Sleeping is an integral part of life. It plays a key role in brain function, regulates mood, appetite, and libido. But living in a fast-paced and demanding society, getting a restful night’s sleep can seem impossible. Leading lives with an assortment of variables are complex and often stressful.
Below is a basic introduction to how sleep works, why it is crucial to everyday life and followed by 10 steps to take in order to improve your sleep hygiene.
According to Mental Health Daily, researchers discovered in the 1950’s that when asleep the body shuts down but the brain is still hard at work (1). While sleeping, the brain does everything from re-energizing and repairing itself, to retaining and storing information from the prior day.
Since then, researchers have determined that there are distinct parts of sleep comprised of a total of five stages, ultimately making up what is known today as the sleep cycle. These stages work sequentially from a light and more conscious form of sleep to a deep, fully unconscious slumber. The first four stages of sleep are known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fifth stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. At each step in the cycle, the brain has a crucial role while working at various wavelengths that determine the level of consciousness.
Before getting into stage one of the sleep cycle, it is important to understand that there is a pre-stage, called relaxed wakefulness. Stage one can only happen after relaxed wakefulness has taken full effect, but often times can be the most difficult part of the whole sleep cycle.
Relaxed wakefulness is when the conscious is still awake and active, but the brain begins to wind down and move from awake to asleep. This is the point in time where conscious thinking slows and the feeling of deep relaxation sets in before drifting off to sleep. According to Sleep.com, the brain starts to function at a lower wavelength range known as the alpha wave range (2). Sometimes it can be difficult for the brain to get into a state of relaxed wakefulness due to stress. When stress overstimulates the brain, a phenomenon known as alpha blocking occurs. This means you are unable to get into this relaxed state of mind, which is the gateway to falling asleep.
Stage 1: After you reach the state of relaxed wakefulness, the consciousness starts to slip away. Stage 1 is an inception point to sleep. As the brain is functioning in the alpha frequency range, it transitions to a lower frequency range called Theta waves. This is a short stage, lasting up to about seven or nine minutes.
Stage 2: Moving into Stage 2, the brain’s frequency waves decline again as eye movement stops, and the body begins to prepare itself for the deeper subsequent stages of sleep. The brain will allow the body’s temperature to drop while heart rate begins to slow.
Stage 3: Stage 3 is the beginning of falling into a deep sleep. The brain starts producing slower frequency wavelengths known as Delta waves. At this point in the cycle, it’s becoming especially difficult to be awakened because the body is less responsive to external stimuli and the brain is beginning to perform maintenance.
Stage 4: Stage 4 is the point where the brain can start to become productive, which means it’s the most difficult to wake up. In this stage, the brain will repair muscles and tissue. This stimulates development and growth while giving your immune system a boost to provide you with energy for the following day.
REM: Typically, we move into REM sleep about 70-90 minutes after initially falling asleep. At this point, the brain revs up and becomes more active. Most of all dream sequences happen in this stage and the eyes can rapidly move back and forth, hence how the REM stage got its name. Due to the increase in brain activity and dreaming, bodies will react by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in making for faster breathing. REM sleep is known for allowing dreams to occur and enables the brain to consolidate information to store into long-term memory or get rid of it.
On average, adults go through the sleep cycle approximately four to six times throughout one night’s sleep. And while you don’t have control after you’re asleep, you can control your daily habits to optimize getting to sleep with ease, and stay asleep all night.
As difficult as it might seem, a restful night’s sleep begins when you wake up. That’s right, your actions and habits throughout the day will determine whether you get a restful night’s sleep, or you have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. According to the Helping Guide in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications, the average adult needs approximately seven to nine hours of sleep every night (3).
Keeping your sleep-wake cycle or Circadian Rhythm on a consistent cadence is one of the most important strategies for getting a rested night’s sleep. The Circadian Rhythm is an internal 24-hour clock that cycles through drowsy and alert intervals. According to the National Sleep Foundation, dips in energy usually occur in the middle of the night (2:00 a.m. – 4:00 a.m.) and right after lunchtime (1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.) (4). Have you ever felt exhausted right after lunch? You can thank your Circadian Rhythm for your mid-afternoon plunge in energy. If you’re a morning person or a night owl, these times will vary.
A factor that can keep a healthy circadian rhythm flowing is controlling your exposure to lights and the lack thereof. There is a specific part of your brain that controls your circadian rhythm called the hypothalamus. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, when it becomes dark in the evening, your eyes receive this darkness and it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which ultimately releases a chemical making you tired (5). This is why our circadian rhythm tends to be fairly in sync with the flow of our days, and also explains why shift workers have difficulty adjusting to a healthy sleep schedule because of their work hours.
When refining your circadian rhythm to a more routine schedule, the best tactic to sync your rhythm is to set aside seven to eight hours each night. Your body synchronizes best if it can get into a routine. In doing this, you allow your body to expect sleep at a certain time, as well as predicting when you will wake up thus making it easier for you to get up in the morning.
There are a few variables one should be aware of when syncing up your circadian rhythm. These are activities that one might mistake to be a positive effort in improving one’s rhythm but are actually deterrents that can set you back.
Sleeping in on the weekends is probably one of the biggest mistakes sleepers can make to get their sleep-wake cycle on track. The weekends are to decompress from the week before and recharge for the week ahead, which could potentially mean catching up on sleep you didn’t get throughout the week. Unfortunately, sleeping in any more than an hour on the weekends or even weekdays can throw your tight and reinforced sleep-wake cycle out of whack. The best way for your body to get into this habit is maintaining a constant sleep cycle seven days a week.
This goes for napping as well. Whether you are a daily napper or only nap on occasion, according to SleepHealth.org, it is best to take that power nap in the early afternoon and wake up before 5:00 p.m. (6). This will reduce the probability of you sleeping into the evening, and be making it difficult for you to get back to sleep.
If you’re looking to improve your sleep hygiene, put down the stimulants. The word says it all, and stimulants stimulate brain function, which keeps you awake! Caffeine, nicotine and even alcohol could be the culprits behind those sleepless nights.
Caffeine is considered to be a moderately effective alertness boosting agent. It can have positive effects in diminishing fatigue, improving reaction time and mood, as well as promoting alertness and overall mental performance. Caffeine is widely used daily and though it could be seen as a dietary staple, the effects of caffeine can take up to 12 hours to wear off. This includes coffee, caffeinated tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate. According to Everyday Health, consuming caffeine up to six hours before bedtime can prevent you from getting to sleep, so it is not recommended to consume caffeine after about 2:00 p.m. (7).
Caffeine isn’t the only guilty stimulant. Nicotine is also a stimulant that can prevent you from getting a rested night’s sleep, especially if you use it in the evening time. Research from Everyday Health states that nicotine side effects can cause insomnia (7). This is because sleepers who consume nicotine spend more time sleeping lightly and have a more difficult time getting into the deep-sleep stages of the sleep cycle, compared to non-smokers.
The last stimulant that might be less obvious to recognize is alcohol. Though alcohol is technically classified as a depressant, it has a stimulating effect. Consuming alcohol can block your brain from being able to get into REM sleep and can also aggravate breathing.
Consuming stimulants in moderation is the key to helping get a good night’s sleep. Cutting out caffeine in the afternoon, evening, and refraining from consuming nicotine close to bedtime will optimize your brain’s ability to get into a deep sleep. Lastly, it is recommended to limit alcohol intake to one to two drinks per day and avoid consuming alcohol within three hours of bedtime.
Exercising on a regular basis has numerous positive effects on the body, many of which promote good sleep hygiene. Even exercising for 10 minutes a day by walking on your lunch break, or cycling can make a striking improvement to your overall quality of sleep.
Exercising regularly can increase your sleep duration and transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next while improving sleep quality and your overall sleep hygiene, according to Sleep.org (8). This is possible because exercise alleviates stress by releasing the stress hormone called cortisol. When cortisol is released in an excess amount, this aids in diminishing the feeling of physical or psychological stress or trauma. Once your body adapts to this stress relieving hormone, the body’s chemistry begins to balance out again, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (9).
Another positive benefit from regular exercise is the release of another set of chemicals in the body called endorphins. Endorphins help combat stress as well as depression. Endorphins not only reduce your perception of pain but also trigger a positive feeling in the body.
The only caution when exercising and trying to improve your sleep hygiene is to be careful of what time in the day you work out. If you can’t work out in the morning or on your lunch break, working out in the early evening is better than a late-night workout or none at all. Exercising right before bedtime will have a reverse effect. Remember those endorphins will still be in control, and you could end up staying awake all night! Earlier in the day is always best; this gives your body time to rebalance back to its natural chemical composition from the prior influx of positive and stimulating chemicals released.
As previously mentioned, caffeine, nicotine, and even alcohol are not conducive to getting a good night’s sleep, but that is only the beginning. Even after cutting out your 2:30 p.m. coffee it still doesn’t necessarily give promise to a good night’s sleep. Spicy foods or a big dinner within two hours of bedtime are two of the biggest offenders when keeping you up at night.
Eating spicy foods at any point throughout your day can cause various discomforts including heartburn and indigestion. Taking it one step further, imagine eating something spicy for dinner and as a result having to wake up to these bodily irritations in the middle of the night. The same principle applies for a big dinner too close to bedtime. When eating that close to when you go to sleep, you aren’t allowing your body to digest properly, which can cause discomfort all night.
Consider eating dinner earlier. This will give your body time to digest foods that you love to eat. If you have to eat dinner later, try a lighter meal with whole grains, or food that you know is easily digested by your body.
The same rule applies to the bedtime snacks. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, avoiding snacks with complex carbs such as white bread, refined pasta, and baked goods (5). These types of foods can actually decrease serotonin levels, leaving you in a bad mood and unable to get to sleep. Try snacks such as wheat crackers, nuts, fruit, or a little dairy such as warm milk or a slice of cheese if your stomach isn’t sensitive to it. Only eat enough so you’re not uncomfortable and hungry.
As you now know, your circadian rhythm is a very delicate cycle that can be thrown off with the slightest change in routine. As briefly touched on, you can help keep your rhythm in sync by controlling your light intake. Exposure to natural light in the morning can really brighten your day; literally and figuratively. In doing this, the light reacts with your eyes to send a signal to the part of your brain that controls your circadian rhythm called the hypothalamus. Exposing yourself to as much natural light as possible in the morning helps reinforce that this is the time of day when you wake up. This also helps if you can control the amount of natural light that you can get in your office space. If you don’t have that option, try getting outside for a sun break during the day.
In contrast, exposing yourself to bright lights in the evening can not only throw off your circadian rhythm but also makes it challenging for your brain to calm down and realize that it is time for bed. The absence of light is necessary when you are getting ready for bed. Darkness, or lack of light, sends a signal to the brain that it is time to rest. This signal then triggers reactions causing muscles to relax, drowsiness to set in, and body temperature beginning to drop according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (9). Deliberate actions like dimming the lights, closing blinds, and limiting exposure to devices that emit blue light such as TV’s, computers or phones, can keep your rhythm in check.
Living in our technologically driven society, it can be difficult to give up our devices when it’s time to wind down for bed. But when it comes to bedtime, it’s time to unplug to ensure we take a step in practicing proper sleep hygiene. Just like limiting exposure to light in the evening time, removing electronics from the bedroom is crucial when trying to achieve a restful night’s sleep.
As stated earlier, those bright lights are detrimental to your circadian rhythm. Whether you’re trying to watch a movie, scroll through Facebook, or potentially read an email, these events block your brain from being able to calm down. All of these devices are stimulating, which keeps the brain active and feeling that it needs to stay up, resulting in a disruption of your sleep-wake cycle.
Try keeping electronics out of the bedroom. This will keep you from going against your better judgment of checking emails, watching a funny Facebook video, or turning on the television. A lot of people have TV’s in their bedrooms. It might sound relaxing to get ready for bed and turn on a movie, but if you are watching TV an hour or less before you want to go to sleep, it won’t have that desired calming effect. This goes for all devices. TV’s, smartphones and tablets alike, in order to optimize sleep it’s best to unplug at least an hour before you go to sleep. Though this might be difficult at first, it will pay off in the end.
Transform your bedroom into a sanctuary; a sacred place to unwind with no distractions from the outside world. Sometimes life can be daunting, and though there are endless ways to release stress, sleep is the ultimate stress reliever. In order to get ourselves ready for sleep, winding down from the day can often time be hard, and sometimes what we think of as “relaxing” is actually highly detrimental to the quality of our sleep. Below are a few ways to get you primed for pillow time.
Mess causes stress. According to Unclutter.com, the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute concluded that visual clutter hinders our ability to focus, leaving us feeling frazzled (10). This includes focusing when it’s time to get to sleep. Before bed, tidy up! Take 20-30 minutes to do the dishes, take out the trash, hang your clean clothes up or put away clutter in your room. Both your conscious and subconscious mind will thank you.
Mind-body medicine is another excellent way to calm both the mind and body down in preparation for bed. There are various methods to choose from. Breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, light stretching, or yoga can all get you into a more Zen place and ready for rest.
In conjunction with your mind-body-medicine routine or even by itself, aromatherapy is a great way to get your mind in a relaxing state. To optimize the improvement of your sleep hygiene, it is necessary to appeal to all five senses. In a recent study performed by the National Sleep Foundation, lavender has been proven to lower blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, which could potentially transition you into a more relaxed state (11). Whether you prefer oils, candles, incense, or even sachets, aromatherapy might be a solution to helping you relax after a long day
Another way to relax before bed is to drink hot water, or tea. Ingredients such as chamomile, passion fruit rose and mint are all ingredients that are soothing to the stomach and nose, even having sedative effects. There are major benefits to drinking something warm right before bed. A warm beverage keeps your digestive system on track and helps to flush toxins. Lastly, hot tea or water can warm your body temperature up just a bit. This is helpful because, when you are winding down for bed, your body tends to get a little colder due to a natural decrease in blood pressure and heart rate. By drinking something hot your body will briefly warm up before rapidly cooling down, making you sleepy according to the National Sleep Foundation (12).
The last ritual you might want to consider making a part of your nighttime routine is to diminish loud sounds. Quiet your home and ultimately your mind. Sounds create a stimulating effect on the brain and can make it more difficult for us to calm down for bed. Maybe try listening to soft, soothing music or sounds.
This might seem like a given. Utilize tools that will provide you comfort when trying to get to sleep. Things like pillows, a mattress, and soft blankets should be obvious comfort elements, but there are a few less obvious elements that might not have crossed your mind and could be causing you to lose hours of sleep.
Consider your basic comfort elements. It might be time for an upgrade. If you are someone who is always hot, it’s best to have a lighter quilt on your bed instead of a heavy down comforter. If you have back or neck problems, it might be time to evaluate your mattress. According to Consumer Reports, your mattress should be replaced every five to ten years (13). If your mattress has lost its comfort or potentially reaching its age limit, it might be time to consider investing in a new mattress.
If your mattress is in tip-top shape, your pillows might be the issue. There are various types of pillows for different sleep positions. If you are a stomach sleeper, then a thinner, flatter pillow will suit you more so your neck and upper back isn’t straining. In contrast, if you’re a side sleeper, a thicker pillow would be ideal to fill the distance between your shoulder and ear. Memory foam pillows, body pillows, or potentially just using a pillow in between your legs to raise your hip to create a more stabilized position for your lower back, are all potential
solutions to end your sleepless nights as stated by Spine-Health (14). Whether you know the elements that make up your bed are comfortable or not, take a few minutes to evaluate yourself and your bed. If you have a partner, talk to them too. A small change could make a big difference in your night’s sleep.
In the fast-paced world we live in today, the pressure is always on. Stress is lurking everywhere: work, bills, errands, and relationships, just to name a few. Most of us take mental notes, but often times that can leave us feeling overwhelmed because thoughts linger in the back of our minds. All of these thoughts and to-do lists swarming around make it seem impossible to calm our minds. One way to combat the incessant voices is to start a journal.
Shifting bedtime thoughts down a more positive avenue might be a great solution to improve your sleep hygiene. Journaling is a stress relieving method that can make your stress factors seem tangible. Writing them down can alleviate the feeling of being so overwhelmed. As Health Guides states, studies have shown that when you write things down and revisit them at a later time, your brain perceives them as more manageable (15).
Another type of journaling is journaling to improve sleep. Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to write down various facts and activities from the previous day such as hours of sleep, what you consumed, what your caffeine intake was, and whether or not you exercised. Think about the first eight steps to improve your sleep hygiene for a better night sleep, and analyze if these were healthy choices that were conducive to a restful night’s sleep. If they were, great! If not, journaling will help you to see where you are excelling, and which areas you can improve on. Ultimately, it is about self-accountability and following through to make for a better you.
Taking a sleep support supplement that provides ingredients like Melatonin, Valerian Root, and L-Tryptophan may help an individual enter a relaxed state that will possibly lead to sleep. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School confirms that sleep deprivation has been associated with serious health problems like obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and heart disease. Lack of sleep is also known for slowing your ability to problem solve and can increase stress levels. If you would like to start your own supplement company and have it provide a sleep aid supplement please reach out to Ion Labs to book a tour of their state-of-the-art facility.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
- “5 Types Of Brain Waves Frequencies: Gamma, Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta.” Mental Health Daily, 18 Nov. 2015,mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/04/15/5-types-of-brain-waves-frquencies-gamma-beta-alpha-theta-delta/. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
- Robbins, McLean. “Understanding Sleep Cycles.” Sleep.Org, Sleep.Org, 25 Feb. 2015, sleep.org/articles/what-happens-during-sleep/. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
- “Sleep Needs.” Sleep Needs: What to Do If You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep, www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/sleep-needs-get-the-sleep-you-need.htm. Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
- “What is Circadian Rhythm?” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/what-circadian-rhythm. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
- “Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.” Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep | Healthy Sleep, healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips. Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
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- Ware, Arista. “How Exercise Affects Sleep.” Sleep.Org, Sleep.Org, 28 Oct. 2014, sleep.org/articles/exercise-affects-sleep/. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.
- 6 Steps to Better Sleep.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 May 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/sleep/art-20048379?pg=2. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
- Erin Doland on March 29, 2011. “Scientists find physical clutter negatively affects your ability to focus, process information.” Unclutterer, 29 Mar. 2011, unclutterer.com/2011/03/29/scientists-find-physical-clutter-negatively-affects-your-ability-to-focus-process-information/. Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.
- “NationalSleepFoundation.com.” NationalSleepFoundation.com, sleepfoundation.org/bedroom/smell.php. Accessed 1 Sept. 2017
- “Stages of Human Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation, sleepdisorders.sleepfoundation.org/chapter-1-normal-sleep/stages-of-human-sleep/. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
- “How Long Does a Mattress Last?” How Long Does a Mattress Last? – Consumer Reports, www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2007/12/q-a-how-often-should-i-buy-a-new-mattress/index.htm. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
- Schubbe, DC John. “Pillow Support and Comfort.” Spine-Health, www.spine-health.com/wellness/sleep/pillow-support-and-comfort. Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.
- “Journaling Before Bed Can Help Ward Off Sleeplessness.” Healthguides, 22 Nov. 2016, healthguides.healthgrades.com/getting-a-good-nights-sleep/journaling-before-bed-can-help-ward-off-sleeplessness. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.