Sleep Hygiene

I always found the quiet of the night to be the most peaceful, and also my most productive hours. It was void of distraction. Nighttime allowed my mind to finally have its moment to shine alongside the moonlit glow. However, the next morning was often full of regret.

I have been a night owl going back to my preteen years. I partially blame my parents who worked graveyard shift, and the rest can be attributed to my overactive brain. Through graduate school, I regularly functioned on a nightly average of three to four hours of sleep. I did so with relative ease. Somewhere in the twilight zone between graduate school and “adulting,” I could not keep up with this pace. I NEEDED at least six to eight hours to be able to fulfill the same daily responsibilities as before.

We really do take for granted the importance of sleep. Let’s do some quick math. Most experts recommend about eight hours of sleep a night. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Eight out of twenty-four can be reduced to one-third. The average American lives to be almost seventy-nine years old. If the average American sleeps the recommended eight hours a night, then they will have slept 26.23 years of their life!

I am a different person when I am falling behind on sleep. I cannot regulate my mood as easily. Illness strikes much more quickly. I cannot think clearly. I am a mess. Sleep keeps us healthy. It provides our mind and body with time to rest and repair itself. Therefore, I wanted to introduce a concept that might be new to some of you- sleep hygiene.

Usually when I cover this idea with my clients, they look confused. They think of “hygiene” in the traditional sense – the kind the school nurse taught us back in third grade about brushing our teeth and washing our hands. Think of hygiene meaning habits. Sleep hygiene pertains to your habits related specifically to sleep. Along the same lines as traditional hygiene, sleep hygiene takes into account your individual health and management of self-care. Sleep hygiene includes what you eat or drink before bed, your routine before bed, where you fall asleep, etc.

Some key points about sleep hygiene:

It is something to be taken into consideration throughout the entirety of the day. Sleep hygiene does not only look at your habits at night before you go to sleep. For instance, you might be laying around all day doing nothing. By the time nighttime rolls around, you might have difficulty falling asleep because you have a ton of unspent energy. Another example might be caffeine intake. If you drink coffee all morning, afternoon, and night, then you will likely have trouble falling asleep.

Have a nighttime routine. Our brains naturally produce a hormone called melatonin. This hormone plays a part in our sleep and wake cycles. Usually our melatonin levels are highest approximately two hours before bed. This is right before we usually get our “second wind.” This should normally be your signs to start getting ready for bed. Many of us have a nighttime routine that includes brushing our teeth, getting into our pajamas, and snuggling up with our favorite stuffed animal (Oh wait, I wasn’t supposed to admit that.).

Limit the amount of environmental stimulation. As part of your nighttime routine, do not engage in any activities or ingest food/drink that will stimulate your brain. Have an activity or two that will help you to slow down. Bedtime is not the time to play your favorite video game or watch a scary movie. These often will arouse your central nervous system and get your adrenaline pumping. Read a book. Turn on a boring show or movie. Listen to soothing music. Do deep breathing or meditation.

I do want to highlight two specific ideas in the section though.

  • Auditory stimulation – I know many experts who discourage the use of noise for sleep. In college, I lived right next to a railroad for five years that would come by between midnight and two in the morning. After the third night, I slept through the train without even acknowledging its existence. If someone grows up in the city, they become accustomed to the noise. If they move to the country where nights are silent, I can almost guarantee they will have trouble sleeping. The same would be true for someone in the country moving to the city. I sleep with a fan on in the background. I know many people who fall asleep with music or a television on. It is a matter of personal preference.
  • Electronic Devices- I am guilty of this one. My iPad sits to the left of my bed on the nightstand. Every night I pick it up to play mindless games or watch YouTube videos. Like I said before, be mindful of the content and amount of stimulation. Also, the blue light from most electronic devices does kick the brain into “awake mode.” Most devices now like my iPad come with a nighttime setting that dims the light and gives it more of a yellow glow.

Use medication as a last resort. I am not discounting the fact that there are people that do have medical issues that interfere with sleep. There are severe forms of insomnia and medical issues like sleep apnea. On the other hand, I can confidently say that at least 90% of sleep problems can be resolved behaviorally. I had a client who would bring a liter of Pepsi to group therapy every day who complained of anxiety and sleep issues. I recommended that she cut back on her Pepsi intake and maybe drink Diet Pepsi. A week later, she was sleeping like a baby. Medications should be utilized as a last resort.

Know your preferences. This is the part of sleep hygiene that puts the “self” into “self-care.” Understand yourself, your patterns, and what makes you tick. What is going to help you sleep might not work for me, and vice versa.

Rest easy and sweet dreams.

-The Caring Counselor

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