Sleep Hygiene: How to Get That Good Night’s Sleep
Leen R. Jaber
How many times do you press the snooze button? How many times do you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee or tea midway through the morning? And how many times do you tell yourself, “Tonight I am going to bed early,” only to find yourself failing to do so, and then repeating the same cycle day in and day out? If this describes you, know you are not alone. According to a study done by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss and sleep disorders.
Across all age groups, the percentage of adults receiving six hours or less of sleep a night has increased dramatically from 1985 to 2006. Research has shown that the effects of sleep deprivation are harmful, and in some cases, permanent. Therefore, we need to take our sleep habits more seriously and not just settle for what we can get.
Why is sleep so important? Perhaps this is the first question that needs to be answered. Sleep, as most people know, provides rest for the body and allows us the energy needed to get through our hectic days. It is necessary in order for our bodies to grow, develop, and sort out information. According to the National Sleep Foundation, throughout the night, our bodies go through five sleep stages, the last of which is called REM sleep.
REM, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement, occurs several times a night and after 90 minutes of non-REM sleep stages. This is when our brains regenerate cell growth and file away pieces of information that we acquire throughout the day, also aiding in supporting our short-term and long-term memories. REM, also known as the dream state, is when our energy levels get replenished. Without REM, our brains would turn to mush. This is why it is essential that an adult receives at least seven hours of sleep a night: so that the REM sleep stage can occur at least three or four times.
The other stages of sleep support immune system function; muscle and skin regeneration; hormone release, which aids in growth; and restoration of the body after a long day. Stages 3 and 4, which come right before REM, are the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep. In order to have a healthy body and mind, you must allot a generous amount of time for sleep. Otherwise, the result can be catastrophic to your body.
Even short periods of sleep deprivation can cause uncomfortable consequences. Merrill Ken Galera, MD, Medical Director of The Galera Center in Oak Brook Terrace, Illinois, explains that although some studies have shown seven hours of sleep a night is generally adequate, ultimately sufficient sleep depends on the individual. The amount of sleep one should get depends on what is needed for that individual to wake up rested and able to perform at their desired level. Therefore, sleep deprivation can happen regardless of a particular amount of sleep.
“Any level of non-restful sleep is likely a symptom of sleep deprivation,” Galera states. “Depending on the overall amount of sleep deprivation, a reduction of even an hour of sleep can result in symptoms.” For example, if someone is mildly sleep deprived at six hours of sleep a night, reducing that by only one hour for one night is likely to cause effects of sleep deprivation. However, if someone is getting adequate sleep overall and is sleeping eight hours a night, reducing that sleep by one hour for one night is unlikely to cause those effects. So, each individual is responsible for determining how many hours of sleep they need to function best.
Effects of sleep deprivation range from mild symptoms to more severe ones. The most common effects include headaches, dizziness, loss of balance, pain or discomfort, confusion, loss of concentration, and of course, fatigue. Psychological effects range from moodiness to anxiety to depression. So, if so many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation, then why are we still not getting enough sleep?
“There are multiple factors,” says Dr. Galera, who treats patients with sleep disorders and troubles, “[for example] excessive electronic use such as TV, computers, cell phones; stimulating foods such as caffeine and sugar; and lifestyles that promote an excess of activity without sufficient downtime.” Of course other factors can be stress, physical pain, or an underlying medical condition. If you are having trouble sleeping over a long period of time, you should see a doctor to exclude any possible medical conditions. Likewise, if you are experiencing an excess of stress, depression, or anxiety and are having trouble managing it on your own, you should seek out the expertise of a therapist. You may find that will help you sleep better over time.
Another reason many of us aren’t getting enough sleep is because of the lack of value we attach to sleep. It is just as important as food and oxygen. And many people think that they can “catch up” on sleep over the weekend. But this isn’t one hundred percent accurate. Although some research suggests that you can sleep a little longer one day to make up for lack of sleep the day before, this system cannot be sustained over a long period of time. “I would say that taking the approach that ‘I can just make this up later’ is probably not worth the potential long-term risks associated with disrupted sleep and sleep deprivation,” says Lauren Nichols, assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. “Getting into a healthy sleep routine and trying to maintain that routine is the best course of action.”
There are several habits to promote a healthy sleep routine that you can implement into your lifestyle. These habits are known as “sleep hygiene.” Having good sleep hygiene can make all the difference in your quality of sleep, helping you wake up refreshed and have a more energetic and productive day. “We are so stimulated throughout the day that we often go from doing to jumping right into bed, with no time to wind down,” Nichols explains. “The literature on sleep hygiene emphasizes the routine for winding down and preparing for bed.” This helps prepare the body for sleep. The following are steps you can take to gain optimal sleep hygiene:
It is important to set a bedtime for yourself and try your best to go to sleep at the same time every night. This way, over time, your body will automatically begin to prepare itself for sleep as that time approaches without you having to tell it that it’s time for bed.
If falling asleep is a problem for you, then try reducing caffeine intake by at least six hours before bed. Also avoid late-night snacking. Your body has enough to do while it’s sleeping; you don’t want to add digestion to the list.
But if staying asleep is the issue, and you are constantly waking up throughout the night, then you want to consider reducing sugars and carbohydrates in your diet in general. This is especially important if you snack in between meals because the body never has a chance to regulate your glucose (blood sugar) during the day and will attempt to do so at night. Dr. Galera explains, “If the body does not regulate glucose without food during the day, then its ability to do so at night is often inefficient, causing hormonal changes that often disrupt sleep.” Galera insists, “Moderate protein and higher fat intake help to sustain blood sugar levels both during the day and especially at night.”
Begin turning down the lights at least an hour or so before bed, including reducing the light that comes from TVs, cell phones, tablets, and computers. This will progress to stimulate your body’s sundown cycle, preparing it every night for sleep. Many people will say that they can’t sleep without watching TV, but watching TV before bed actually stimulates the mind and confuses the body at sleep time. If you cut out screen time from TVs or other devices before bed, your body will eventually learn that it is time to sleep.
TVs, computers, and anything that produces a lot of light or noise should be kept out of the room. This helps your mind and body link your bedroom with rest and relaxation as opposed to stimulants. Also, if the room is too cold or too hot, this will make sleep more uncomfortable. Pay attention to the overall bedroom environment.
Let your body wind down before you climb into bed. Reading, taking a hot bath, praying or meditating, or listening to soft music in a dim environment helps reduce stress and anxiety before bed, letting your body release tension and prepare itself for a deep and restoring sleep.
Remember to give yourself time to ease into good sleep hygiene. It won’t happen overnight. Rather it will take some practice and discipline and works best when in conjunction with an overall healthy lifestyle of moderate exercise, healthy eating, and taking care of your overall well-being. With time, you will find that balance and be rewarded with the full night’s sleep your body and spirit crave.
Leen R. Jaber is a media and publications associate at IFANCA in Chicago and has been a freelance journalist for nearly 10 years. Leen is also a singer, guitarist, and activist for Palestinian rights.