Everything You Need To Know About Sleep Hygiene Explained

By now we all know that adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. But knowing and doing are two very different things. The United States is full of chronically sleep-deprived people, with 35.2% of individuals getting less than the bare minimum seven hours of shuteye every night (via CDC). Certains groups, particularly Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiian people, and Black people, are most likely to not get enough sleep. Single parents are also among those most likely to be getting insufficient sleep. About half of all adults report feeling tired during the daytime (via the National Sleep Foundation).

According to Healthline, failing to get enough sleep can wreak havoc on your health. Insufficient sleep makes you more prone to accidents, impairs cognition and memory, weakens your immune system, increases your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and can promote weight gain. Sleep is when your body has a chance to rest, renew, and repair, so robbing yourself of pillow time can have a big impact on every part of your body.

If you're getting too little or poor-quality sleep, there are things you can do to get a better night's rest. Collectively, these sleep-promoting changes in behavior and your environment are called "sleep hygiene."

What exactly is sleep hygiene?

Hygiene includes all the things we do to keep ourselves healthy, covering everything from washing our hands to brushing our teeth to not putting unidentifiable tidbits of food we find in between the couch cushions in our mouths. So you can think of sleep hygiene as a set of "best practices" for getting healthy sleep.

The term "sleep hygiene" first appeared in Nathaniel Kleitman's book, "Sleep and Wakefulness" (via "The Complete Book of Dreams") all the way back in 1939. However, Swiss-born psychologist Peter Hauri was also a figurehead of sleep hygiene, as he outlined its basic guidelines in the '70s, according to a 2013 obituary published in the journal SleepHe worked extensively with insomniacs and developed innovative ideas about how to best manage this common sleep disorder. He was also a strong proponent of better sleep education.

As a paper published in 2016 in Sleep Medicine Reviews explained, "Sleep hygiene is defined as a set of behavioral and environmental recommendations intended to promote healthy sleep, and was originally developed for use in the treatment of mild to moderate insomnia." While many studies have been done on individual sleep hygiene and suggest there's strong evidence that those particular changes in behavior or environment can, in fact, improve sleep, research on "the efficacy of sleep hygiene education as a treatment for insomnia has been limited and inconclusive."

The first step to good sleep hygiene is understanding how our bodies regulate sleep

If you want to know why experts suggest particular modifications as part of good sleep hygiene, it's helpful to know how exactly sleep works. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are two primary drivers that control sleep: circadian rhythms and sleep-wake homeostasis.

Circadian rhythms are the natural fluctuations in our bodies that occur on a predictable pattern throughout the day. These include changes in body temperature, metabolism, and levels of different hormones. Cues from the environment, such as the amount of daylight, help your biological clock regulate itself. Homeostasis, or homeostatic sleep drive, is the body's way of keeping track of your need for sleep. The longer you're awake, the more "sleep pressure" builds up.

Sleep happens in a cycle made up of four stages. Stage 1 is very light, as your body and brain shift from being awake to asleep. Stage 2 is also light, while stage 3 is much deeper. REM sleep (when most dreaming occurs) happens at the end of the cycle. Sleepers go through several cycles each night, with more time spent in stage 3 sleep early in the night and more time spent in REM sleep toward morning.

Get yourself on a regular sleep schedule

As it turns out, sticking to a set bedtime isn't just good for kids. According to the Harvard Medical School, adhering to a regular sleep schedule helps maintain your circadian rhythm and will make both falling asleep and waking up easier. But, as Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, explained in a 2017 interview with Time, some bedtimes are better than others.

The expert noted that "the time of night when you sleep makes a significant difference in terms of the structure and quality of your sleep." We tend to get more deep, restorative sleep early in the night, regardless of when we actually hit the hay, so Dr. Walker suggests going to bed sometime between 8pm and midnight to capitalize on this.

Just as important as going to bed at the same time each night is waking up at the same time each morning. This helps set your circadian rhythm. You might be tempted to sleep in on weekends, but this can make it harder for you to fall asleep at your regular bedtime (via Verywell Health).

Don't lie in bed awake

If you're having trouble getting to sleep, lying in bed trying to force sleep to come is the worst thing you can do. According to Time, if you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes of laying down or waking up in the middle of the night, it's best to get up and out of bed. Why? Spending long periods of time awake in bed conditions your brain to associate the bed with being awake. Ideally, being in bed should send a clear "it must be time for sleep, because that's the only thing I do here" signal to your brain. To avoid sending mixed messages, don't use your phone or laptop, watch TV, or even read while in bed.

But what should you do once you get out of bed? WebMD suggests leaving your bedroom entirely and doing a relaxing, low-impact activity. Options include reading, meditating, listening to calming music, or playing a repetitive game. Avoid anything that might physically or mentally perk you up, like exercise, bright lights, or eating. Stay out of bed for at least 30 minutes and return once you start to feel sleepy.

Find ways to destress

It's impossible to get good sleep when you're tossing and turning all night because you can't stop thinking about work, a difficult relationship, or what's going on in the world. Stress is an absolute sleep-killer. According to research shared by the American Psychological Association, adults with lower stress levels sleep an average of 7.1 hours a night, while highly stressed people get only 6.2 hours. Only 8% of highly stressed adults report getting excellent or very good-quality sleep, compared to 33% of people with low levels of stress. This can quickly turn into a vicious cycle; 45% of already highly stressed people feel additional stress after a bad night's sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation has a number of suggestions to fight stress at bedtime. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can help calm the mind and body, as can meditative movement practices like gentle yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Journaling or taking a warm shower or bath before bedtime can also relieve stress. You may even want to schedule dedicated "worry time" earlier in the day to help reduce anxiety when it's time to go to sleep.

Make sure your room is dark

Light, or the lack thereof, is the most important external cue that tells our body when to sleep. As the National Sleep Foundation explained, "Light plays a central role in regulating circadian rhythm, the body's internal clock that signals when to be alert and when to rest. Light also affects the production of melatonin, an essential sleep-promoting hormone [melatonin]."

Exposure to bright light before bedtime and being in a bedroom that isn't dark enough can make it much harder to fall asleep and can interrupt the transition from one sleep cycle to another, causing you to wake up multiple times throughout the night. Even when your eyes are closed, your brain registers light in the room.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends sleeping in a pitch black space if possible. Blackout curtains are an excellent option for blocking light from outside. You may also want to wear an eye mask, especially if you sleep with someone who stays up later than you reading or using their phone in bed. Although, ideally, all electronics should be removed from the bedroom. In addition to emitting bright light when in use, they often have a bright charging light when plugged in.

Make sure your room is quiet

According to a 2010 article published in Noise & Sleep, the brain is still able to process and respond to noises in the environment during sleep. Noise causes us to spend more time in light sleep and less time in deep sleep and REM sleep, which are the most restorative parts of the sleep cycle. Even if the noise isn't loud enough to wake you up, you may still physically react to it with body changes such as increased heart rate.

For a good night's rest, continuous background noises should be below 30 decibels, while any one-off noises should be less than 45 decibels. For comparison, a soft whisper is about 30 decibels, while normal conversation is about 60 decibels (via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

There are many options for a quieter night's sleep. Earplugs and noise-canceling earbuds can block sounds from reaching you, while fans and white noise machines or apps can create soothing background noise that drowns out more distracting sounds. If you or your partner's snoring is disrupting your sleep, you can try breathing strips to open nasal passages or wedge pillows that put the head and neck in a better ergonomic position (via Business Insider).

Make sure you and your room are the right temperature

Snuggling up in a warm bed can feel super cozy during the winter, but being too hot at night can ruin your sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, temperature is an important part of our circadian rhythm. Our core body temperature begins to fall about two hours before we go to sleep. It continues to fall until early morning, at which point it begins to rise again, which helps stimulate wakefulness.

If your sleeping environment is too warm, it can interfere with your body's ability to lower your core temperature and make it harder to fall asleep. Being too warm also shortens the amount of time we spend in deep sleep and REM sleep. The optimal room temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. A too-cold bedroom generally isn't as big a problem as a too-hot one, but being uncomfortably cold can also make it hard to fall asleep.

In addition to running the AC or using a fan during the summer, you can open windows or invest in a breathable mattress and bedding. Ironically, a warm bath an hour or two before bed can help bring your core temperature down.

Avoid having caffeine in excess or too close to bedtime

It should go without saying that caffeine can make good sleep hard to come by. According to the National Sleep Foundation, "Caffeine can impact the onset of sleep and reduce sleep time, efficiency, and satisfaction levels." It also reduces the amount of time we spend in slow-wave sleep, a deep and restorative phase of the sleep cycle. Because caffeine is a diuretic, it may also lead to disrupted sleep through more frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom.

People often underestimate how long caffeine lasts in the body. Even caffeine consumed six hours before bed can wreak havoc on your rest. And if the first thing you do after a night of restless sleep is reach for a cup of coffee to wake you up, this only perpetuates the negative cycle.

A 2016 study published in Nutrients attempted to quantify just how much caffeine can ruin a good night's sleep. Researchers tracked participants' caffeine intake, and they also completed the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a self-reported assessment of sleep quality. The researchers found that those with the lowest PSQI score consumed an average of 192.1 milligrams of caffeine daily, while those with the highest scores and best sleeping habits consumed only 125.2 milligrams. For reference, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine.

Avoid alcohol

Many people, especially those with insomnia, believe that a nightcap will help them get a good night's rest. In fact, according to a 2009 paper published in Substance Abuse, between 15 and 28% of insomniacs use alcohol as a sleep aid. But, as the paper's authors pointed out, alcohol and quality sleep don't mix.

A single low dose of alcohol (think: a glass of wine in the evening) actually increases the time it takes to fall asleep and can have variable impacts on the amount of time we spend in REM and deep sleep. At higher doses (for example, a night of drinking with friends), alcohol does decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but it significantly reduces the amount of time we spend in REM sleep, increases the likelihood that we'll wake up in the middle of the night, and decreases the overall amount of time we spend sleeping. Chronic alcohol use makes it harder to fall asleep, decreases time spent in REM sleep and overall sleep duration, and makes us more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Tweak your nighttime snacking routine

Not everyone is negatively affected by a bedtime snack, but if your sleep isn't stellar, you may want to rethink your nighttime noshing. According to Johns Hopkins University, it's best to avoid high-protein foods right before bed. Protein takes a lot of time and energy for the body to break down, which is problematic because your digestion slows by up to 50% while you sleep.

Because of this decreased metabolic activity, it's also a good idea to avoid large meals right before bed. Also steer clear of foods such as aged cheeses and meats that contain the amino acid tyramine. Tyramine stimulates the release of norepinephrine, which is one of the "fight or flight" hormones — not something you want to flood your brain with right before you try to get some shuteye. If you're prone to heartburn, also avoid spicy things or any other foods that trigger your acid reflux. Acid reflux during sleep can make sleep apnea worse, decreasing the quality of your sleep.

On the other hand, some foods may trigger sleepiness or improve the quality of your sleep. These include milk, fatty fish, kiwi, tart cherries, nuts, and rice (via the National Sleep Foundation).

Get enough exercise, but time it right

Exercise is good for sleep. So if you needed one more reason to get off the couch and get to the gym, there you have it. While researchers don't exactly know why, exercise appears to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and improve overall sleep quality.

Perhaps it's exercise's ability to boost mood and relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety that help us fall asleep faster. Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been shown to increase the amount of time we spend in restorative deep sleep. For those who aren't exercise fanatics, take comfort in this: As little as 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity may be all it takes to see results the same night (via Johns Hopkins University).

The timing of that exercise may be important, and it's best not to do serious exercise immediately before bed. Exercise raises your core body temperature, which signals that it's time to wake up rather than wind down. This effect begins to reverse 30 to 90 minutes after you've finished exercising. Aerobic exercise can also release endorphins (the so-called "runner's high") that can be stimulating, rather than soothing, to the brain. These endorphins take about one to two hours to dissipate, Johns Hopkins University explained.

Put your screens away

While it probably feels like second nature to stay up late to binge Netflix or scroll through social media, there's really nothing "natural" about it. Humans didn't evolve with TVs, smartphones, and iPads, and all the time we spend on our devices before bed is ruining our sleep in several ways.

The blue light screens emit suppresses the release of melatonin, which can make it harder to fall asleep. Staying on our devices also keeps us psychologically stimulated, making it harder for our brain to wind down for sleep. The content we consume, especially social media, can bring up strong emotions, both positive and negative, that can leave us tossing and turning for hours (via Cleveland Clinic).

The National Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding all screens for at least an hour before bed and keeping your bedroom a "screen-free zone." If you're having trouble going without your devices before bed, you can at least minimize the damage they cause. How? By using night mode features on your phone or using an app like F.lux on your computer to block sleep-disrupting blue light.

Don't be afraid to seek professional help

While there are many things you can do at home to improve your sleep, sometimes it's best to bring in a professional. While it's normal to occasionally have a night or two of crummy sleep, many Americans have sleep disorders that cause chronic problems. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 10 to 30% of Americans have insomnia, while 2 to 9% have obstructive sleep apnea. Restless legs syndrome affects as many as 10% of adults. For individuals with these and other sleep disorders, basic sleep hygiene principles may not be enough.

If you aren't getting the quantity or quality of sleep you need to feel rested, it could be time to see a sleep specialist, a doctor who diagnoses and treats sleep disorders. In addition to asking questions about your sleep, sleep specialists often perform a sleep study (polysomnogram), in which electrodes attached to you relay information about what your brain and body are doing while you sleep. Treatment for sleep disorders may include medication, special equipment (such as a C-pap machine for sleep apnea), additional behavioral or environmental modifications, or psychotherapy (via WebMD).