We all know the usual advice when it comes to sleep: Watch how much caffeine you’re drinking. Be careful about eating too close to bedtime. “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” It can feel like you can’t do anything fun without risking a poor night of sleep!
When we as sleep professionals refer to sleep hygiene, we mean taking measures to set the stage to allow sleep to happen. As we all know, you cannot force sleep to occur, and sometimes the harder you try, the harder it is to fall sleep.
This is why it’s important to have a generally relaxed attitude when it comes to these recommendations, rather than a strict and regimented set of hard-and-fast rules.
- Limit your caffeine intake.
Everyone is different when it comes to caffeine, as we all metabolize it differently. Some people can drink it right before bed and sleep well, and others are unable to sleep for days after having even a sip of coffee. The best way to tell if caffeine is impacting your sleep is to gradually cut down and completely remove it from your diet for a period of 2 weeks, and noticing how your sleep responds to this. It can be helpful during this period of time to keep a journal of how you’re feeling and sleeping, to more easily see the cause-and-affect relationship. Be mindful that caffeine can be in many products, not just coffee! It can be in tea, dark chocolate, energy drinks, pop, and protein / energy bars.
Exercise has many benefits for our bodies, and sleep is no exception. Exercise can help improve depression and anxiety, both common underlying contributors to insomnia. Secondly, it can help us effectively “burn off” excess energy that if not expended, can interfere with our ability to sleep later at night. Canadian guidelines for exercise recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week1. This might include jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike, brisk walking, yoga, high intensity interval training, or calisthenics. The best type of exercise for you is the one that you enjoy and can do safely.
- Limit light exposure.
This not only refers to light from our screens (eg. computer, phone, TV), but also from the lights in our home. Ideally, it’s best to stay in dim light in the few hours before bed, to allow your own melatonin production to stay as high as possible. This becomes even more important if you are using melatonin for sleep, as it can become inactivated if your retina is exposed to bright light2.
This is a big category and there can be some nuance in certain situations, but in general, we recommend avoiding alcohol in the evenings as it can cause waking up in the middle of the night. This can even be 1 glass for some people. We also recommend not using nicotine (whether smoking or vaping) in the evening as nicotine is stimulating, and avoiding marijuana as the THC can be stimulating for some people and wake you up in the night.
- Keep the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark.
Humans sleep best in this type of environment. This may involve unplugging your alarm clock, using black-out curtains or shades on the window, or wearing a comfortable sleep-mask to block out light that can keep you awake. If sound is an issue, for example the sounds of your partner snoring next to you, it can be helpful to use good quality and comfortable ear plugs, or a “white-noise” machine which can effectively neutralize the changes in sound that your ears are receiving in the night. Lastly, it’s best to keep the room on the cool side, around 17-20 degrees Celcius is ideal, whether through setting the thermostat, using a fan, or opening a window.
- Avoid large meals or sugary foods before bed.
Where possible, try to eat dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed and avoid overeating. If you must have a snack before bed, try to pick something with a healthy protein and/or some fiber, such as a piece of cheese with a pear, or and apple with unsweetened peanut butter. Avoid sugary foods before bed as the sugar can lead to a rebound effect and wake you up in the middle of the night.
- Implement a bedtime routine.
This one is really important, and also perhaps the most difficult for many of us. Our bodies don’t respond well to very abrupt transitions, so it is important for us to gradually transition from a waking state to a sleeping one. I generally recommend having a bedtime routine for 30-60 minutes before bed. This can look different for everyone, but may include going for a walk around the block, reading a chapter of a good book, listening to music or a meditation, personal hygiene (eg. Brushing teeth, washing face, showering or having a bath), stretching, doing Yoga or Tai Chi, sipping a cup of lavender tea, writing a few lines in a journal, or doing a breathing exercise. The important thing is that this time should feel unrushed, relaxing, and should fit into the context of your life.
The above list is not exhaustive, and there are many nuances to making sleep hygiene recommendations work for each individual person, however this is a good foundation from which to begin if this is a new area of exploration for you.
If you’d like to learn more about getting a restful sleep from a holistic perspective, contact Pacific Sleep to book an in-person, phone, or virtual appointment with Dr. Houwing.
- Tremblay, M. S., Carson, V., Chaput, J. P., Connor Gorber, S., Dinh, T., Duggan, M., Faulkner, G., Gray, C. E., Gruber, R., Janson, K., Janssen, I., Katzmarzyk, P. T., Kho, M. E., Latimer-Cheung, A. E., LeBlanc, C., Okely, A. D., Olds, T., Pate, R. R., Phillips, A., Poitras, V. J., … Zehr, L. (2016). Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth: An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 41(6 Suppl 3), S311–S327. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2016-0151
- Tosini, G., Baba, K., Hwang, C. K., & Iuvone, P. M. (2012). Melatonin: an underappreciated player in retinal physiology and pathophysiology. Experimental eye research, 103, 82–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exer.2012.08.009