William Dement, MD in his book, The Promise of Sleep, states that: “After all the research I’ve done on sleep problems over the last four decades, my most significant finding is that ignorance is the worst sleep disorder of them all.”
There is not much you can do to improve your sleep quality if you have an untreated sleep problem. If you have a sleep disorder, please get that treated first.
There is enough information on how to manage your sleep hygiene to fill a large building. As a society, however, we do not take advantage of most of it.
What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices that are necessary to have normal, quality nighttime sleep and full daytime alertness. Establishing a good sleep hygiene routine will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
1. Sleeping Environment
The first and most important step to getting a good night’s sleep is to make sure that your bedroom environment is ideal for sleeping. It should be a dark, cool space that is quiet. Remove any electronics such as TVs or computers from the space, since they promote mental stimulation. If you’re someone who needs noise to fall asleep, then look into white noise machines or turn on the radio at a low level to create a more soothing environment.
The quality of your bed can contribute to better sleep too. Everyone varies on what is most comfortable to him or her, so take some time and figure out what works best with your body.
- Do you need a firm or soft mattress?
- Do you need a memory foam mattress?
- Do you need multiple pillows or just one?
- Do you need therapeutic pillows?
If you share your bed, then make sure it’s big enough to fit two people. It’s important to have your own space where you won’t be disrupted. If you have children or pets, set limits on how often they sleep with you — or insist on separate sleeping quarters.
2. Stick to a schedule
Your body thrives on consistency and routine. When we’re stressed, we tend to go off of our routine: eat foods that are high in fat, starch and sugar, eat at irregular times and not sleep enough due to whatever is weighing on our mind. It is this inconsistency that is a factor in increasing your risk of sleep disorders and health issues. So, it is very important to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends, holidays and days off.
Being consistent reinforces your body’s rhythm and helps promote better sleep at night and better overall health. You might even want to establish a pre-sleep ritual, such as a cup of warm milk, warm bath or a few minutes of reading. All those activities can help you send signals to your body that it is time to go to bed.
3. Getting Up in the Middle of the Night
It’s normal for a person to wake up one or two times a night for various reasons. If you find that you get up in the middle of night and cannot get back to sleep within 15-20 minutes, then move out of your bedroom and engage in another restful activity, such as reading or taking a bath. You should find that within 20 minutes you would be able to fall back asleep. If you remain in bed, “trying hard” to sleep, chances are you will become more stressed and less likely to fall asleep. Refrain from doing anything related to house or office work and, as tempting as it is, do not turn on the television.
4. Food and drink
Have you ever been kept up by heartburn or acid reflux? Consider for a moment what you ate and how close to your bedtime it was that you consumed it. What we eat, and especially before we go to bed, greatly impacts how we sleep. It’s important not to eat too large of a meal before you go to bed, so you don’t remain awake with that, “too stuffed” feeling. If you are starving and need to eat something before bed, then stick to foods that are high in tryptophan, such as seaweed, turkey and egg whites. Foods also high in amino acids such as melons, oranges or apples may help you to sleep, as well as a cup of warm milk.
Make sure to adjust how many beverages you consume before bed, to limit the number of trips to the bathroom. Drinks with caffeine should be avoided before bedtime because their stimulating effects takes hours to wear off. Alcohol is also another drink to be avoided near bedtime. It might make you feel sleepy at first but once the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall; it can act more like a stimulant. The recommendation is to avoid alcoholic and caffeinated drinks 4-6 hours before bedtime. And remember, chocolate has caffeine in it, so try and resist that temptation at night…. as best you can.
5. Naps make you more tired
Now, this seems like a myth but it’s actually a fact! Think of it in terms of food, if you snack all day long then you’ll never be hungry for an actual meal. So, if you nap throughout the day, it is no wonder that you won’t be able to sleep at night. When the late afternoon hits, that’s when people feel the sleepiest and take a nap. In general, this isn’t a bad thing but you must limit it to a half an hour at most, so you don’t oversleep and stay up half the night.
If you’re someone who works nights, then you’ll need to make an exception to the rules of course. Make sure you keep your window coverings closed so that light — which adjusts your internal clock — doesn’t interrupt your sleep.
6. Physical Activity
Regular physical activity can promote better sleep, helping you to fall asleep faster and to enjoy deeper sleep. Timing is important, though. If you exercise too close to bedtime, your adrenaline might be too high for you to fall asleep. If this seems to be an issue for you, try exercising earlier in the day. Vigorous exercise should be done in the morning or late afternoon. Relaxing exercise, like light yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
Additionally, it is important to ensure you have adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
7. Managing Stress
When you have too much to do and too much to think about, your sleep is likely to suffer. To help restore peace to your life, consider healthy ways to manage stress. Start with the basics:
- Get organized: This will help you reduce your stress as much as possible during the day.
- Set priorities: Know what you need to tackle first, so you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed at the end of the day.
- Delegate tasks: Know when you have simply taken on too much and it is essential to ask for help.
- Take a break: Give yourself permission to take a moment to breathe and walk away from your stressors. It is recommended that every 20-40 minutes you stand up, stretch and walk away from your desk. Just taking these few minutes during the day will help soothe your mind and body.
- Share a good laugh: Laughter is the best way to relieve stress and tension. Whomever you talk to at night, make sure it is someone who lifts your spirits.
- Journal: Keep a paper and pen by your bed to jot down anything that is on your mind. Writing out your worries helps stop them from swirling around in your head while you’re trying to sleep.
8. Relaxation Techniques
Get in the habit of practicing relaxation techniques before bed. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and others may help relieve anxiety and reduce muscle tension.
9. Don’t take your worries to bed.
Leave your worries about job, school, daily life, etc., behind when you go to bed. Some people find it useful to assign a “worry period” during the evening or late afternoon to deal with these issues.
When to contact your doctor:
Nearly everyone has an occasional sleepless night — but if you often have trouble sleeping, then it might be time to contact your doctor. The most telling sign of a disorder is how you feel during the day. If you generally wake up alert and refreshed, you’re a healthy sleeper. If you chronically wake up sleepy, irritable, and unfocused, you may have a sleep disorder.
I am a dentist, and I help patients who have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. If you think of sleep apnea in its simplest term, it’s like a tiny door closing in your throat. You go to sleep and all of the muscles in your throat start to relax and your tongue falls back into your airway—like a tiny door closing. This leads to loud or heroic snoring and waking up at night gasping for air.
What I do is make a FDA approved sleep retainer, which many people call a mouthguard, mouth piece or a snore guard. An oral appliance or sleep retainer is made of two pieces of medical grade plastic. This device fits comfortably over the upper and lower teeth. Some can be made for those that wear dentures.
The sleep retainer I make is like a “door stop.” By gently moving your lower jaw forward and keeping your tongue from slipping back, you can keep an open airway and get relief while you sleep. You can move your jaw from side to side, up, down and forward, but you can’t move it back to block your airway. Only a few millimeters are needed to accomplish this because the size of your airway is about the diameter of your little finger. They have to be comfortable to wear or you will not use one.
The best way to determine if you have sleep apnea, is a sleep test. I provide, at no cost to you, a home sleep test (a $350 value) that you can use in the comfort of your home.
If you have any questions or if you think I can help you get a better night’s sleep, please call me today 408-910-8800 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org