The Expert's
Guide to
Sleep Hygiene

If you’re feeling tired and groggy during the day, chances are you’re not practicing good sleep hygiene. Read on to learn what sleep hygiene is and how you can make it part of your life.

Sleep hygiene picture

The benefits
of sleep hygiene

Did you know?

The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It’s based on a 24 hour cycle of day and night. It regulates the times at which you feel sleepy and alert.

Five Stages of Sleep

Sleep has a cycle of 5 stages. You go through it several times a night. Disruption to this cycle can result in poor quality sleep.

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Did you know?

Babies spend 50% of their sleep time in stage 5, whereas for adults it’s only 20-25%.

What is sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene is a set of everyday practices and behaviours that create the ideal conditions for good quality sleep. It’s about getting into healthy routines and cultivating habits that enable you to make the most of your sleep time.

Why is sleep hygiene important?

Sleep is a very important aspect of life. It enables your brain to function, improves your ability to learn and contributes to your sense of happiness.

When you sleep, your body repairs heart tissue and blood vessels, it produces the right balance of hormones and contributes to growth development. So lack of sleep has been linked to a host of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Evidence also suggests that poor sleeping habits or sleep deficiency can cause depression.

Finally, a good night’s sleep ensures that you are refreshed and alert during the day, making you more productive and less likely to cause an accident.

Sleep hygiene, therefore, is important because it helps you establish a quality sleep regimen that optimizes your overall health.

Recognising the symptoms of poor sleep hygiene*

*Some of these symptoms can be indicators of other things. If in doubt, consult a doctor.

Did you know?

Sleep deficiency is starting to be recognised as a serious global health problem. A report from the Centre for Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep (CIRUS) states that sleep deficiency is a factor in the rise of health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and depression. According to research from the Warwick Medical School, around 150,000,000 people in the developing world suffer from sleep-related problems.

This is part of a wider movement to better understand sleep and its impact on public health.

How to improve your sleep hygiene

Sleep experts over the years have developed numerous recommendations for improved sleep hygiene. Here are some of the most common suggestions. Use them to develop a sleep strategy suited to your individual circumstances.

Did you know?

Melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland and is essential for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. The body has higher levels of melatonin between midnight and 8am.

We produce less of it as we get older, which is probably why elderly people tend to sleep less.

Sleep schedule

Try to sleep and wake up at set times. This helps you establish a healthy circadian rhythm. However, if you find yourself struggling to sleep after 15-20 minutes of trying, leave the room and do something relaxing.

Recommended amount of sleep per day

The diagram below outlines the recommended amount of sleep each age group should aim to get per day.

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Source: National Sleep Foundation

Did you know?

KJT Group conducted a sleep-related survey in which 7,817 people from around the
world participated.

  • 96% said sleep is important to them
  • 57% admitted their sleep could be better but they haven’t done anything about it
  • 22% felt they woke up too early on a regular basis
  • 28% said the most common sleep disruptor was anxiety about financial/economic issues

Daytime habits and practices

Good sleep hygiene begins the moment you wake up. Developing positive daily routines will pave the way for regular good quality sleep.

Common recommendations:

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Exercise during the day

Excess energy can cause restlessness at night. So daily exercise will help you use up excess energy.

Also, exercise promotes biochemicals such as endorphins, endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters, all of which can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Other benefits of regular exercise include more confidence, a distraction from worries and an improvement of overall health.

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Expose yourself to sunlight

Make sure you get enough sunlight during the day. This promotes higher levels of melatonin which is essential for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm.

Sunlight can also help you get more Vitamin D. Some studies suggest that Vitamin D has a positive influence on sleep.

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Don’t take long naps during the day

There are differing opinions about day-napping. But the general advice is avoid it altogether because it can disrupt your circadian rhythm. However, if you do nap during the day, make it no longer than 20 minutes.

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Stay out of the bedroom

Get out of bed and stay out. The idea is to associate your bedroom with sleep and sex only. So if you work from home, don’t have your office or workspace in the bedroom.

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Develop a healthy, balanced diet

The right foods contain compounds that promote sleep. So good nutrition is an essential part of sleep hygiene.

Tip: Eat protein foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes melatonin. Pumpkin seeds, chicken, cheese, nuts, lentils, oats, beans and eggs are considered high tryptophan foods.

The recommended daily intake of tryptophan is 4 mg per kilo of body weight.

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Deal with psychological issues

Stress, anxiety and depression can all have a negative impact on sleep. If you feel you might be suffering from these conditions, find a therapy suited to your individual needs. Dealing with the underlying issues can go a long way to helping you establish a healthy sleep routine.

Did you know?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-I) is commonly used to treat insomnia. Unlike sleeping pills – which only manage the symptoms – CBT-I aims to treat the underlying causes by helping the individual to develop better behavioural patterns.

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Have an afternoon cut-off point for caffeine

As you probably know, caffeine is a stimulant. If you’re a regular caffeine-head be disciplined and stop drinking tea and coffee early on in the day. Better still, give up. But do so gradually because caffeine is addictive and can produce withdrawal symptoms.

Did you know?

Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, meaning it takes a full day to get out of your system. So even if you only have one cup in the morning, there’ll still be caffeine in your body at night. The later you drink coffee, the harder it is to sleep.

In the hours leading up to bedtime

This is an important time. The body needs to wind down and get prepared for sleep.

Common recommendations:

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Don’t eat big meals

Avoid meals at least 3 hours before going to bed. The body needs to expend energy restoring and repairing, not digesting lots of food. But by the same token, don’t go to bed really hungry as this can keep you awake. If you are hungry, have a light snack.

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Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine

Caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants – avoid them at all costs. If you haven’t managed to establish a cut off point for your caffeine intake, the very least you can do is stop consuming it 3 hours before sleep.

Alcohol may help you nod off, but once it’s been metabolised the withdrawal symptoms will cause arousal, thereby disrupting your sleep cycle.

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Avoid deep or emotionally upsetting discussions

This can fill your mind with all kinds of thoughts that keep you awake. Be disciplined. If a loved one is being insistent, politely remind them that this isn’t the best time.

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Dim the lights

Have the lights low when you’re relaxing in the front room. This signals the body to start winding down for the evening.

Did you know?

Computer screens, light bulbs and TVs produce a lot of blue light. Exposing yourself to blue light in the evening is bad for your health. It acts as kind of wake up signal that tricks the body into thinking it’s earlier in the day. This results in lower melatonin and a disrupted circadian rhythm, which in turn leads to poor sleep.

In fact, some experts refuse to use energy-saving light bulbs because they emit too much blue light.

So you may want to limit your use of these devices in the evening.

But if evening use is a must, solutions are available. In the latest update of IOS, Apple have introduced Night Shift, a feature that moves the screenlight to the orange end of the spectrum. For desktop computers, an app called F.lux does the same thing.

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Don’t watch TV or play computer games while in bed

Or anything else that’s stimulating such as mobile phones. The blue light from these devices inhibits the development of melatonin and makes it harder for you to fall asleep.

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Avoid consuming lots of liquid

The need to urinate can disturb your sleep. However, drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated.

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Establish healthy bedtime rituals

This should become a regular habit. Ideally, the rituals should promote relaxation. Avoid doing anything too stimulating as this can have the opposite effect. Examples of bedtime rituals:

  • A warm bath at set times
  • Practice mindfulness techniques such as meditation
  • Light reading
  • Gentle exercise such as yoga and pilates

Did you know?

Leading-edge research is beginning to solve the mystery of why sleep is so restorative. It appears the neurotoxins that build up in the central nervous system during the day are cleared out when you sleep.

The accumulation of neurotoxins might be associated with brain disorders. So getting plenty of good quality sleep may safeguard you against neurological diseases.

Sleep environment

Many modern-day bedrooms are actually unsuitable for good-quality sleep. Research shows that improving your sleep environment can vastly improve your chances of getting a good night’s rest.

Common recommendations:

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Comfortable bedding

Good quality bedding is essential for a good night’s sleep. Being comfortable helps you relax. This in turn helps you nod off.

There are different factors to look out for when choosing the right bedding. Here are the most important:

  • Breathable: A well-ventilated mattress keeps you more comfortable by allowing body heat to escape.
  • Hypo-allergenic: Allergies can keep you awake at night. If you are allergic to common fibres, it’s important you choose bedding with anti-allergy protection.
  • Anti-dust mites: Products that prevent dust mites from colonising your bed are available on the market. Worth considering since the little critters can irritate your skin and disrupt your sleep.
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Quiet, dark and cool

Darkness helps your body get the most out of sleep. Getting rid of noises and keeping the temperature cool will make you more comfortable. If you live in a noisy, light-polluted area try:

  • Thicker curtains
  • Earplugs
  • An eye mask

Keep a window open in summer.

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Hide the clock

The clock can be a distraction. Keep it out of sight.

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Get rid of electronics

Now that you’ve conditioned yourself to associate the bedroom with sleep and sex, it’s time to ask: do I really need all this gadgetry in here? Keeping your bedroom clear of this stuff will help reinforce the association and will keep you out of temptation’s way.

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Don’t take your problems to bed

This is about creating a good inner environment. When you go to bed, leave your problems at the door. Whatever inner conflicts you have, make a truce and establish peacetime. This will help you sleep better. You can alway pick up the ‘mental fight’ the next day.

It may seem easier said than done, but with discipline and practice you can reach this level of self-control. In an article for psychcentral.com, Stephanie Silberman Ph.D, author of Insomnia Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Sleep you Need, suggests a way to deal with your inner conflicts:

Spend 10-15 minutes each day writing down your worries and how you’re going to deal with them. If worrisome thoughts enter your mind just as you’re going to bed, you can remind yourself that you’re dealing with the issues.

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Go to bed naked

Evidence suggests that going to bed naked improves the quality of sleep. It helps your body regulate its temperature, meaning your sleep won’t be disturbed by being too hot.

Did you know?

The old tradition of counting sheep has been proven ineffective.
It’s actually much better to imagine pleasant, relaxing scenes.

Trying to sleep

Most of us have been there at some point: we’re in bed and yet we can’t switch off. This can be especially frustrating when we have important events the next day. However, there are ways to cope with it.

Common recommendations:

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Don’t try to force yourself asleep

It will have the reverse effect. Instead, conjure up pleasant scenes in your mind’s eye and forget about falling asleep.

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Don’t watch the clock

Naturally, as you lie there trying to sleep, you will worry about the time. However, don’t do it. Watching the clock will just cause more anxiety and make it harder for you to drift off.

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Worrying only makes it worse

Just resign yourself to the idea that it’s already late and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll be surprised at how this can lift the load and help you relax.