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Sleep hygiene 101: What to know and how it can help you get better rest

Like it or not, sleep is an essential piece of the thousand-plus-piece jigsaw puzzle that is our overall wellbeing.

So it makes sense that pretty much all creatures rest in some way—all living things need time to recover.

How we sleep—well, poorly, or somewhere in-between—is determined by two systems. One of the systems is sleep drive (our appetite for rest), and the other is a biological clock that tells our bodies when to sleep. For the best possible rest, both systems must work well together.

Sleep hygiene is a technical term for good sleep habits, aka, a set of behaviors people can adopt to get better sleep.

Because while many of the circumstances that affect your sleep are, without a doubt, outside your control, there are still actions you can take. Read on for practical tips to help you protect your shut-eye:

1. Be consistent.

You may not have had a firmly enforced bedtime since you were a child, but studies show setting a time to go to bed (not just to wake up) can help you regulate your body clock.

Try to stick to your designated sleeping and waking times whenever possible, and if you’re feeling especially tired, move up your bedtime (instead of when you rise and shine).

2. Keep screens out of the bedroom.

Per Harvard Medical School, the blue light that TVs, tablets and smartphones produce filter into our eyes and disturb our bodies’ biological clocks (aka circadian rhythms). And while all light suppresses melatonin (which influences our biological clocks), blue light stops the secretion of this hormone by more than twice as much as other colors of light.

If you’re someone who falls asleep with a TV on, be sure to put it on a timer, so it turns itself off and doesn’t wake you up later on.

3. Time your caffeine right.

Don’t drink highly caffeinated beverages (tea, coffee, energy drinks, etc.) within 4-6 hours of your regular bedtime. Recent research confirms that caffeine doesn’t just cause trouble falling asleep, but also affects how we sleep.

So even if you can typically drink a shot of espresso and fall asleep in a hurry, the quality of the sleep you get is impacted.

4. Limit alcohol.

If you enjoy a glass of wine or two in the evening, keep in mind that while it may make you feel drowsy, studies show alcohol can keep you from reaching deep sleep.

The good news is that drinking one glass of water for every serving of alcohol can help prevent dehydration and a bad morning the next day.

5. Get exercise (but not too close to bedtime).

According to research from Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, incorporating movement into your day helps ensure your body is tired and ready to sleep when bedtime rolls around.

But even if you’re someone who finds exercise relaxing, you should try to leave at least 4 hours between when you get moving and when you go to bed. Why? The energizing endorphins your body produces afterwards may make it hard to get to sleep.

If for scheduling reasons, you’re not able to exercise as early as you would like, go with a gentler exercise like walking that’s less likely to interfere with your sleep.

Someone in a bright orange jacket walks on a path in a calming wooded area around dusk, doing gentle exercise in the evening before bed.

@areksan via Unsplash

6. Handle your stress as it happens.

Don’t let stress keep building up throughout your day. You don’t want that pile of worries to be waiting for you when it’s time to rest. Instead, when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, be proactive about finding some calm in the moment.

Unwind with a few minutes of deep breathing, or spend some time recording your thoughts to give yourself some mental space and clarity about what’s happening and why it’s stressful. If you need help getting started recording your thoughts, try the Challenge your thoughts program in Foundations.

7. Keep naps on the short side.

If you can, skip naps altogether. They can interfere with your sleep drive and leave you feeling wide awake when it’s time to sleep later on.

For those who find naps helpful or necessary, try to limit them to 20- 30 minutes or less, so that your sleep drive isn’t disrupted as much. If you’re trying to get through a day after a poor night’s sleep, check out our blog post on how to recover after a restless night.

8. Find a nightly routine (that works for you).

Adopt relaxing rituals to help signal your mind and body that it’s time to drift off to sleep (The National Sleep Foundation). What this means for you may vary from what someone else finds relaxing.

Showering, savoring a cup of herbal tea, meditating for a few minutes, reading fiction in a comfortable chair, or even writing in a journal are all different ways people can disconnect in the hour or before heading to bed. Or make a habit of listening to a relaxing soundscape like Foundations' thunderstorm or waves soundtracks.

9. Don’t stay in bed (unless you’re sleeping).

Whenever possible, try to keep your bed as a space for sleeping. That means getting up and getting out of bed if you’re up in bed and can’t fall back asleep after twenty minutes. It also means to avoid the temptation of working on your computer or watching TV in bed.

If you need to use your bedroom for non-sleep activities, try to transform the space for different purposes. E.g., make the bed and open the blinds or curtains to let in as much daylight as possible for daytime use, and turn down the bed and dim the lights when it’s time for bed.

If you must have a desk area in your bedroom, try to put it in a corner you can’t see from the bed, divide the area with curtains or a privacy screen. This helps you mentally differentiate so you can focus when it’s time to work and disconnect when it’s time to sleep.

What are some things you do to make sure you get good rest? Share with us at foundations@koahealth.com