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Sleep Hygiene: How Can We Improve Our Sleep Quality?

Sleep is the cornerstone of our physical, mental and emotional maintenance. In order to be well, we need to sleep well. We need to allow our body a restful, restorative state to heal, repair, and process the mental and physical stimulation of the waking hours. To mark ‘World Sleep Day*‘, we are going to look at some Sleep Hygiene tips to help you find a better quality sleep.

*World Sleep Day Toolkit available for download in ‘Resources’ section.

What Exactly Is ‘A Good Sleep’?

The general consensus is that we need 6 – 8 hours, unbroken and restful sleep every night. But for many, this is entirely elusive and unattainable. 

While we cannot expect our bodies to function if they are not getting adequate rest, downtime and quality sleep – knowing that doesn’t mean we can just make it happen. If anything, it can create even more pressure, guilt & worry – making our sleep patterns even more difficult to regulate. 

36% of Irish adults reported finding it difficult to fall asleep in a 2019 survey. 

HEALTHY IRELAND survey

Further findings showed that 66% of people who were getting the optimal 6-8 hours sleep a night reported their QUALITY of sleep to be ‘average’ or ‘poor’.

Cortisol & Alertness

Before we start talking about ‘Sleep Hygiene’, lets talk about the reality of how difficult it can be to expect our bodies to shut down peacefully at the right time, for the right amount of hours, when our waking lives are so busy – filled with stressors and responsibilities that we have no choice but to deal with on a daily basis. It is simply reality, and our bodies are doing their best to keep us alert and moving so we can get through our tasks and duties – despite there not being enough hours in the day to do so. 

Our bodies do this by producing Cortisol (the stress hormone) to give us a pump of adrenaline, in response to our rising anxiety and urgency. They nudge us, with sudden cravings, to grab high sugar snacks to provide an energy burst that will stimulate our under-slept bodies and sharpen our cognitive fog. They respond to the chattering ‘monkey-mind’ as though we are in a constant fight or flight mode – creating more anxiety with blood-sugar crashes and cortisol compensations.

No ‘Off-Switch

It becomes habit-forming: this is how we get through the day, and get things done. Except we can’t shut down. We have more things we have to do tomorrow, we have worries, we have unanswered emails, we have kids/parents/spouses/friends/colleagues who need us to help them. We have a pandemic that has put our health, livelihood and mental wellbeing into a washing machine and is flinging us around in anxieties about an unknowable future.

Sleep Hygiene: The Wind-Down Routine

There are many things beyond our control. There will always be worries, and unfortunately, as understandable as it is that it will affect our ability to turn off at night, a decent sleep is non-negotiable if we are going to be able to take on the daily pressures of our lives. This is where ‘Sleep Hygiene’ comes in. As difficult as it is to find the energy or motivation to carve some space out to find an ‘unwind’ routine, it may be the key to helping you find a way to soothe your hyper-alert body and mind into a place that is conducive to better sleep quality.

You already have a pre-bed routine that you may not even notice you are doing: Do you check the windows and doors are locked? Do you make sure the pet is fed? The kids are asleep? The lights are off? The alarm is on? That is a night-time routine. Now, with the motivation of prioritising rest, you can add in some relaxing ‘sleep cues’ to this ritual.

Sleep Cues:

These are the signals we give to our brains that it’s time for bed. When we have formed a nightly sleep hygiene ritual, our brain will start making little shortcuts for us and slow down our systems to a more relaxed state that is open to falling asleep: e.g. dimming the lights and resting on the couch tells the brain that we are finished with the daily tasks and the monkey-mind needs to shut down for now. Or reading a book tells our body we are preparing to sleep. There are lots of ways to customise your sleep cues, so they are effective to your particular needs and tastes. Below are some tips that might help you form your own personal favourite sleep cues:

1. Screen and Caffeine Curfews

No caffeine after a certain hour is a no-brainer, but screen curfews can be tricky, because we can believe that scrolling through our phones IS downtime for us.

We may not get to check in on friends during our busy day, and evening is our only opportunity to catch up. But the stimulation of the screen creates a physical response: the light of the device alone stimulates our brain.

Add to this the stress of seeing people’s curated lives (while we can barely bring ourselves to deal with the piled up laundry or get through our inboxes); or maybe we see a post from a friend we haven’t seen in a while and we feel guilty that we haven’t been in touch; perhaps we read an article about something that wriggles into our conscience or stokes our own insecurities or fears…

Often we are so accustomed to this background stress we may not even recognise what it is doing to our bodies and minds.

Screen time at night is asking our brain to go on alert, and our endocrine system to produce stimulating cortisol. We need to pick a cut off point and stick to it. A couple of hours before bed is ideal. Maybe try an 8pm curfew for a couple of weeks and notice if it has had a positive effect on your mood and your ability to drift off a little easier. 

Note: be aware that this is both a habit forming and habit breaking task. At first, you might feel some resentment, and withdrawal symptoms. You may feel MORE stimulated by your annoyance than you have ever felt by having a scroll in bed. But when you give this new habit time to form, the withdrawal symptoms will dissipate. Give it time. Have faith – it is worth it.

2. Gentle Exercise/Yoga

If you have been at a desk – or the kitchen table – all day, glued to a laptop or phone, your body has been in an prolonged state of rigid stasis. You don’t have to compensate by running 5K or doing a body-pump class online after work. While some people find high-octane exercise in the evening to be the perfect way to create a nicely exhausted state before bed, other people find it far too over-stimulating (not just physically but mentally – summoning the motivation to ‘force’ themselves to exercise in the first place).

If this is the case, then gentle movement is a better option. A short walk; taking the dog out; stretching while listening to your favourite soothing music.

Yin Yoga is a particularly great way to induce a sleepy and relaxed state. You can find videos online or specialist classes with experts if you want to commit to following a scheduled class in the evenings.

3. Quiet Time/ Meditation/Reading

Mindfulness and sleep apps are a rich resource for many, but to others it can irritate them into an even higher state of restlessness. This is why you must customise your sleep cues. If you have given meditation and mindfulness a good solid try (allowing yourself to wait out the initial resistance or doubt that it will work for you), then do not spend more energy trying to fight yourself into a restful practice. Instead, create your own quiet time. Easier for those who live alone, yes, but it is important for everyone to find a way to create a space of relaxation in whatever form they can.

We’ve all made jokes about finding ‘me time’ in the bathroom, but there is a reason for that – you can lock the door, read a book, have a bath. In a word: sanctuary.

So claim it where you can. Run a bath and read a book – or if you prefer a shower, stand under the warmth and let your mind wander rather than scurry after to-do lists. 

Make your bedroom inviting to you. Fluffy throws or crisp sheets; soothing candle scents or gentle story podcasts/audiobooks. Find your preference and use it. If you share a bedroom, lay out your plan to try and find ways to create sleep cues, listen to theirs, and find a happy medium. 

Further Tips To Try:

→ Reduce daily alcohol intake

→ Avoid eating substantial meals, nicotine or sugary snacks close to bed time

→ Try to go to bed and wake up at the same general times each day

→ Try to resist prolonged daytime naps. If you are tired during the day, opt for a small chunk of quiet time, where you let your body relax. Meditation apps like Headspace or short relaxation podcasts can help you with this.

→ If possible, keep your bedroom a night-time only zone. Have a separate workspace, and do not leave work/life admin papers in your room.

Chronic Sleep Issues

There are many who suffer ongoing sleep issues such as insomnia, or pain/illness related sleep deprivation.

As much as a sleep hygiene routine might help to soothe your mind, it is important that you seek specialist care and advice.

Talk to your GP and address the physical symptoms. Ask for a referral to specialist sleep consultants and clinics. You deserve and need sleep, let a professional help you find it.

Resources:

World Sleep Day Toolkit

Healthy Ireland Survey

Sleep Research Society

HSE: Trouble Sleeping

NHS: Sleep Hygiene

NIH: Understanding Sleep