Are you happy with your sleep?

What does sleep hygiene really mean?

Gary Burke – B.Sc, M.Sc, SENr

36% of UK adults struggle to get to sleep on a weekly basis, while almost 1 in 5 have trouble falling asleep every single night. Everyone has experienced it at some stage of their life – a poor night’s sleep will more than likely leave you less productive, reduce the quality of your work and put you in a worse mood overall. 

Some of you may be familiar with the term ‘sleep hygiene’ – it refers to habits & practices that can be used to help improve the quality of your sleep. Sleep hygiene isn’t all about giving yourself a caffeine curfew or what you do in the lead up to bedtime. Various other factors can contribute to a better sleep and I hope to shed some light on these below. 

Consistency

It’s been shown that having a consistent sleep schedule is more important than how long you sleep for (within reason). Having a set wake & sleep time each day (and not deviating from this by too much at the weekends) will help you fall asleep faster, improve the quality of your sleep, and help you feel less groggy in the mornings. 7-9 hours is best but if your schedule means you can’t manage that much, try to at least make it consistent.

Light

You may already know that screens can negatively affect your sleep through both the light of the screens and stimulation from what’s on the screen. It’s best to put the screens away in the hour leading up the bedtime if you want to optimise your sleep and minimise your morning grogginess. Reading a book or meditating before bed have both been shown to make it easier to fall asleep & improve quality of your sleep.

It’s best to avoid all bright light sources in the hours leading up to bedtime, not just blue light from screens. Bright light exposure late in the day suppresses your body’s production of melatonin – a hormone that makes us feel sleepy – making it more difficult to fall asleep and reducing the quality of your sleep when you finally doze off. 

In the mornings, it’s best to do the opposite: exposing yourself to bright light as soon as you wake (and over the first 2 hours of wakefulness) will both speed up the waking process by increasing alertness and make it easier to fall asleep that night. The sun is best – it’s much more intense that any artificial light source you’ll find have. The sun can be up to 400 times brighter than the average lightbulb! 

Temperature

Your body temperature has a natural cycle correlating with your body clock, peaking just before noon and falling again from late evening until it reaches its lowest point a couple hours before you wake up. You can adjust your body clock by facilitating a rise or a fall in body temperature, depending on the time of day.

Aligning your body clock & sleep/wake cycle is very important for getting good quality, replenishing sleep – incongruency between the two is a major reason why you may struggle to get to sleep at night and wake up feeling groggy and unrested.

Activities that lead to a drop in body temperature in the hour or two before bed will help – something that warms your body like light exercise or showering/bathing will lead to a subsequent drop in body temperature that coincides with your body’s daily temperature cycle, naturally making you sleepy. This is why keeping your bedroom at a cool temperature is important for getting a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, the opposite is true – practices that lead to an increase in body temperature can actually help you get to sleep faster that night. Cold showers – as well as being shown to increase productivity by improving dopamine levels – can help adjust your body clock so that you start to naturally feel sleepy at your usual bedtime. 

Exercise 

Exercising early in your day adjusts your body clock slightly earlier, making you naturally want to sleep earlier that night and makes your body more likely to wake up naturally around the time your alarm usually goes off. Some people often feel sluggish exercising early in the day – if you can manage to schedule some exercise in regularly, your body will adapt to make it feel easier.

Take-Home Points to Improve Sleep

  • Have a consistent sleep schedule, even over the weekend if possible
  • Avoid bright lights & screens in the hour before bed
  • Read a book or meditate before bed 
  • Light exercise or warm/hot showers close to bedtime
  • Exercise or cold showers in the morning make it easier to fall asleep that night

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