by Jessica Vogle, CHES
It’s the end of another busy day of life, and it’s time to relax, settle down, and go to bed. But if you’re like me, there will be one or seventeen more things that come to mind, causing one more check of emails or another scroll on social media, and one last run-through of all the other busy things that happened in the day or need to happen in the next one. According to the National Institutes of Health, 7% to 19% of adults reportedly do not get enough sleep, and 40% reportedly fall asleep during the day at least once a month. Sleep affects how we think, feel, eat, act, and function in our daily activities. As a society, focusing more on mental health, starting with our sleep hygiene and what we can do to improve it, will support our overall health and well-being.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.
What are the stages of sleep?
- Stage 1: This is light sleep where you drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. In this stage, the eyes move slowly, and muscle activity slows. During this stage, many people experience sudden muscle contractions preceded by a sensation of falling.
- Stage 2: Eye movement stops, and brain waves become slower with only an occasional burst of rapid brain waves. The body begins to prepare for deep sleep, as the body temperature begins to drop and the heart rate slows.
- Stage 3: In this stage, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves are combined with smaller, faster waves. This is deep sleep. It is during this stage that a person may experience sleepwalking, night terrors, talking during one’s sleep, and bedwetting. These behaviors are known as parasomnias and tend to occur during the transitions between non-REM and REM sleep.
- Stage 4: Deep sleep continues as the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. People may awaken from this state feeling disoriented for a few minutes.
- REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: Brain waves mimic activity during the waking state. The eyes remain closed but move rapidly from side to side, perhaps related to the intense dream and brain activity that occurs during this stage.
What are sleep cycles?
A sleep cycle refers to the period of time it takes for an individual to progress through the stages of sleep. One does not go straight from deep sleep to REM sleep. A sleep cycle progresses through the stages of non-REM sleep from light to deep sleep, then reverses back from deep sleep to light sleep, ending with time in REM sleep before starting over in light sleep again.
For example, the order looks something like this:
Stage 1 (light sleep) – Stage 2 (light sleep) – Stage 3 (deep sleep) – Stage 2 (light sleep) – Stage 1 (light sleep) – REM Sleep
After REM sleep, a person returns to Stage 1 (light sleep) and begins a new cycle. As the night progresses, a person will spend increasingly more time in REM sleep and correspondingly less time in deep sleep.
How long is a sleep cycle? The first sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes. After that, they average from 100 to 120 minutes. Typically, an individual will go through four to five sleep cycles a night.
These phases last for different durations at various ages; an infant’s sleep cycle will look quite different than that of an adult or elderly individual. On an average night, you move through the stages in a sequential fashion. Most non-REM sleep occurs early in the night and the length of REM periods increases as the night goes on. That’s why there’s a good chance you’ll awaken from a dream in the morning and, hopefully, a sweet one!
How much sleep do I need?
How much sleep you need changes as you age.
According to Dr. Jim Horne, Britain’s leading expert in sleep science, women need more sleep than men. In an article published in the Daily Mail, Horne explained that, on average, women need eleven to twenty more minutes of sleep than men. The researcher pointed out that women tend to multi-task and use more of their actual brain than men, leading to a greater need for sleep. Essentially, the more you use your brain during the day, the more it needs to rest while asleep. Women also experience fluctuating hormonal imbalances during life cycles, such as puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and monthly menstruation, contributing to a greater risk of stress, anxiety, and depression. These fluctuating hormonal imbalances require additional sleep to recover.
As Horne says, “The important thing is not to worry about not having enough sleep. If you have a bad night’s sleep or a whole night without sleep, you don’t need to go to bed for 14 hours.
It is only the deep, refreshing sleep that you need to catch up on, so you need to try to recoup only about a third to a half of what you missed.”
Sleep & Weight
- Sleeping poorly, or not enough, slows the body’s metabolism. Metabolism is the process by which the body converts calories to energy. Research suggests that poor sleep makes the body’s metabolism work less effectively, leaving more unexpended energy to be stored in the body as fat.
- Poor and insufficient sleep makes the body inclined to store calories as fat. Research indicates that poor sleep can trigger the body to make more insulin and cortisol. Higher insulin and cortisol levels appear to prompt the body to store energy as fat, especially in the abdomen.
- Poor sleep increases appetite. Not getting enough sleep, and sleeping poorly, leads to changes in hormones that regulate hunger and feelings of fullness.
Improving Your Sleep Hygiene
One of the most important sleep hygiene practices is to spend an appropriate amount of time asleep in bed, not too little or too much. Sleep needs vary across ages and are especially impacted by lifestyle and health. However, there are recommendations that can provide guidance on how much sleep you need generally. Other good sleep hygiene practices include:
- Limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes. Napping does not make up for inadequate nighttime sleep. However, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness, and performance.
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime. And when it comes to alcohol, moderation is key.4 While alcohol is known to help you fall asleep faster, too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep in the second half of the night as the body begins to process the alcohol.
- Exercising to promote good quality sleep. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve nighttime sleep quality. For the best night’s sleep, most people should avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime. However, the effect of intense nighttime exercise on sleep differs from person to person, so find what works best for you.
- Steering clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep. Heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks can trigger indigestion for some people. When this occurs close to bedtime, it can lead to painful heartburn that disrupts sleep.
- Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for individuals who may not venture outside frequently. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
- Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine. A regular nightly routine helps the body recognize that it is bedtime. This could include taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, or light stretches. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before attempting to sleep.
- Making sure that the sleep environment is pleasant. The mattress and pillows should be comfortable. The bedroom should be cool—between 60 and 67 degrees—for optimal sleep. Bright light from lamps, cell phones, and TV screens can make it difficult to fall asleep, so turn those lights off or adjust them when possible. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise” machines, humidifiers, fans, and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing.
Just like food, shelter, and water, we all need sleep to be the best versions of ourselves and be productive in our lives. Encouraging healthy sleep habits and proper sleep hygiene should be a part of any practitioner’s wellness plan. Incorporate questions that explore thoughts surrounding sleep hygiene to promote healthy sleep habits and improve overall health and well-being.