The A to Zzzzz of Sleep Hygiene

Although ‘sleep hygiene’ might sound like remembering to brush your teeth before bed, it actually refers to all the daily habits you can put in place to optimise your sleep quality, both in terms of quantity and depth of sleep.

In the age of technology, more and more Australians are experiencing difficulty sleeping, compounded by factors such as unusual work schedules, blue light devices, kids, pets, growing rates of sleep apnoea and more. Not only do we regularly work with patients experiencing difficulty falling asleep, but many also report difficulty staying asleep or waking unrefreshed despite sleeping through the night. Whilst it’s also important to investigate other factors that might be impairing sleep quality (such as urinary issues, thyroid dysfunction or chronic stress), for these patients, sleep hygiene is essential to achieving a good night’s sleep. In this article today, we’ll cover some of the key steps you can take to improve your sleep quality and quantity.

Have a bedtime routine

The studies on sleep hygiene consistently show the benefits of maintaining a regular bedtime routine. As with babies, adults can experience improved sleep latency (meaning a shorter time taken to fall asleep) when they implement a regular routine before bed. Essentially, our brain starts to interpret these regular habits as cues that it’s time to wind down, and starts to produce sleep-initiating neurotransmitters like melatonin and adenosine in response.

For babies and toddlers, this might look like a feed, a bath, a story and a bedtime song; for adults, it might involve a going for an evening stroll, drinking a cup of herbal tea, washing one’s face and reading for 20 minutes before switching off the light. This also means keeping the same routine on both weekdays and weekends, and where possible, going to bed at the same time each night. The aim is to choose relaxing activities you can implement every night, ideally in the same order, and the more senses you can incorporate into the routine (e.g. touch, taste, smell and so on), the more powerful the cues become.

Some suggestions include:

  • Doing some yoga or stretches
  • Reading a book or listening to an audiobook
  • Listening to music
  • Going for a stroll
  • Drinking a cup of herbal tea
  • Burning some essential oils
  • Having a warm bath or shower
  • Washing your face
  • Listening to a meditation app
  • Journaling
  • Chatting to your spouse
  • Writing a daily gratitude list

Another aspect to this is only using your bed for sleep or sex – doing computer work, browsing the internet or watching TV in bed can send confusing messages to your brain as to what sorts of activities that environment is associated with, potentially disturbing your ability to fall and stay asleep.

Avoid stimulants

Another key aspect of sleep hygiene is avoiding stimulants, as well as substances that are known to impair sleep quality. Most importantly, this includes caffeine and alcohol.

Depending on genetic factors, coffee can have a half-life of 6-9 hours in the body, meaning depending on your body’s caffeine-processing abilities, a coffee at 2 PM could be the equivalent of half a cup of coffee at 10 PM! Very few of us would consider drinking a coffee so close to bedtime, but even a coffee mid-afternoon could be disrupting the quality and depth of your sleep. This goes for other stimulants like cola, energy drinks, nicotine and very dark chocolate as well.

Whilst alcohol is technically a ‘nervous system depressant’, studies consistently show the detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on sleep quality. Although some people find they’re able to fall asleep more easily after a glass of wine, studies show alcohol alters brain wave activity, resulting in less restorative sleep and less time spent in REM sleep – as a result, you’re more likely to wake feeling groggy and unrefreshed. Alcohol can also exacerbate issues like sleep apnoea or nocturia (needing to wee in the night), further disturbing sleep quality. For more information, we recommend you check out the Sleep Foundation’s article on the topic here.

Manage blue light exposure

Many of us have heard about blue light from electronic devices, and how it can interfere with sleep quality. Essentially, when we look at things like TV screens, laptops or mobile phones, blue light from these devices enters through our eyes and inhibits the production of melatonin in our brain. As it resembles daylight, it can also trigger the production of cortisol from our adrenal glands – cortisol is not only our ‘stress hormone’, but one of our ‘wakefulness’ hormones. Essentially, cortisol should be at its highest in the morning and lowest before bed – blue light exposure before bed however can disrupt this circadian rhythm, interfering with sleep quality and the time taken to fall asleep. For this reason, most studies recommend you avoid screens for at least 90 minutes before bed (this also removes the temptation of checking work emails right before bed!). If you must be on a computer or phone prior to bed however, other options include using a blue light filter (such as Night Shift) or blue-light filtering glasses (such as Baxter Blues).

Other ways we can regulate our circadian rhythm through light exposure is to ensure adequate sunlight exposure during the day (ideally getting outside in the early morning to get some sunshine) and to start dimming bright lights after dinner.

Optimise your sleeping environment

The best sleep environment is one that is cool, dark and quiet. Most researchers recommend keeping your room between 16-19°C for a good night’s sleep, and ensuring outside disturbances are managed wherever possible. Depending on your bedroom and personal situation, this might mean switching off night lights or electronic devices, using blackout curtains or an eye mask, sleeping with ear plugs and/or removing other distractions from the room where necessary. Choosing a comfortable mattress and pillows is also important, as well as ensuring your bedsheets are clean, comfortable and appropriate for the room temperature.

Address or investigate factors that might be impairing sleep quality

This aspect of sleep quality will vary depending upon your personal circumstances, as obviously if you have very young children, it is likely that some form of sleep disturbance (at least on occasion) will be inevitable. In such circumstances however, the aim is to optimise those hours of sleep you do get, to ensure you feel as refreshed as possible.

Many people know what’s disturbing their sleep – it could be their partner snoring, the dog in the bed or the reticulation that comes on at 5 in the morning. If you are aware of what’s causing your sleep disturbance, consider what you might be able to do to address the issue accordingly. For example, whilst you might not be able to kick your partner out of the bed, encouraging them to see someone about their snoring could be helpful – they might be overweight, have sleep apnoea or be struggling with allergies which could be impairing their ability to breathe easily during sleep, so addressing these factors might not only help them, but could help you as well!

If you’re not sure what’s disturbing your sleep, consider talking to one of our naturopaths about it so the issue can be investigated – thyroid issues, stress, menopause, anxiety, bladder issues, reflux, depression, restless legs, chronic pain and more can all impair sleep quality and quantity, and our naturopaths can work with you to get to the bottom of your sleep troubles, so you can have a restful night’s sleep.

Trial meditation, journaling or other stress management techniques

Lastly, many individuals find benefit in stress management techniques such as meditation, journaling, massage, breathing techniques, yoga or exercise for improving their sleep quality. Not only do such practices help regulate cortisol production (your stress and wakefulness hormone), but they have also been shown to improve depth and quality of sleep, as well as overall wellbeing.

Lastly, be mindful of your daily habits

The last step to good sleep hygiene is being mindful of any daily habits that might be impairing your sleep quality. For example, whilst regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, exercising too late in the evening can trigger cortisol production, making you feel more wired and ‘revved’ before bed. For some people, napping throughout the day can also interfere with their sleep quality at night and therefore they should limit or avoid naps entirely. Eating dinner too late at night can also disturb sleep quality, particularly if you’re feeling too full to get comfortable or are experiencing reflux as a result. In such cases, moving your dinner earlier in the evening or having a smaller meal can be a good option. Spicy, fatty or heavy foods are also more likely to cause issues like indigestion and reflux, so consider steering clear of these before bed as well.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, there are plenty of easy, cheap and practical things you can do to improve your sleep quality and set yourself up for a great night’s sleep. If you find you’re still not sleeping well despite following good sleep hygiene practices however, consider speaking to a healthcare provider who can help you investigate the issue and ideally, address the problem holistically and at its cause.


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