Forget the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty was onto something. Not only is sleep crucial for our appearance, but also for our overall health and wellbeing.
Our society puts a premium on our waking hours and has the tendency to discount the importance of sleep. Millions of people are plagued with insomnia, often looking for quick-fix solutions rather than searching for the root of the cause. People overlook the regenerative powers that nighttime brings and the value of turning inward and getting proper shuteye. Additionally, poor sleep can affect both our weight and metabolism, as well as our mood, cognition, and memory.
As we tend to our daily hygiene routines, many overlook the importance of sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices and habits necessary for experiencing good nighttime sleep quality and alertness during the day.
Sleep hygiene involves many factors beyond sleeping, and even includes how we conduct ourselves during waking hours. Often seen as an afterthought, the general rise in insomnia is seeing more people than ever before starting to pay closer attention to the importance of their sleep habits.
Why do we have a problem?
For thousands of years people lived according to the cycle of the sun. Before the invention of the light bulb people would go to sleep a few hours after the sunset and then the next day rise with the sun. They ate dinner in the early evening depending on the sun cycle and time of year. The body was allowed to unwind and sync up with the body’s natural sleep rhythm, permitting for a full night’s rest.
Today, a major contributor to insomnia is the invention of electricity and ensuing modernization. Humans have not evolved to accommodate these radical changes. Television, tablets, cell phones, and late night eating all contribute to restless and sleepless nights.
Additionally, melatonin, a sleep hormone and powerful antioxidant, is produced and released by the exposure to darkness and suppressed by exposure to light. So basically, now that we have access to light anytime we desire, our melatonin levels aren’t as healthy as they used to be.
How much sleep do we really need?
On average, people need anywhere between six to nine hours of regular sleep a night, but it really depends on the person. You can discover your optimal sleeping time by going to bed at the same time for three nights in a row and not setting an alarm. Average your sleep duration and you have found your optimal sleep time. You should have several REM (Rapid Eye movement) cycles a night, as good sleep is the true foundation of good health and wellness.
Some key principles of sleep hygiene are:
1 | Turn off your tablets —
No TV, bright lights, tablets, or cell phones before bedtime or during sleep. These devices actually give off a blue light that stimulates the brain and suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, keeping you up, and delaying and changing sleep onset times.
2 | Get enough sleep —
Get at least eight hours of sleep a night, ideally nine to ten hours. Try to go to bed around the same time each night, optimally getting into bed by 10pm (the sleep between 10pm and 12am is some of the most restorative). This concept is based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Studies show that teenagers who go to bed after 11pm have a 25% greater chance of developing depression.
3 | Take your vitamins —
After eliminating the distractions, if insomnia persists you can try supplementing with 400mg of magnesium. Magnesium helps relax muscles and promotes sleep. The most absorbable forms are magnesium citrate, glycinate, taurate, and aspartate.
4 | Do calming practices —
Practicing Yoga Nidra, meditation, journaling, and/or listening to relaxing music will help calm the mind and get rid of free flowing anxiety. All of these activities can also help you fall back asleep if you wake in the middle of the night.
5 | Fast for 12 hours —
Ban bedtime snacks and keep a regular 12-hour fasting window. If you finish dinner at 8:30pm, you shouldn’t eat breakfast until after 8:30am the next day. In medicine, both eastern and western, it is good to give yourself three hours after eating a meal before going to bed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, food retention is one of the reasons for insomnia. Give your body time to digest. If you eat before bed the increase in glucose tricks your body into thinking it is time to work and move.
Avoid alcohol, coffee, nicotine, chocolate, and any other stimulants, especially late in the day — this will also stave off possible issues with heartburn. Additionally, reduce liquid intake before bedtime as urination may interrupt sleep, prompting nighttime trips to the bathroom.
6 | Find a routine —
Establish a relaxing nighttime routine that promotes ritual and self-care — this could include a warm bath, aromatherapy, or a nighttime foot rub. These all stimulate the production of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us relax and lowers cortisol (the fight or flight stress hormone). Try using essential oils like lavender and rose on linens and pillowcases to help promote sleep and decrease anxiety.
7 | Get moving —
Help circulate your body’s energy by working out or engaging in gentle exercise like a walk around the neighborhood after dinner. Stagnant energy in the body is one of the root causes of insomnia. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise promotes good, quality sleep. (Just make sure to do it earlier in the day as night workouts can delay sleep, instead of promote it.)
8 | Monitor your naps —
Avoid daytime napping for longer than 30 minutes. Prolonged napping does not make up for lost sleep — unless naps are short and early in the day. I actually encourage my patients to take a power nap if they need it. Short naps promote wakefulness and enhance performance and learning ability.
9 | Get cozy —
Your bedroom should be a sanctuary — somewhere you can establish a sense of psychological safety with your surroundings. Make sure it is dark, cool, and quiet with an optimal temperature between 60-72 degrees. Position your clock away from your bed to avoid extra light. If necessary, use blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, or a white noise machine. Keep mattresses and pillows protected from dust mites as allergies can keep you from falling asleep.
10 | Get outside —
Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is important for individuals who may not go outside frequently. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin, a sleep hormone and powerful antioxidant, is produced and released by the exposure to darkness and suppressed by exposure to light. Serotonin levels increase in sunshine and light environments. Melatonin helps you get to sleep, and serotonin helps you feel awake when you get up the next day, and together the two regulate sleep cycles.
Good sleep hygiene will improve your quality of sleep and how you feel during the day. Try implementing some of these strategies each week and see how they make a difference throughout the night. Some of these strategies are harder than others — but are well worth the effort in the long run for your health and wellness.
Dr. Elizabeth Trattner is a Doctor of Chinese and Integrative Medicine and an Acupuncturist. Find her on Instagram at @dreliztratts.