Sleep Hygiene 101: How To Ensure A Better Night's Rest

Sleep is actually a combination of 2 systems, your sleep drive (like hunger) and a biological clock that tells you when to sleep. When both are working well together, you sleep best.
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Every New Year the sleep-related resolutions being made seem to disappear within a few weeks. Most of the time we make resolutions without understanding how our habits affect our sleep.

I ask my patients to follow proper Sleep Hygiene in order to get better sleep, and when they do, their success in making and keeping those resolutions is much greater. Some of the basic Sleep Hygiene recommendations include:

  • TV or not TV, that is the question. Many of my patients sheepishly tell me that they sleep with the TV on, well, so does my wife! If it helps then I am fine with it, but put on a TV timer so it does not keep anyone up the rest of the night.
  • Wean the Bean. Drink higher caffeinated beverages in the morning and move to lower ones in the mid afternoon. Try to move to fruit juices and water by 2-3 pm. While many of my patients tell me "I can drink an espresso and go to bed" they may be correct but the sleep they are getting is more jittery than they are!
  • A Glass for a Glass. If you are drinking alcohol remember that while it may make you fall asleep quickly, it prevents you from reaching deep sleep. Drink one glass of water for every glass of alcohol. Not only will it slow down your drinking but it will prevent you from getting dehydrated which is why you get a hangover!
  • Watch out for the Double Whammy. If you are going out with friends and have a few drinks try to get to bed on time! Most people do both, they stay out late and they drink too much-no wonder they feel horrible in the am.
  • Timing is everything. Some people get relaxed from exercise while others get energized, which one are you? If running relaxes you then do it about 4 hours before bed.

SLEEP 101: Sleep is actually a combination of 2 systems, your sleep drive (like hunger) and a biological clock that tells you when to sleep. When both are working well together, you sleep best. This is why a regular sleep schedule is so important. Interestingly enough, with all the sleep research out there, we still do not understand why we sleep. But we sure know what happens when we don't: disaster. And when we do get great sleep, really good things happen (increased immune system, look better, weight loss, and increased performance).

Here are the five questions (and answers with tips!) to ask yourself to help guide you through your personal Sleep Challenge in 2010 with Arianna Huffington and Cindi Leive:

1. How can my sleep be better?

Answer: There are two main aspects to sleep that most of us want to improve: the quantity (the number of minutes of sleep) and the quality (how refreshing is the sleep that you get).

  • The easiest way to increase your quantity of sleep is to give yourself a bedtime. When was the last time you had a bedtime? When you were ten, and someone else made you go to bed?? Many of my patients tell me that they get involved with something (TV, the internet, a good book) and then "don't know where the time went, " look up and it is 1 am.

Here is a quick trick: Set your alarm clock for 8 hours before you are supposed to wake up (waking at 7am? Set the alarm for 11pm). This forces you into your room to turn it off and should remind you that it is time for bed. Try to get in bed within the next 30 minutes.

  • The easiest way to increase the quality of your sleep is to reduce caffeine. Caffeine can have a half-life (the time it stays effective in your system) of between 8 and 10 hours! I am not saying to give it up (you wouldn't listen anyway), but try a method called caffeine fading: have your highest caffeinated beverage in the morning and then slowly move to less caffeinated beverages throughout the day. By 2:30 p.m. try to be caffeine free.
  • 2. How can I fall asleep more quickly?

    Answer: There are many things that prevent people from falling asleep but two that are quite common include: your body is not ready (sleep is not just an on/off switch it needs time to unwind) and your mind is racing (when you get in bed this may be the first opportunity you've have all day to think or focus on things that matter to you!) To help fall asleep more quickly:

    • The easiest way to get your body ready for sleep is a HOT bath about an hour before bed. Make it a bubble bath with lavender aromatherapy (the bubbles keep the water hotter longer and lavender helps with relaxation and sleep.
    • The easiest way to prevent your mind from racing is to distract yourself. My easy quick trick here is to count backwards from 300 by 3's. It is complicated enough that you cannot think of anything else, and it is so boring, you are out like a light.

    3. Am I doing something to keep myself awake in the middle of the night?

    Answer: There are several things that can wake us up and keep us up at night that are both biological and psychological.

    • One of the easiest things to help you go back to sleep, biologically: Do not turn on the lights! Lights makes your brain think that is it morning, and makes it hard to return to sleep. Put a night light in your bedroom, hallway or bathroom. That way you can get to where you are going, without telling your brain it is morning.
    • One of the easiest things to help you go back to sleep, psychologically: Do not look at the clock. Who really cares how much time you have left to sleep, just go back to sleep. Watching the clock only causes added anxiety about the next day: something we do not need at night. Turn it around and do not look!

    4. Could my bedroom be affecting my sleep?

    Answer: YES! It is critical to have an environment that is conducive to better sleep.

    • One of the easiest ways to have a healthy sleep environment: Get the right equipment. Just like exercise, the right equipment will help performance. A great start for the New Year is a new pillow. If you have not bought one in the last year, it is time!
    • Another way to better your sleep environment: Set the mood. When you walk in to your bedroom, how does it make you feel? Relaxed? Tense?! What could you add, or take away that might help your bedroom be more tranquil. Dim the lights one hour before bed, and never bring your laptop into your bedroom.

    5. What can I do during the day to set myself up for good sleep at night?

    Answer: There are many different activities you do during the day that will affect your sleep at night. The top two: what you consume and your activity level.

    • You are what you eat and what you eat affects how you sleep. Try to limit meals to three hours before lights out, but do not go to bed hungry. If you must eat late make it a lighter meal, with simple carbohydrates.
    • Get Moving. Exercise (specifically 20-30 minutes of aerobic) is one of the single best ways to improve the quality of your sleep. Research shows that those who have a regular exercise program get deeper sleep. Try not to exercise less than 2 hours before bed.

    So there you have it. My five questions to ask yourself and the quick fixes to help you out with your Sleep Hygiene as you look at your sleep and take the Sleep Challenge this year! Remember, everything you do, you do better with a good night's rest.

    Next: A Pre-Sleep Routine to help you fall asleep and stay asleep!

    Sweet Dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, PhD

    The Sleep Doctor™

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