The term “sleep hygiene” has been bandied about a lot in the media recently - but what is it, and why should you care about it?
In short, “sleep hygiene” is just a term for creating and maintaining good habits and practices around your sleep routine. Healthy sleep is the cornerstone of any healthy, happy lifestyle. One cannot be truly well without getting good sleep - and yet, how many of us really prioritise our sleep routine?
Our relationship with sleep can be tricky at best. There are so many people out there advocating late nights and early mornings in order to get ahead, and those of us who leave a night out early to get to bed are often ridiculed. Sleep is rarely valued as a health practice; we talk a lot about clean eating and exercise, but sleep is rarely mentioned. Good sleep can help us to keep stress at bay, to think more clearly, to handle unexpected problems more easily and even to keep our weight in check. In fact, disturbed sleep has also been linked to increased incidence of dementia.
Before we look at the benefits of good sleep, it’s worth talking about what constitutes “good” sleep. Everyone has heart the stories of Margaret Thatcher sleeping for only four hours per night when she was prime minister, and many people have discussed the idea of “sleep hacking” as a valid alternative to getting a good night’s sleep. It’s true: there are some people who naturally only need a few hours’ sleep per night. That is a tiny, tiny percentage of the population though; for the vast majority of us, we need between 6 and 8 hours of good quality sleep each night.
That doesn’t mean we can sleep four hours per night through the week and then spend the weekend catching up; we need to be consistent with our sleep routine.
It also doesn’t mean we can feel good about our sleep routine if we just spend 8 hours in bed each night. We need good quality sleep. Some of us might be fine with 6 hours’ good quality sleep; another might need eight. The point is that it needs to be good, restful sleep in order to be counted!
Benefits of sleep
Aside from the obvious benefit of not feeling tired when you’ve had enough sleep, consistently getting enough sleep has many benefits.
Studies have shown that our sleep can affect our weight. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine
showed that when dieters were deprived of sleep, they lost less fat. Other studies have shown similar results, with sleep believed to be a major contributor with weight loss. Aside from this, there’s the fact we often feel like snacking when we’re tired. When we’re feeling over-tired it’s hard to turn down sugary snacks, and we can often find ourselves opting for unhealthy food and sugary drinks to help prop us up when we’re exhausted - neither of which helps our weight. Sleep and hormone production are closely linked, and if our body is not able to properly regulate production of hunger and satiety hormones, we’re really fighting a losing battle.
Numerous studies have found a link between poor sleep and heart disease as well as a host of other conditions. In most cases these risks only become serious after years of poor sleep, which means we often don’t realise we’re causing a problem for ourselves. We might be able to soldier on without sufficient sleep for days or weeks at a time, thinking the only problem is yawning in meetings, but eventually the long term damage catches up with us.
When it comes to mental health and sleep, it’s something of a chicken and egg situation. When we’re struggling mentally, often our sleep suffers - but similarly, if we’re not sleeping well, our mental health will also suffer. When we’re feeling depressed, our routines and habits can fall out of alignment too, so that adds to the problem. Not getting enough sleep affects our emotional regulation which can aggravate our mental health, as we’re not able to think straight about whether something is really a problem, or our reaction is the problem.
Good Sleep Hygiene
When it comes to good sleep hygiene, the most important thing to begin with is discipline. One night of doing all these things will not suddenly make you a great sleeper; it’s something you may need to stick with for a while before you see results.
One thing you may not have considered is the things you do during the day. Preparation for a good night’s sleep begins the moment you get up in the morning. Check out our blog about how the things you do during your day can affect your sleep
Make a routine and stick to it.
Routine and habits are really important aspects of sleep hygiene. Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day are not super cool, but they are the best way to ensure a good sleep routine. That means even on weekends and bank holidays, staying up to watch movies or lolling about in bed until lunch-time is a bad idea. A steady, repetitive bedtime routine can be great for winding down and signifying to your body that it’s time to sleep. Things like taking a bath, reading a book in bed and applying Sleep Well balm
are all great ways to get your body ready for sleep.
One big thing that is often overlooked when it comes to sleep is magnesium. Our bodies need magnesium for over 320 cellular functions, and around 80% of us are deficient in it - which means that most of us have bodies that are not able to perform 320 functions. That will definitely affect your sleep! Magnesium supplements can be a great idea, but it’s worth noting that there can be an issue with bowel tolerance which can lead to problems. These days there are topical sprays and lotions which allow you to absorb magnesium through your skin which can be a brilliant addition to your bedtime routine.
As well as this, invest in a large bag of epsom salts for your evening bath. Again, this will allow your skin to absorb the magnesium it needs to relax and fall asleep.
Caffeine is a great way to wake yourself up in the mornings, but it can cause real problems at bedtime. Switching to decaf after lunch can make a big difference to how well you sleep. This might sound like a ridiculous suggestion, but cutting out caffeine altogether can actually be really beneficial for your health. Often when we have that need coffee feeling it’s not because we’re tired; it’s because we’re withdrawing from the caffeine. Giving up caffeine can result in a couple of very sleepy days, but after that you may well find that you feel more awake and alert - and you’re able to sleep better.
Food can also make a big difference to how we sleep. If you eat a big meal before bed, your body is working on digesting it - and not on sleeping. As well as this, there may well be certain foods that will disrupt your sleep. We all know the old wives’ tales about cheese causing nightmares, but fatty or fried foods or spicy dishes can all mean we don’t sleep well.
Our bodies’ production of cortisol (the stress hormone) and melatonin work opposite each other. When our cortisol is high, our melatonin is low and vice versa. When we wake up in the morning our bodies automatically produce some cortisol in order to get us up and moving around. In these days of sitting at a desk all day, inside an office with artificial light, our bodies can get confused about hormone production and don’t always produce the right hormones at the right time. Getting outside for some proper daylight during the day can help our bodies to reset our hormone production. Getting some exercise can also help more than many of us realise!
All electric screens give off a blue light that simulates daylight - and therefore stimulates the brain. Many of us spend all day at work in front of a computer screen, then we come home and watch TV all evening while also reading emails or scrolling through social media on our phones. We may well then bring our phone into the bedroom with us and continue to use it until the moment we switch the light off and try to go to sleep - and then we wonder why we can’t sleep! Many iOS devices now have a blue light filter on them to limit the amount of blue light we experience after a certain point in the day; there is also an app called f.Lux which can change the hue of the screen. The best way though, is to just avoid using screens for a couple of hours before bed.
If you’re experiencing sleep problems, keep a detailed sleep diary for a couple of weeks. Make a note of what you do in the hours before bed; what time you go to bed; what time you go to sleep; any times you wake up in the night; how you feel when you wake up in the morning. You might start to see a pattern forming, and you also might see that actually your sleep is not as bad as you thought. A sleep diary can help you to evaluate any new habits you introduce, and see if they’re actually having an effect on you.
We also have a blog about natural ways to cure sleep problems
which may be of use to you.