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Sleep – our best kept health secret

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This article about sleep, is part of our stay healthy and well during Covid-19 series. You can view the other posts in the series here:

Covid-19 Health, Safety and Well-being Resources

Tips for Staying Healthy and Well

Resources – Things to do in Isolation

This article has been reproduced and was originally published by: https://positivepsychology.com/sleep-hygiene-tips/

In Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker (2018) suggests that if science announced a treatment that improved our memory, boosted our creativity, lowered food cravings, offered protection from cancer and dementia, and reduced the risk of heart disease, we would all be rushing to the doctor.

And yet, many of us are ignorant of the fact that good sleep offers us such benefits, for free.

Indeed, “not only does sleep disruption play a role in the declining mental abilities that typify Alzheimer’s disease, but getting enough sleep is one of the most important factors determining whether you will develop the condition in the future” (Walker, 2017).

It is important to note that, as with other conditions, sleep disruption is only one of several risk factors involved in Alzheimer’s disease; however, prioritizing sleep is one way to lower your risk.

What is Sleep Hygiene?

Poor habits and unsuitable environments can make it tough to fall asleep and stay asleep.

According to the UK’s Sleep Council (2020), “you have no control over what happens when you sleep, but you can control what you do throughout the day to prepare for a better night’s sleep.”

So, can we learn to sleep better? According to research, yes.

Charles Czeisler from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University says there are three points you need to consider: “how much you sleep, how well, and when,” impacted by the following factors (O’Callaghan, 2016):

Familiarity

When we sleep in unfamiliar places, one hemisphere of our brain remains active. This night watch has developed to keep us safe in uncertain environments.

Noises

Even if we are sleeping at home, noises can force us out of our deep sleep (a dog barking or a distant house alarm).

Temperature

Our body temperature can significantly affect the quality and quantity of our sleep. Surprisingly, special sleep suits that slightly warm the skin (or taking a hot bath before bed) help the body release heat, reduce the number of nighttime awakenings, and increase restorative slow-wave sleep.

Timing

Your circadian rhythm (tied to your mammalian biological clock) affects the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you get. Getting up too early means you miss out on later, longer REM sleep cycles.

Blue light

The light emitted from our phones and tablets when we use them late at night shifts our circadian rhythms. REM cycles start later, and we are less likely to reach extended REM sleep cycles.

According to Walker (2018), almost 10 million Americans per month take something to help them sleep. And yet, sleeping pills do not provide natural sleep, and they “can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening diseases” (Walker, 2018).

Sleeping pills work by knocking out higher regions of the brain’s cortex, resulting in a lack of the largest and deepest brainwaves. The result is a catalog of possible side effects during the day, including forgetfulness, daytime grogginess, and slowed reactions.

Where possible, therapists and mental health practitioners should promote good practices that result in a more natural night’s sleep (Walker, 2018).

There are several relatively straightforward habits and techniques, known as sleep hygiene practices, that promote a better night’s sleep (Walker, 2018; National Institute on Aging, 2020):

Maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Aim for consistency when you go to bed and get up, even during the weekend.

Avoid napping in the late afternoon.

While it may be necessary for those with prolonged sleep deficits, for others, it can disrupt sleep.

Create a bedtime routine.

A soak in the bath, relaxing music, or a book before bedtime can set the scene for sleep.

Avoid phones, tablets, and TV immediately before bed.

The light from digital sources can damage your sleep and overstimulate your brain.

Find the right temperature.

Your bedroom should be neither too hot nor too cold, and where possible, quiet.

Lower the light.

Reduce the lighting as you prepare for bed.

Avoid late-night exercise.

Do not exercise in the three hours before going to sleep.

Avoid big meals late in the evening.

Eat earlier in the evening.

Time your caffeine.

Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda) can make it more difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep.

Reduce alcohol consumption.

Contrary to what many of us think, alcohol negatively affects our sleep quality.

According to Walker (2018), if you only adopt one of the above good habits, make it “going to bed and waking up at the same time of day” no matter what.