Sleep… we’ve all heard the adages. We all know it is important but yet it seems to be one of the most common reported health issues in modern society. I, myself was a lifetime sufferer of insomnia. I couldn’t fall asleep, I couldn’t stay asleep, I was a very light sleeper, and I took sleeping pills for a large portion of my life, both prescribed and over the counter. So what is the prevalence of these issues? When you are laying in bed, watching the minutes click by on the bedside clock and all you can think about is how much you have to do the next day, the alarm is going to start shrieking in 5 hours and 32 minutes and you are still nowhere near sleep and your brain wants to remind you of every mistake you have ever made; You feel like you are in it alone. I promise you; you are not. How many times do you ask people throughout the day how they are and you get a thesaurus worth of synonyms for tired? As a society, we are exhausted. Here are some statistics about sleep:
Sleep statistics worldwide
- More than 20% of the general adult population in the U.S. and Canada have reported experiencing insomnia (Sleep Research Society, 2012).
- 62% of adults around the world say they don’t sleep as well as they’d like (Philips Global Sleep Survey, 2019).
- As many as 67% of adults report sleep disturbances at least once every night (Philips Global Sleep Survey, 2019).
- 8 in 10 adults around the world want to improve their sleep but 60% have not sought help from a medical professional (Philips Global Sleep Survey, 2019).
- 44% of adults around the world say that the quality of their sleep has gotten worse over the past five years (Philips Global Sleep Survey, 2019).
So, what is it that goes on while we sleep? Why is that particular period of time so incredibly important? There is still a huge amount of research going on in the field of sleep and it is a research field that is growing daily and has even spawned its own specialists in sleep disorders. Sleep researchers understand that while we sleep, the body undergoes maintenance for critical bodily functions, restores our energy levels, repairs muscle tissues and allows the brain to process new information and store long term memory. Which is why when we do not get enough good sleep, we have difficulty thinking clearly, we lack focus. We tend to overreact and have a greater difficulty controlling our emotions. Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. It can also affect your immune system, reducing your body’s ability to fight off infections and disease. Chronic sleep issues also have a tendency to exacerbate existing mental health issues as well.
We all know that children particularly need a huge amount of sleep. Newborns sleep 14 to 17 hours a day to support all the new things going on in their bodies. As they get older, they still need 9 to 12 hours of sleep. Then as teenagers, it begins to drop to between 8 to 10 hours. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours to feel rested. Certain factors influence how much sleep you’ll need. Genetics can determine how long you sleep. Your genes can also play a role in how well you respond to sleep deprivation.
Likewise, the quality of sleep you get when you’re catching Zzz’s is a factor in how much sleep you ultimately need each night. People who get good quality sleep without waking up may need a little less sleep than people who frequently wake up or have trouble staying asleep. The fact remains that sleep hygiene is as important to your health as any other hygiene. If we treat our bodies well, we are generally repaid in spades.
Sleep hygiene refers to the ability to put ourselves in the best position to sleep well each and every night. It refers to routines and habits that encourage us to get the rest we need. Having a hard time falling asleep, experiencing frequent sleep disturbances, and suffering daytime sleepiness are the most telling signs of poor sleep hygiene. An overall lack of consistency in sleep quantity or quality can also be a symptom of poor sleep hygiene.
There has to be a trick to this right? There absolutely is and we have all probably heard about it, ad nauseum from our health professionals. I know I did but honestly, I was set in my ways and until I really put effort into it, nothing changed. For me, part of my issue was being overweight contributed to both sleep apnea and pain from chronic illnesses were disruptive of my sleep. I also drank coffee and energy drinks all day to make up for it. Add poor diet to that and it was a recipe for disastrous sleep. It is the worst of all vicious cycles!
Here are the elements of good sleep hygiene so that you can evaluate yours and see where you might be able to effect positive change.
- Avoid Caffeine, Nicotine, Alcohol
As any coffee lover knows, caffeine keeps us awake. Caffeine is present in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate and even some pain relievers. Avoid these substance for 4 to 6 hours prior to bed time. Instead of drinking coffee all day, I allow myself 2-3 cups in the morning and never after 12pm. If I drink coffee or matcha in the afternoon, I find that my sleep hygiene goes down the toilet. The additional awake time also leads to night time snacking which is never good!
- Your bedroom should be conducive to sleep.
To get the best sleep, your room should be quiet, dark and cool. This is why bats sleep in caves in the daytime! Block out ambient noise with ear plugs or white noise. Us light blocking curtains or an eye mask to prevent wake up events. Make your bedroom for sleep or sex only. Remove all TVs, laptops, computers or anything else that emits blue light or EMFs as these have a tendency to limit to ability to achieve REM sleep.
- Create a soothing Pre-sleep routine
Ease the transition from wake time to sleep time with a period of relaxing activities an hour or so before bed. Take a bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), read a book, or practice relaxation exercises. Avoid stressful, stimulating activities—doing work, discussing emotional issues. Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. If you tend to take your problems to bed, try writing them down—and then putting them aside. Shut off blue light emitting devices at least 1 hour prior to bed. These devices interfere with the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which signals your body that it is time to sleep.
- Go to bed only when you are truly tired
Struggling to fall asleep is just frustrating. Waiting to go to bed until you are truly tired is key. If you are laying there for more that 20 minutes, get up, go to a different room, sit in a dim room listening to music or reading to help you relax until you feel sleepy, THEN go to bed. This also applies to night time clock watching. If you wake up and can’t go back to sleep, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again.
- Use your body’s natural sleep wake cycle
Natural sunlight keeps your body’s internal clock on the proper sleep-wake cycle. In addition to helping with sleep, Vitamin D created with sun exposure is crucial to your immune system. Let the sunlight in first thing in the morning and expose yourself to a 30-minute walk in the sunshine when the sun is at its zenith. This helps stimulate the appropriate hormones to keep the sleep cycle straight.
- Keep your internal clock set with a regular sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every single day whether you are working or not is one of the best forms of sleep hygiene because the body expects sleep at the same time each day. Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine on weekends to avoid a Monday morning sleep hangover. Waking up at the same time each day is the very best way to set your clock, and even if you did not sleep well the night before, the extra sleep drive will help you consolidate sleep the following night.
- Nap early or not at all
Many people make naps a regular part of their day. However, for those who find falling asleep or staying asleep through the night problematic, afternoon napping may be one of the culprits. This is because late-day naps decrease sleep drive. If you must nap, it’s better to keep it short and before 5 p.m.
- Lighten up on your evening meal
This by far helped me more than anything. I used to eat a big dinner and then go to bed. At first, I switched my big meal to lunch and made sure to eat a lighter dinner at least 3 to 4 hours before I went to bed. Now, that I do intermittent fasting, I eat my one big meal at around 5pm with a 9pm bedtime. Eating a pepperoni pizza at 9 pm is a recipe for indigestion and insomnia.
- Balance your fluid intake
Drink enough water before bed to avoid waking up thirsty but not so much fluid that you are getting up all night to use the restroom.
- Exercise early
Exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly—as long as it’s done at the right time. Exercise stimulates the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which helps activate the alerting mechanism in the brain. This is fine, unless you’re trying to fall asleep. Try to finish exercising at least three hours before bed or work out earlier in the day.
Some of these tips will be easier to include in your daily and nightly routine than others. However, if you stick with them, your chances of achieving restful sleep will improve. That said, not all sleep problems are so easily treated and could signify the presence of a sleep disorder such as apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, or another clinical sleep problem. If your sleep difficulties don’t improve through good sleep hygiene, you may want to consult your physician or a sleep specialist.