7 Ways to Improve Sleep
Hygiene- conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease.
Sleep hygiene- habits or practices conducive to improving sleep on a regular basis to improve your overall health.
Yes, sleep hygiene is real. Getting good sleep is integral to your health, and these days, it is too often sacrificed. Van Dongen et al found that sleeping 6 hours per night or less for 14 days resulted in cumulative cognitive impairments.
Another study by Walker et al found that performance in a motor task improved after a period of sleep versus 12 hours of wakefulness (where improvements were not statistically significant). Yet, a “sleep when you’re dead” mentality pervades western culture. Perhaps it’s time to rethink this position.
The Benefits of Darkness
It’s best to sleep in a completely dark room. Before electricity and the prevalent use of artificial light, we went to sleep not long after dark and awoke with the sun.
Light and darkness affect our circadian rhythms, and the release of accompanying hormones (cortisol during the day and melatonin at night). Artificial light can affect our hormones, as well, and often does so to our detriment.
If you’re someone who has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, do your best to eliminate light during your sleeping hours. This even includes light emitted from a clock in your bedroom. Dim your clock to the lowest setting. Use blackout curtains. Consider using an eye mask to keep any light out.
These tips are especially helpful if you’re getting up after sunrise. Keeping your sleep environment dark will assist you in achieving your best, most restful sleep.
Once you’ve awakened, expose yourself to light to stimulate the release of cortisol and to help you wake up. Taking a brief walk in the morning or spending a few minutes outdoors can often help with this. If you’re waking up before sunrise, consider using a light therapy lamp, such as this one. While these are often used in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder, the light they emit stimulates cortisol production, which is integral for maintaining an appropriate and functional sleep-wake cycle.
Sleep in Cool Environment
Personally, this one is a tough one for me. I’m often cold, especially in winter, but sleeping in a cool environment has been proven to be the best for sleeping (around 65°).
Your core body temperature drops in the evening and overnight to its low at around 5am. If the room you’re sleeping in is too warm, it prevents your core temperature from reaching its lowest point efficiently, which may result in restlessness while sleeping. Cooler ambient temperatures have also been linked to a higher percentage of deep sleep (Kessen et al).
If you’re someone who struggles with sleep, or just wants to maximize it, set your thermostat to a cooler temperature when you’re heading to bed. And if you’re like me, make sure you have a warm blanket on the bed.
Limit Blue Light
We live in an environment where we’re bombarded with artificial light. And as winter approaches each year, and sunset gets earlier and earlier, we rely on artificial light more and more.
In addition, we have our favorite technological toys to keep us company as we relax in the evening, from laptops to TV to tablets. The only problem with this is the blue light these screens emit, which is stimulating to our nervous systems (Dijk et al).
When we’re winding down and trying to get ready for bed, the last thing we need is to stimulate our nervous system. So what can we do?
- Give yourself a TV, laptop, and tablet curfew. If you aim to be in bed by 10:00pm, you should stop watching TV or using your electronic devices a few hours before bed. If this sounds impossible, you do have a few alternatives (please see below).
- Wear amber glasses. Amber glasses filter out the blue light that simulates our brains. Wearing amber glasses 3 hours before bed improved overall sleep quality, energy, and mood in a study done by Julia Lukacs. There are a variety of styles to get (like these or these), and they’re an inexpensive solution to going about your evening normally without risking disrupting your sleep.
- Use amber lighting on your laptop, phone, or tablet. Certain apps will filter out the blue light in your electronic devices. I use f.lux on my laptop and I put my phone on “night shift” mode. It’s an easy way to still use technology past a certain hour without sacrificing your sleep quality.
- Upgrade your light bulbs. Crazy to think that technological advances have also affected our light bulbs, but it’s true. Even better, these advances are beneficial to your health. Several companies have put out their own versions of smart light bulbs, which you can adjust using an app on your smartphone or tablet. Smart bulbs such as Philips Hue, LIFX Color 1000 and GE allow you to have bright, clean light during the day and more warm-toned, amber light for before bed. You can check out a review on some of these bulbs here.
Another area to examine if you’re having trouble sleeping is your caffeine intake. Most of us know that caffeine is a stimulant and can affect our alertness levels as well as our sleep. Many think that, since the half-life of caffeine is 4-6 hours, it works its way out of your system after that time.
This, however, is not necessarily the case.
If you drink 200mg of caffeine at noon, 100mg will still be in your system after 5pm. In addition to this, your genes can affect how you metabolize caffeine. Some people are hypersensitive, and some are hyposensitive, but most fall somewhere in the middle. Most can have caffeine in the morning and not have it affect their sleep, as long as they stop drinking coffee (or other caffeinated beverages) earlier in the day (Drake et al).
To find out whether you’re hypersensitive or hyposensitive, you usually have to stop drinking caffeine for 30 days before reintroducing it (and then, seeing how you react once you do), or you can get your genetic makeup from sites like 23andMe or Smart DNA.
If you’re having sleep disturbances, and are a regular caffeine drinker, it may be best to take a caffeine break for 30 days, as described above, so that you can truly know how it affects you.
Please keep in mind that caffeine sensitivity (how you really react to it) and caffeine tolerance (how much you now need before it affects you) are two different things. Many people think that caffeine barely affects them because they have a high tolerance; however, their sensitivity may just be covered up by their tolerance. For more information on how your body metabolizes caffeine, please visit Caffeine Informer or Chris Kresser.
Get out in the Sun
Exposure to natural sunlight during the day has a huge effect on our circadian rhythms. It stimulates the production of cortisol in the morning, which is a trigger for our body to be awake and alert.
Once the sun goes down, our melatonin increases, which helps us prepare for bedtime. As mentioned earlier, we spend more time indoors now more than ever, and are often exposed to artificial light, which can alter our hormones and impact our sleep negatively.
While we’re not likely to escape artificial light anytime soon, we can make an effort to expose ourselves to direct sunlight daily (depending on your location, weather, and the time of year).
For those of you who live somewhere where this is possible, make a point to be out in the sun for at least 10-30 minutes a day, preferably sometime during the morning hours (Dumont et al). This can help keep your circadian rhythms in check if done regularly.
Not surprisingly, your diet can also affect your sleep. Some say you should stop eating 3-4 hours before bed. Some studies show that eating certain foods during your last meal before bed can affect your sleep.
So what’s the answer to, “Should I eat before bed, and if so, what should I be eating?”
Well, it depends.
If you have reflux issues, than making sure your food has time to digest before lying down for the night is beneficial (thus, giving yourself 3-4 hours of digestion time after your last meal and before bed). If you’re hypoglycemic, having a snack before bed may be best to keep blood sugar levels more regulated throughout the night.
Some studies show that having carbohydrates (healthy carbohydrates, not processed junk food) before bed improve sleep onset time (Afaghi et al). However, if you’re diabetic, this would not be the best option for you.
Other studies show that foods that increase tryptophan production (meat/protein, some dairy products, chocolate, eggs, some nuts and seeds) can improve sleep (Peuhkuri et al).
So while the answer is not black and white, there are certainly some guidelines to follow. I’m also quite certain that none of recommended guidelines include binging on junk food a half hour before bed.
In order to find what works for you, you may have to experiment a bit. Regardless of whether you’re eating right before bed, or a few hours before, keep your food choices healthy.
Turn off your WIFI
While the use of WiFi at home certainly makes things easier, it’s best to turn off your WiFi while sleeping. Studies link WiFi with sleep disturbances such as delayed onset of sleeping and decreased melatonin production.
WiFi can also disrupt normal cellular development in children. So if you have kids, please make sure they are not sleeping with their phone by their heads with the WiFi on.
I sleep with my phone on airplane mode, and turn my WiFi on once I’m up and going in the morning. As it’s something we don’t need to have on while we’re sleeping, it’s very easy to turn it off at night, and back on the morning. Your sleep may improve, and your body will thank you for it.
That's it for our sleep hygeine blog post. Next time, we’ll dive into physical performance recovery. Stay tuned!