Sleep Hygiene Roundup

If you are having trouble sleeping, sometimes improving your environment to make it more welcoming for sleep can be an important first step. In this blog, we’ll review some best practices, as well as some favorite products to help improve your sleep.

The Basics: As a first step, you can inventory your bedroom for the following

  • Light: do you have street lamps outside your windows? Do your curtains adequately darken the room at night? If not, consider investing in some black-out curtains or a simple eye mask. These have the advantage of travelling anywhere. My favorite is this one which is a bit weighted. I like the feeling of extra pressure on my eyes.  It’s probably yields a similar calming effect to weighted blankets, which have been shown to help those with sensory processing disorders sleep better.
  • Sound: If you live in a city, you may have a lot of traffic audible at night. If you live in the country, you may wake up to animals crowing at inopportune hours. A good solution here can be a white noise machine. These days, you can even download white noise as an app on most phones. 
  • Temperature: Research shows having your room a little on the cooler side can help you get to sleep and stay asleep. Your body actually produces it’s own form of thermo-regulation connected with sleep/wake cycles, so an external cue like a colder room can help (though warm blankets are fine if like me you like to feel cozy).
  • Humidity: A dry room can cause sinus congestion.  Consider investing in a humidifier, especially if you live in a temperate zone and it is winter. Mouth breathing can also cause airway dryness, so learning to breathe through your nostrils can help.
  • Activities: The sleep medicine community firmly believes only two things should happen in the bedroom- sleep and sex. If you bring work to the bedroom (even if it’s just a laptop), you are sending your brain signals that this is a space for concentration and productivity. If you need to do work at home, find another dedicated space which is not your bedroom. Otherwise, if you have significant stress/anxiety at work, it will carry over into the bedroom and can contribute to insomnia. Another thing you shouldn’t do in bed is watch TV (or perhaps more commonly these days, look at your phone screen). We’ll cover this in more detail on the digital section below, but in general, screens of any kind cause disruptive light and noise cues which can detract from a good sleep environment.
  • Liquids: Drinking too much liquid before bed can mean more frequent trips to the bathroom at night. Sometimes people have a hard time getting back to sleep. While keeping hydrated is important for health, if you find yourself getting up to the bathroom a lot at night, consider trying to limit the use of liquids in the hour or so before bed.  Of course, if you have generally frequent urination throughout the day, it’s best to talk with your doctor as it may be a sign of diabetes or another medical condition. 
  • Stimulants: It should go without saying, avoid caffeine late in the day at work as this drug has a long half-life (it stays in the body hours after ingestion). I tend to use 1pm as a cut-off time for my last caffeinated beverage. Also, be mindful that the increasingly popular coffee-stouts can worsen your sleep as they tend to have significant caffeine quantities. 

Calming Rituals:  If you struggle to wind down at night, sometimes establishing a quieting routine can help.  Common strategies include a bath, a cup of non-caffeinated tea, reading for pleasure, or meditating. If you get into a habit of doing one or more of these things before bed, it will help send a signal to your brain that it’s time to leave the excitement of the day and drop off into a peaceful zone.  Sometimes people ask if working out in the morning or just before bed is better for sleep. The research actually shows some people do better with one time versus the other. Some people find a vigorous workout before bed helps them sleep because they are physically exhausted. Others find the workout can be excessively stimulating. If you aren’t sure for yourself, consider keeping a sleep diary to track how you do with the different options. Certainly gentle exercises like yoga or qi gong before bed should be fine.

Herbals/Supplements: There are several great herbs which can help promote calm and good sleep. My two favorites are tulsi and ashwagandha. Both of these are adaptogenics, meaning they help the body cope with stress. Another great option is passion flower.  All of these can be purchased as teas or tinctures, but I prefer the ritual of tea. Lately, I’ve been trying to reduce my tendency to come home and have a glass (or two) of wine as a reward for a hard day’s work. I’ve started to alternate the teas above and have found once I get used to it, that I’m now coming home craving tea more than the wine. As alcohol can contribute to more fragmented sleep at night, it’s always a good thing to try to minimize routine use. My personal rule these days has been- wine socially and tea when it’s just a quiet day at home after work. 

I’m often asked about supplements for insomnia. Certainly melatonin is the best-studied over-the-counter supplement.  It has shown best results in the research when used to help with shift work and in cases of jet lag. As a matter of routine use, it has less evidence. But it is generally considered safe with few side effects, so if it works for you, great.  Be aware, as a supplement melatonin is not regulated in the same way as prescription medications, so the quality/quantity can vary considerably. When I worked nights, many of my fellow coworkers and I used Benadryl (generically, diphenhydramine) to help us get to sleep. This too is low-risk and has the added benefit of improving allergy symptoms. 

Digital Challenges: Screens are everywhere, and most of us are glued to our phones, tablets, laptops, and e-readers. The biggest issue with these in terms of sleep is that they emit blue light (as well as other wavelengths). The blue light part of the spectrum is stimulating. You may have heard of blue-light machines for seasonal affective disorder. While it can be great for circadian rhythm and seasonal depression, exposure to blue light in the hours before bed can worsen insomnia.  The best way to deal with this on your laptop or android devices is by downloading the f.lux program, which automatically filters out blue light from your device around sunset. Iphones also have a setting under ‘display and brightness’ called Night Shift which when activated filters out blue light. Another more extreme option is to buy some orange glasses to wear in the hours before bed which will filter out the blue light from light bulbs in your home. I do have a pair of these, and I tend to wear them when I’m reading a book in bed, or if i get up in the middle of the night and need to read a bit to get back to sleep. I recently upgraded my e-reader from an ipad to a Kindle Paperwhite, which I have found less stimulating and better for bedside reading (see my short video here for more).

If you struggle with sleep at night, the above interventions can help you get back on track. But keep in mind, none of these approaches alone can overcome certain sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or narcolepsy.  Even insomnia sometimes needs additional interventions. If you have sleep questions, we are happy to help guide you!

Further Reading:

Insomnia Approaches

Sleep and Mental Health

Chill your Brain for Insomnia

Brain Cleansing- Sleep and Dementia

Sleep Health Education and Coaching

The Pineal Gland and the Third Eye

Sleep and Hormones

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