeping eye mask.
Sleeping Too Much
While sleeping is important for us to keep healthy, reduce stress and keep us relaxed, sleeping too much can have a negative impact on your life. But what you need to ask yourself then is “why am i sleeping so much” and “what can i do to stop it”. It could be that you are suffering from a sleeping disorder, something that only a doctor could determine. If you believe you are suffering from a sleeping disorder, which is a form of sleeping sickness, you should seek medical advice for it! Leaving a sleeping sickness untreated could cause you harm both physically and mentally.
Sometimes when we feel exhausted we have a tendency of oversleeping in order to compensate for sleep we missed out on. But oversleeping on its own can also come with it’s own side effects. Headaches, back and neck pain from sleeping too much is not all too uncommon which is why it's not recommended. For your own health, simply stick to a rigid sleeping schedule, by doing so you reduce the chance of suffering from any of these side effects.
Owning the Correct Mattress and Pillow
By sleeping on a mattress or using a pillow that really isn't suited for you, your body type or the way you prefer to sleep, whether you sleep on your back, you sleep on your side or you sleep on your stomach, you need to make sure you have the correct tools in place to promote healthy and good quality sleep. The last thing you want to do is wake up in the morning feeling:
- Pain due to sleeping without a pillow: Sleeping without a pillow might feel good for some but it puts your neck at an odd angle which after a longer period of time in the same position can cause pain.
- Numbness in hands while sleeping: If you wake up during the night and experience numbness in your hands while sleeping this could be caused by the use of an incorrect pillow for your posture or a mattress that's either too hard or too soft.
- Neck pain from sleeping: By using the wrong type of pillow, one of the most common results from this is neck pain from sleeping. Every morning when you wake up you feel stiff in your neck and the simple solution could be that you are using the wrong type of pillow, it's either too high, too low, too hard or too soft. Try to find the best pillow for neck pain available on the market. Just make sure you try it out first.
- Shoulder pain from sleeping: The same can be said for shoulder pain but instead of the incorrect pillow, which could also be the cause, the more likely culprit here is the mattress. Waking up in the morning with shoulder pain from sleeping could be traced back to the type of mattress that's either too soft or too hard.
- Hip pain while sleeping: Again we come back to what type of mattress you are using. Hip pain while sleeping is also in correlation with the mattress type. There are professionals out there that are able to assist you in choosing the right type of mattress for your body type and posture.
- Lower back pain after sleeping: The last of the side effects from sleeping in a bad mattress, lower back pain after sleeping. This again could be related to the type of mattress you sleep on BUT it could also be caused by HOW you sleep, if you sleep on your side, sleep on your stomach or sleep on your back. Certain positions can aggravate these types of pains. So, before you run out and spend a lot of money on a new mattress, try a different sleeping position first and see if that helps. Or try meditation, yoga or why not pilates, to strengthen those lower back muscles along with abdominal muscles, which could reduce that back pain of yours. Disrupt sleep due to pain no matter what it is. Disrupt sleep affects your REM sleep and you will not feel as rested in the morning as you normally would.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT SLEEP HYGIENE
What’s the Difference Between Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia?
Essentially, sleep deprivation occurs when an individual is unable to get enough sleep because of poor sleep hygiene habits or unavoidable circumstances (like having a newborn in the house or simply ignoring a healthy bedtime). On the other hand, insomnia refers to an actual inability to sleep. Oftentimes, insomnia is caused or exacerbated by a medical condition or a meditation.
Some of the most common medical situations that may cause insomnia include:
- Back pain
- Other chronic pain throughout the body
- Parkinson’s disease
- Other neurological disorders
- Other endocrine conditions
- Acid reflux or heartburn
- Other digestive issues
- Sinus or nasal problems
- Chronic kidney disease
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
- Heart failure
- Heart attack
Whereas someone who has sleep deprivation will usually be able to get better sleep each night if they simply make a few lifestyle changes, someone with insomnia may be unable to achieve the same level of sleep despite doing everything right in terms of their sleep hygiene. In these cases, it is best to seek professional medical help to improve your insomnia. Otherwise, you run the risk of additional serious health problems caused by lack of sleep. Cultivating healthy habits could also help prevent some of the issues mentioned above.
What Are Healthy Sleep Habits for Kids and Teens?
Kids and teens require a bedtime routine just as adults do. Fortunately for children and teenagers, they don't have to create these routines for themselves; however, as a parent, this is a job you must take on.
For starters, set bedtimes for each of your children. Younger children require more sleep and, therefore, should go to bed earlier than teenagers. It's wise to have a policy of keeping devices like smartphones, televisions, and tablets out of the bedroom at night. Also remind your children that their beds should only be used for sleeping and not for studying, reading, or using the computer.
How Do You Survive Lack of Sleep with a Newborn?
It is almost a sure thing that after you have a baby, you're going to lose sleep while they are a newborn. The good news is, this stage doesn't last forever.. To help you better manage this period of sleeplessness, try the following tips:
- Trade-off when it comes to nightly diaper changes and feedings (when possible)
- Catch a nap whenever you can
- Make up for lost sleep whenever you can
- Get help from friends and family
New parents (and especially moms who breastfeed) may find these first few months (or indeed, years) of their children’s lives challenging. While this is to be expected, it’s also essential to make sure they’re taking care of themselves by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and making time for their own hobbies and interests. The other sleep tips above — including practices like Yoga Nidra, meditation, and mindfulness — can help tremendously.
Improving Your Sleep Hygiene Will Change Your Life
Everyone’s bedtime rituals will inevitably be unique to the individual. However, it’s still important to remember that there are several healthy sleep habits, proven to provide results.
Start with these. Follow the guidelines and suggestions listed above and add other healthy sleep habits that appeal to you as you see fit. Over time, you’ll begin to see the profound difference that getting enough sleep can have on your health and wellbeing.
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breath, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.