A woman with a sleep mask on

Sleep Hygiene

Over a third of U.S. adults report sleeping less than the recommended seven hours per night. Even for those meeting the goal, about half of all adults in the U.S. experience sleepiness and fatigue during daytime on 3 to 7 days out of the week. That’s a huge chunk of us that are either not getting enough sleep or not getting quality sleep. There are many factors that can influence our sleep hygiene: daily schedules, career, irregular bedtimes, snoring (our own and perhaps a partner’s), mental health, substance use, caffeine, technology habits, where you live (Hawaii has the highest percent of adults lacking sleep at 43% reporting less than seven hours!), premenstrual syndrome, mental health conditions, sleep environment - the list goes on. In some folks, sleep disturbances can be due to a sleep disorder, such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea. 

Regardless of where your trouble sleeping comes from, habits can be built to improve sleep quality and regularity. In this article, we’re going to discuss some important facts about sleep as well as outline methods that you can use to get busy dreaming. 

Do I really need seven hours?

If you are over the age of 18, yes - science says that seven is the minimum. There’s some misinformation regarding individual needs around sleep. Many people believe it’s common for certain adults to only need around five hours of sleep a night. While it is true that there is evidence of genes that allow specific individuals to function well on less sleep, this is far more rare than people think. Chances are if you are reading this, you’re one of the many of us who need seven hours, at least. 

Insufficient sleep leads to far more risks than just fatigue. Many scientists believe that sleep acts as a necessary component for turning short-term memories into long-term ones. When we don’t sleep enough, our memory suffers. We can also be at higher risk for experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. Outside the brain, sleep deprivation creates higher risks for conditions that can be life threatening: heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, obesity, immune deficiencies. Your body is a carefully constructed machine. You need to have regular breaks to make sure everything stays functioning - if you try to skimp out on rest time, there will be ways this impacts your system. 

How do I sleep better?

Some of the most important changes for sleep hygiene require taking a harder look at one’s lifestyle. Our bodies work best on regular schedules: the more that you can maintain roughly the same bedtime each night will lead to decreased difficulty in falling asleep and sleep quality. Sleep schedules also require that we make the time to sleep. If you’re not giving yourself time for at least seven hours, then you’re not going to have the chance to get the proper rest. It can be difficult balancing our different needs - a 24 hour day feels particularly short when factoring work, relationships, exercise, family, friends, education, etc. - but it’s important to realize sleep is just as important to our wellbeing as physical activity and balanced diets. Re-evaluate your daily routines: what can you change about your schedule to give yourself enough time for rest?

Along with creating a more balanced schedule, consider some of these Do’s and Don’ts for better sleep:

  • Don’t use electronics in bed. Even if you use a blue-light filter or set timers for yourself, using your phone, laptop, or tablet is keeping your brain active as opposed to helping it slow down. It can be hard to cut this habit - many of us enjoy having that time at the end of the day to scroll through social media or watch videos. However, this is one of the easiest starting points for better sleep. 
  • Do have a wind-down activity before bed. Create a routine for yourself to help signal to your mind that bed-time is approaching. This can take on many different forms: maybe it’s stretching or doing light yoga, journaling, reading, going through a skincare routine, listening to a guided meditation, or prayer. Transitional periods are important for our mind and body. If you go right from something active to laying down in bed, you’re body won’t know it’s time to sleep. 
  • Don’t use your bed for anything other than sleep (or sex). Spending large amounts of time in our bedroom not sleeping will get our bodies used to being in bed and not sleeping. Your bed should be associated first and foremost with sleep. Using it as a work space or even a leisure space can disrupt your brain’s association with laying in bed as a signal for sleep. 
  • Do create an environment that facilitates sleep. Identify environmental factors that contribute to rest. Does sound distract you, or does having white noise relax you? Are there light sources in the room that can be covered? What ways can you adjust temperature to be comfortable? The more we can work with our mind and body to create a space for sleep, the more successful we will be. 
  • Do watch eating habits and substance use. Avoid eating large meals close to bedtime - if you are hungry late at night, opt instead for lighter snacks. Monitor caffeine consumption throughout the day, and be mindful of how late in the day you may be consuming caffeinated drinks or foods with caffeine. Alcohol, marijuana, and other substances can also impact both ability to sleep and sleep quality. Oftentimes, when your sleep is induced by a substance like alcohol, we’re not getting restful sleep. 

What can I do when I can’t sleep?

Even when we do everything we can, sometimes there might be evenings where sleep is hard to obtain or we may wake up in the middle of the night. When you find yourself lying awake in bed, it can be helpful to get up and do a different activity. This may seem counterintuitive, but staying in bed can sometimes trap us in our inability to sleep if we spend more than 20 minutes with no results. Get out of bed, spend some time in an area that is dimly lit before returning to bed. It’s important to continue to avoid electronics during this time - opt instead for a book, a magazine, a puzzle, anything that does not have a screen attached. Bouts of insomnia can also be a place to practice mindfulness if insomnia is due to racing or nervous thoughts. Practice a body scan or breathing exercise before returning to bed. 

Even if you are not a part of the third of adults struggling with obtaining enough sleep, all of us experience sleep disturbances from time to time. If you’re noticing patterns of insomnia or fatigue despite getting enough sleep, this can be something to discuss with your primary care doctor and perhaps also a mental health professional. It can be important to rule out potential sleep disorders if sleep disturbances are chronic, and therapists can help you build strategies towards more fulfilling sleep over time. 

Learn More

For further resources for restful sleep, check out these websites:

American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Sleep Education

CDC’s Basics About Sleep