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  • Writer's pictureFiona McNally

Sleep Hygiene

On average, we spend approximately a third of our life asleep. Along with eating, drinking and breathing, sleeping is one of the pillars for maintaining good mental and physical health.

Sleep is an active, essential and involuntary process, without which we cannot function effectively. Sleep is not a lifestyle choice; just like breathing, eating or drinking, it is a necessity.

Sleep is a complex process during which our body undertakes several essential activities. It involves low awareness of the outside world, relaxed muscles, and a raised anabolic state which helps us to build and repair our bodies. Primarily, sleep is for the brain, allowing it to recover and regenerate. During sleep, the brain can process information, consolidate memory, and enable us to learn and function effectively during daytime.

If we compromise on our sleep, we compromise on our performance, our mood, and our interpersonal relationships. Poor sleep is linked to physical problems such as a weakened immune system and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

One of the most important sleep hygiene practices is to spend an appropriate amount of time asleep in bed, not too little or too excessive. Sleep needs vary across ages and the chart below indicates the recommended amount of sleep required at different life stages.

Good sleep hygiene practices include:

1. Avoid napping - napping does not make up for inadequate night time sleep, however, a short nap of 20-30 minutes, if needed, can help to improve mood, alertness and performance. Do not nap after 5pm.

2. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime. Caffeine can keep you awake - the effects can take as long as eight hours to wear off so reducing or cutting out caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime can help you fall asleep more easily. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine. Nicotine can keep you up and awaken you at night.

3. Avoid alcohol – it may help you fall asleep faster but it can disrupt sleep as the body begins to process the alcohol.

4. Regular exercise can help you get a good night's sleep. The timing and intensity of exercise play a key role in its effects on sleep. Exercise stimulates the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which helps activate the alerting mechanism in the brain so try to finish exercising at least three hours before bed or work out earlier in the day.

5. Try not to go to bed hungry, but avoid heavy meals before bedtime. A snack before bed can stop you from waking hungry in the night and tryptophan, a sleep-promoting chemical found in foods like milk, chicken and turkey, bananas, oats and honey. Carbohydrate-rich foods like bread and crackers may complement dairy foods like milk, by increasing the level of tryptophan in the blood. Heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks can trigger indigestion. Try to finish dinner several hours before bedtime and try not to drink fluids after 8pm to prevent you from having to get up to use the toilet during the night.

6. Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, keeps your internal clock on a healthy sleep-wake cycle so let in the light first thing in the morning and go outside during the day.

7. Keep your internal clock set with a consistent sleep schedule – going to bed and waking up at the same time each day sets the body’s ‘internal clock’ to expect sleep at a certain time night after night. Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine on weekends to avoid a Monday morning sleep hangover.

8. Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine – this helps the body recognize that it is bedtime. Develop a pre-sleep ritual to break the connection between all the day's stress, and bedtime. These rituals can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as an hour. Take a warm shower or bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), read a book, or practice some relaxation exercises. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before attempting to sleep. Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. Some people find relief in making a list of all the stressful things that have happened during the day, along with a plan to deal with them. This can act as "closure" to the day.

9. Make a pleasant sleep environment – your bedroom should be quiet, dark and comfortable. Your mattress and pillows should be comfortable and the bedroom cool – between 15C and 22C (59F and 71F) – for optimal sleep. Bright light from lamps, cell phone and TV screens can make it difficult to fall asleep, so turn those off or adjust them where possible. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing. Don't use the overhead light if you need to get up at night; use a small night-light instead.

10. Keep pets off the bed. Allergies or pet movement may cause you to waken in the night.

11. Avoid watching TV, eating and discussing emotional issues in bed. The bed should be used for sleep only. If not, you can end up associating the bed with distracting activities that could make it difficult for you to fall asleep.

12. Go to sleep when you’re truly tired. Struggling to fall sleep just leads to frustration. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, like reading or listening to music until you are tired enough to sleep.

13. Don’t watch the clock - staring at a clock in your bedroom, either when you are trying to fall asleep or when you wake in the middle of the night, can actually increase stress, making it harder to fall asleep. Turn your clock’s face away from you.

And if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep in about 20 minutes, get up and engage in a quiet, restful activity such as reading or listening to music. And keep the lights dim; bright light can stimulate your internal clock. When your eyelids are drooping and you are ready to sleep, return to bed.

14. Follow Through - some of these tips will be easier to include in your daily and nightly routine than others. However, if you stick with them, your chances of achieving restful sleep will improve.

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