Sleep is linked to just about everything: focus, mental health, energy levels, productivity, happiness, stress, depression, eating habits, physical health, social interactions, and decision-making. Indeed, moderate sleep deprivation can decrease your performance as much as being legally intoxicated with alcohol. Yet, millions of adults don’t get enough sleep. And the solution is good sleep hygiene.
We are going to focus on 4 things to help you get better sleep by improving your Sleep Hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is just like your regular hygiene! These are easy habits you can train yourself to incorporate into your daily routine. Like brushing your teeth or showering, with practice you don’t even think about them.
We’ll talk about 4 sleep hygiene tips that address common sleep problems including struggling to fall and stay asleep (insomnia) and daytime sleepiness.
Specifically we’ll cover these Sleep hygiene tips:
- Light exposure
- Brain Food: Caffeine and Tyramine
- Mindfulness & Sleep Meditation practices
- Adult Bedtimes
As always, our team of researchers has reviewed over 100 articles from psychology, neuroscience, and sleep medicine to ensure these tips are backed by science.
One big thing to note is that our sleep hygiene tips focus on natural sleep remedies. We never want to replace the role of your M.D. If you have serious and chronic issues with sleep, or think you have a sleep/wake disorder, you should consult your general physician. Many people use supplements or medications as sleep aids, we are focusing on natural techniques that don’t rely on these. Consult your doctor about using these to help manage sleep!
Sleep hygiene tip 1: light exposure
One of the major ways our body regulates sleep is via our biological clock, an internal mechanism our body uses to coordinate with the environment. Our biological clock influences when we wake up, fall asleep, get hungry, and even need to go to the bathroom. It is related to two internal brain mechanisms: the hypothalamus and our circadian rhythms. Light affects both of these.
The hypothalamus is a small organ in our mid-brain that is key to regulating our autonomic nervous system, or all of the automatic things our body does to keep us alive and well. It regulates body temperature, appetite, breathing patterns, emotional responses, metabolism, and sleep cycles.
Circadian Rhythms are an internal body mechanism that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycles and activity levels. They play in role in our digestion, appetite, energy level, use of cortisol (stress hormone), melatonin absorption and usage, and sleep cycles.
Adjusting your light exposure provides input into your hypothalamus and circadian rhythm, so you can:
- Sleep well
- Reduce Oversleeping
- Reduce Insomnia
- Reduce hypersomnia
- Fall asleep faster
Our bodies are reactive to sunlight, so trying to maximize the amount and timing of sunlight your body gets is hugely important. We’ll talk about using light to:
- Wake-up in the morning
- Prepare for bed during your active day
- Artificial Light Replacement Tips
- Improve your Sleep Hygiene right before bed
The sun will come out tomorrow: sleep hygiene tips for waking up
Waking Up. If you’re having some trouble waking up in the morning, there are some sleep hygiene tips that can help you in the morning to get your day started.
- Leave you blinds open. Being woken up by natural light is one of the best ways to get your day started and increase your light exposure. Our bodies are naturally accustomed to be awoken by natural light.
- Try a light therapy or a dawn simulator alarm clock. These clocks are like therapy lights, but work based on your alarm. They slowly increase light levels prior to your wakeup time. These are great if you can’t have your blinds open because of lights from outside.
Stay lit throughout the day: increasing natural light
Continue to expose yourself to light during the day. This helps keep up your energy and focus, and it prepares your body for sleep when the sun goes down. Research has shown that not having exposure to natural light during the work day can have severe effects on your body, mood, and sleep.
Try these tips to create better sleep hygiene with natural light:
- Open blinds and curtains. Not only is this good first thing in the morning, but make a habit of keeping blinds and curtains open during the day.
- Keep some shiny objects in areas you work, or places you are in the morning (e.g. the kitchen, bedroom, living room). These can reflect the sunlight, and can help increase your exposure to light.
- Orienting your desk towards a window
- Take walks in heavy sunlight areas for a break
- Eat lunch in a sunlit spot. This is a doubly effective way to get energy into your body!
When the sun don’t shine – artificial light sleep hygiene tips
We don’t always have access to natural sunlight. If you’re living in a basement apartment, have an office away from windows, or it’s cloudy outside, exposing your body to natural light can be difficult. But, a little knowledge about optical physics can help you use artificial light sources to regulate your light exposure.
Optical physics is the branch of physics that studies light and luminescens. Direct, natural sunlight produces between 100,000-32,000 lux (the standard light measurement) where most of our artificial light sources produce between 250-500 lux. Most offices have about 500 lux, supermarkets 750 lux, classrooms 250 lux.
Optimally, we should be shooting for 5,000-10,000 lux for detailed and prolonged visual work, such as drawing, reading, writing, for our eyesight. Some suggestions are:
- Use higher wattage light bulbs in areas you work (around 13-18w for fluorescent bulbs, or 60w for incandescent bulbs).
- Consider installing blue enriched– light bulbs
- Consider installing a dimmer switch for multi-purpose rooms
If you’re having serious issue with sleep, you might consider getting a sun/light therapy lamp. These lamps are specifically designed to address mental health issues (e.g. Seasonal Affective Disorder) associated with lacking sun exposure. For many of them a 30 minute session of exposure can help regulate your body and get your internal clock set properly!
The dark sacred night – sleep hygiene tips for before bed
Our bodies are used to a light cycle, so more sun during the day, and less at night is an important balance to keep. So it’s important that we also learn how to appropriately decrease our light exposure in the evenings.
Some tips to improve your sleep hygiene right before bed are:
- Use lower wattage bulbs in areas you sleep (around 11-13w for fluorescent bulbs, or 40w for incandescent bulbs)
- Lower brightness settings on electronics. Consider downloading blue light blockers, which limit the light wavelengths most associated with daytime. Some research finds that blocking blue light may aid mood and sleep.
- Use yellow/nighttime lights on the bed stand.
- Have book lights or smaller spotlights in bed. If you have a partner that stays up later than you and likes to read, try having them use a smaller light that is directed at what they’re doing rather than a bigger light that illuminates the rest of the bedroom.
- Sleep with the lights off.
Sleep hygiene tip 2: brain food – eat, drink, and stay up all night?!
One of the easiest and quickest ways to help you sleep at night is to eat thoughtfully throughout the day. Food affects the neurotransmitters–that is, the chemicals that send signals between our neurons–that help us stay awake or sleep.
Some foods and drinks are stimulants and some are depressants. In particular we’ll talk about which foods help you wake up in the morning, and which foods help you sleep at night.
- Coffee & non-herbal tea
- Bacon & pork
- Cheese & nuts
- Heavy meats (beef, rabbit, etc)
- Creamy sauces and desserts
- Breads, pastries & crackers
Our sleep hygiene tips about food will cover coffee in-take and Tyramine, a naturally occurring chemical in common foods.
Maximizing your natural energy for better sleep- coffee habits
We often drink stimulants during the day to help us keep going or start the day, and the most common stimulant is coffee. Coffee can be helpful in the morning to kickstart the day, but drinking a ton of coffee isn’t good for you. In addition to other health risks, daytime caffeine consumption can keep you up even hours later. Try to limit yourself to a cup or two of coffee in the morning!
Bonus long-term sleep hygiene tip:
Training our body to expect certain things from the environment can cause sleep problems like insomnia, hypersomnia (sleeping too much), and poor sleep quality.
When we drink coffee (or ingest other stimulants) regularly, our body gets used to having an external substance provide energy. This inhibits its natural internal process in digesting and processing energy in our food.
When we drink coffee daily, our body assumes that this external source of energy will always be there, so when we don’t have our coffee in the morning our body can’t get going because it’s not used to providing us with energy!
So how can you re-train your body to make its own energy without relying of coffee? You’re probably aware that stopping cold turkey can produce withdrawal symptoms like headaches and fatigue, so consider cutting slowly over a few weeks and try replacing the energy with healthier options. For example
- Week 1: Drink 2 or fewer cups of coffee in the morning, and refrain from coffee on the weekend. Drink a cup of black tea or “half caf” coffee in the afternoon if absolutely needed.
- Week 2: Reduce the caffeine content of your daily coffee.
- You can make coffee at home and reduce the amount of ground per batch
- If you’re going to a coffee shop, try getting fewer shots or leaving more room for cream or ice.
- Week 3: Try switching from coffee to caffeinated tea or decaf coffee
- Week 4: Switch from caffeinated tea to herbal tea
Having a plan and slowly adjusting your body to not rely on coffee is a good way to get our body to make its own energy via our natural food intake! Because our body is digesting food and producing our energy rather than pushing it out as a waste product. This helps our body have an efficient and calculated use of energy so that when we are getting low on energy and getting sleepy about the time we’re ready to sleep!
And the secret ingredient is…Tyramine!?
Tyramine is associated with production of norepinephrine in our brain, a neurotransmitter that energizes our body to act! Don’t let the name fool you, we take in this natural chemical compound all the time in foods like:
- soy-products, and
- some berries (especially raspberries).
These, and other foods, can help you stay alert and focused during the day if you incorporate these into your lunch or breakfast! Cutting out these products during the latter half of the day is a good way to make sure your body can relax at night!
Sleep hygiene tip 3: tackling anxiety — sleep meditation and mindfulness practices
One common cause of insomnia is anxiety. Anxiety produces excitatory neurotransmitters and prepares our body for action. These are helpful when you are fighting lions, but not when trying to sleep after a stressful day. So how can we get these neurotransmitters to take a break?
We’ll talk about two ways to incorporate sleep meditation and mindfulness practices to reduce stress and increase sleep:
- Decreasing the physical factors of stress
- Managing the psychological factors of stress
Mindfulness practices and meditation are growing ways to treat psychology issues, including anxiety that causes insomnia. Meditation helps relax our body and can get it ready for sleep. Going through standard meditations, like those that focus on breathing and being aware of your body, are great to “calm your overactive brain”.
Here are sleep meditation routines to reduce physical effects of stress:
- Breathing exercises – these help calm your body and both reduce stress and get your autonomic nervous system to slow down so you can get your body out of an active state before bed.
- Calm or slow-paced music – recent neuroscience research has shown that our brain waves synchronize with music rhythm. Using clam or slow-paced music can help slow your brain’s active wavelengths and get you ready for sleep.
- A short stretching routine – we often think about doing this in the morning, but it can also be good to get ready for bed. Stretching releases endorphins, decreases muscle tension, and increases blood circulation. Endorphins can help our brain get ready for sleep and decreasing muscle tension relaxes our body and puts it in a relaxed state which is a great way to help prepare our body to get to sleep. Increasing blood circulation is a good way to help us sleep well and have better sleep quality.
- Weigh yourself down – This practice includes snuggling or making yourself feel the weight of objects. While not a meditation practice, experiencing weight has been shown to reduce stress. Consider trying a weighted blanket if this works for you!
These general sleep meditation practices are great to generally relieve physical stress and tension that might keep us up at night, and here are a few tips to help reduce the psychological effects:
- Intentionally examine and review your day – One way, taken from religious (Ignatian) spirituality, is to list the good things that happened in your day, the bad things, and then the good things again. This not only helps put your day in perspective, but also helps you remember the good and bad things in the day, but focuses on the good aspects.
- Focus on positive emotional interactions – Research on prosocial emotions and memory indicate that recalling positive emotions and positive interactions can reduce stress and put you in a mood similar to what you recall. For example, you can list the things you are grateful for in life!
All of these are practices that help get your brain and mind in a calm place and reduce anxiety. These are also natural ways to refocus on your day and help you keep a positive attitude about your day and help you sleep well.
Sleep hygiene tip 4: bedtimes — kid tested, adult approved
Even when we crave novelty and variety, our body craves consistency. One way to help keep our circadian rhythms in check and keep our hypothalamus happy is to sleep and wake up at consistent times.
Our sleep hygiene tips about bedtimes will discuss:
- Getting a regular sleep schedule
- How to accommodate occasional deviations from this schedule.
Just five more minutes? Getting a regular sleep schedule
Our body, especially our hypothalamus, budgets our energy expenditure. Think of it like your monthly budget. If you have the same schedule and expenses every month it’s easy for you to consistently plan your expenses for the month. If your expenses change every month, you might still have enough to cover all of the costs, but you have to work harder at figuring out when and how much you can spend or save each month.
Our bodies are the same way with our energy. Our bodies plan how much energy we need and calculate how much we use on a daily basis. A stable energy budget makes our body happy and improves our ability to function at peak times.
The basics. It’s important that we establish this routine when we wake up and go to sleep.
Here are some sleep hygiene tips for establishing an adult bedtime:
- Keep a set bedtime. Getting to sleep at standard times helps our body understand our needs and budgets our energy, and it can reduce sleep issues.
- Create a nightly pre-bed routine. Keep a stable set of actions before you go to bed and do them in the same order. Your mind and body then learns to associate these behaviors with sleep, which can signal to our body to automatically help. This is similar to the associations you’d find in classical conditioning, like Pavlov’s dog!
- Set an alarm, even on weekends. There are a number of smartphone apps that help us try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. If you don’t get enough sleep one night, take an afternoon nap rather than sleeping in.
- Create a stable morning routine. A morning routine is just as important as the nightly routine. Again, our brain creates association that signal to our body when and what it should be prepared for throughout our day.
What if we can’t control our schedule? Okay, so what happens if our life isn’t consistent?! Perhaps you work funny shifts or frequently travel across time-zones. While getting an adult bedtime is best, here are some sleep hygiene tips for when you miss bedtime:
- Keep your other routines. As we’ve previously said creating a nightly and morning routine creates associations in our brain. These associations help our body predict and prepare for what might be coming next. If you’ve created a nightly bedtime routine, it’s good to stick to it even when we miss bedtime.
- Calculate Sleep Cycles. Sleep cycles are natural actions that our bodies and brains go through while we sleep. Most of us know about one of the most important stages of sleep, REM (or rapid eye movement sleep). While there has been a great deal of contemporary debate about when REM sleep occurs, it is still widely accepted that full sleep cycles last approximately 90 minutes.
Sleep cycles progress from more awake states to deeper sleep states. When we interrupt our sleep cycles by waking up at the wrong time, it takes our body more energy to get to our normal awake and alert state. If you normally get 7-8 hours of sleep, but only have about 5-6 hours of sleep, try the following plan:
- 0 hr: Get ready for bed with normal routine
- 30 min: give yourself time to fall asleep
- 2 hr: Complete 1st full sleep cycle
- 3.5 hr: Complete 2nd full sleep cycle
- 5 hr: Complete 3rd full sleep cycle and wake up
This is an example as to how you could calculate your sleep cycles to maximize your sleep quality. In this case even if you sleep an extra hour (and made it 6 hours), it would be more difficult for you to get up than if you slept 5 hours because you are not disrupting your natural sleep cycle.
Recap of 4 clinically effective sleep hygiene tips
Establishing good sleep hygiene is a key way to help us sleep well and combat sleep problems. Some of the key sleep hygiene tips we’ve provided are:
- Increasing and regulating our exposure to light
- Planning our food consumption to help regulate our body
- Combating anxiety caused insomnia with mindfulness and sleep meditation
- Establishing an adult bedtime
Increasing your exposure to natural light and regulating your artificial light exposure are key ways to help keep your biological clock on track and to prepare your body to get to sleep on time.
Knowing how your food interacts and affects your sleep is important! Foods that cause our brain to be active often have tyramine. Cutting down on caffeine helps our body become more self-reliant and better budget our energy usage throughout the day.
Stress and anxiety are common causes of anxiety, so incorporating meditations and pre-sleep routines are great ways to reduce anxiety so that you can get to sleep on time and sleep well.
An adult bedtime is one of the best ways to keep our body clocks on time consistently. An adult bedtime established regularity and helps make our brain happy!
All of these are simple and easy ways to have better sleep hygiene and sleep well each and every night.
These are great natural sleep remedies to help combat your sleep problems and help you sleep well. Sleep hygiene is an important way to get our bodies into a natural cycle and ready for sleeping at night, waking up in the morning, and getting ready throughout the day.