What Is Sleep Hygiene—and Why Is It So Important?

What Is Sleep Hygiene—and Why Is It So Important?

In our modern health and wellness culture, plenty of trends come and go—and, heck, not all of them are even healthy to begin with! But one thing experts consistently agree on (and are pretty adamant about) is practicing good sleep hygiene. Passing out in front of the TV every night probably won’t cut it, though. Turns out, both the quality and quantity of your sleep matter. That’s where sleep hygiene comes in.

What is sleep hygiene?

Good news: Sleep hygiene is just a catchy way of referring to good sleep habits. “Practicing good sleep hygiene is something we can all do every day to promote healthy sleep,” says Mary Ellen Wells, Ph.D., director and associate professor of the Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you’re constantly tired, or if you regularly have trouble falling asleep and waking up, it might be time to get serious about better sleep hygiene.

How much sleep do you need each night?

It’s certainly important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be getting exactly eight hours. “There really isn’t a magic number, and every person’s sleep needs are different,” Wells says.

The National Sleep Foundation recently revised its sleep recommendations based on the ever-growing body of research. “The NSF recommends that adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep, but says that as few as six and as many as 10 may also be appropriate,” she says. “Some people are simply short sleepers and some are long sleepers.” Genetics plays a role, as does lifestyle.

How to practice good sleep hygiene

As we all know, sleep doesn’t necessarily come the second your head hits the pillow. Practicing good sleep hygiene often makes it easier to fall asleep, lowers the odds of too much tossing and turning, and ups the likelihood that you’ll wake up feeling refreshed, not groggy. Follow these tips to make sure you’re making the most of your shut-eye, according to Wells.

Set a schedule
Go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time each day. Your body gets used to the rhythm of a consistent sleep schedule, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up.

Get some exercise
“Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night,” according to the CDC. The activity recommendation for adults is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. But don’t exercise before bed.

Wells cautions against exercising too close to bedtime. A February 2019 study found that subjects who exercised vigorously within an hour of bedtime had a harder time falling asleep, because their heart rates didn’t have enough time to slow down. This doesn’t mean you must become a morning workout person, though: Subjects who exercised within four hours of bedtime didn’t experience any negative consequences.

Sleep in a completely dark room
Make sure all of your lights are off while you sleep, and avoid keeping blinking electronics in your room overnight. “Light suppresses sleep hormones, keeping you awake,” Wells says.

While darkness is important for good sleep, light can help you wake up (because, again, light suppresses sleep hormones). If you sleep during regular nighttime hours, trade in heavy blackout curtains for lighter ones that will let the morning sun in. If you keep irregular sleep hours and need blackout curtains to block light while you sleep, try to open them as soon as you wake up.

Avoid bright lights (and blue-light devices)
This can be a tough one, but try to shut down your electronics—yes, that includes your phone—at least an hour before bed. If that’s totally impossible, dim the brightness as much as possible. Same goes for the lighting in your house: Dim the lights as bedtime approaches, or turn off all the lights you don’t absolutely need.

Avoid heavy meals before bedtime
Although there isn’t a ton of research on how our food timing affects sleep, it’s likely a good idea to avoid big meals close to bedtime. A 2015 study found that the more people ate at night, the worse their quality of sleep was likely to be. Don’t skip dinner, but try to finish eating at least two hours before bed. And don’t fall into the trap of not eating during the day only to overeat at night.

Avoid caffeine after lunch
Caffeine in the morning can be helpful for productivity and energy levels, but you probably want to avoid it in the afternoon and evening. A 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that drinking caffeine six hours before bed had significant disruptive effects on sleep quality.

Don’t use alcohol to help you go to sleep
While alcohol often helps you fall asleep faster, it lessens your quality of sleep. A 2018 study found that even low alcohol consumption (a single drink) impaired sleep quality by 9 percent. And the more subjects drank, the worse their sleep quality typically was.

Keep your bedroom cool
According to the NSF, 67 degrees Fahrenheit is the best sleep temperature. This varies from person to person, but it’s a good starting point.

Don’t take your worries to bed with you
Wells points out the importance of quieting your mind before you hit the hay. Try to avoid work or other stressful tasks within two hours of bedtime. Meditation can be a great way to wind down, but if it isn’t your thing, spend an hour or two before bedtime doing something that relaxes you.

Use a white noise machine to mask out sleep-disturbing sounds
If you’ve tried everything and still can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep, it might be because of outside noise. While you can’t exactly stop the horns from honking at 2 a.m., you can use a white noise machine to block these disruptive noises.

The Bottom Line
Better sleep will improve your day-to-day, but it will also improve your overall health. “Sleep is one of the pillars of optimal health. It’s just as important as diet and exercise, and is arguably one of the most important predictors of health [within your control],” Wells says. Plus, many people find that good sleep habits are one of the easiest health changes to make.

If your current sleep routine isn’t cutting it, it’s time to put better sleep hygiene practices into place. And really, who can argue with a more restful night’s sleep?

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