[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
So you’ve made it through the New Year and have even decided to make sleep a priority in 2018. Congratulations! Making that decision is sometimes the biggest hurdle to getting back on track with healthy sleep habits. What's more, if you want to improve your health by exercising or eating better, your chances of success improve greatly if you add healthy sleep to the mix.
But where to begin? Good sleep after weeks, months, even years of poor sleep, doesn’t happen just like that. It requires starting with basics. Once you master the basics, you’ll be in a good position to make meaningful changes that begin with healthy sleep.
The first basic to master? Improving your sleep space.
The Importance of Sleep Hygiene
You’ve likely heard this term but may not truly know what it refers to. Sleep hygiene describes the habits, decisions, and environmental conditions you have control over and which directly impact your sleep health. Here are some quick examples:
- Sleep habits: Poor sleep habits include taking your cell phone to bed with you. Good sleep habits include putting away all backlit handheld electronics about an hour before bedtime.
- Sleep decisions: Drinking an evening “nightcap” (alcoholic beverage) at bedtime is an example of a bad sleep decision. Drinking a cup of warm milk at bedtime is an example of a good sleep decision.
- Environmental conditions for sleep: Sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress can lead to poor sleep, whereas you can enjoy much better sleep by getting a new mattress.
Sleep hygiene constitutes a lot of lifestyle decision making in terms of behaviors and choices. It also relies a great deal on creating a space that’s conducive to sleep, day or night.
Good sleep hygiene means making the most of your "nest"
When you think about the space you sleep in, consider the many ways that your senses encounter that environment. Improving your sleep space doesn’t require a lot of expensive changes. Once you have mastered all of these aspects of a high-quality sleep space, you can then try out your new environment to see if, by simply fixing some of these issues, you achieve better sleep. Think of it as nesting.
How's your nest holding up in 2018? Ask yourself these questions. Following, you’ll find tips for improving your sleeping quarters.
Is your bedroom quiet or noisy?
Identify how quiet your room needs to be, and if it’s too noisy, look for ways to make it quiet again. Ear plugs, fans, and white noise machines can drown out noise you can’t control. Calming music, fans, and white noise machines with sound effects (like waves or rain) can introduce relaxing sounds for those who can’t stand too much quiet.
By the way, don't use a TV to help you sleep; it will actually lead to worse sleep, not better.
Is it too dark or too light?
Good sleep truly requires as dark a room as you can stand. A non-LED nightlight can help in ultra-dark spaces; otherwise, find ways to block light however you can. Clocks that glow at night, electronics with bright power lights, and ambient light from outside the window can all disturb sleep. Swap out bright LED bulbs for soft white lightbulbs. Use lamps on side tables rather than ceiling lights. Room darkening shades are a godsend for people who work nights and sleep days. If all else fails, wear a sleep mask over the eyes.
Is the room overwarm or chilly?
It can be difficult to control the thermostat if you live in an apartment, or if you don’t have good heating and air conditioning. However, studies show that the best sleep happens between 60 and 68 degrees (Fahrenheit). Believe it or not, you want your body temperature to drop gradually; your circadian rhythms require it. Your best bet? Layer sheets, thin blankets, and thicker comforters so they can be easily removed or replaced during the night.
Do you notice odors in your bedroom?
Odors occur for any number of reasons. It might just be that you cooked fish for dinner… but if the odors are related to dirty laundry, leftover food items or dishes, overfull ashtrays, animal toys, or other unpleasant smells, you need to deep clean your room. Remove all the offending items and give the carpets or floors a good cleaning. The bacteria and microorganisms in dirty bedrooms can eventually reduce room air quality and increase your risk for illness.
Are there items in the room that might distract you from sleep?
If you’ve fallen into the habit of watching TV, taking work to bed, or playing video games in your bedroom, find a way to shut away these items before bed or remove them entirely from the bedroom. Even alarm clocks, pets, children, and cell phones are potential distractions.
Do you have a sleeping partner who does things to disturb your sleep?
If your partner snores or moves around a lot, it might be a good time to ask them to look into their sleep issues. Barring that, ear plugs and white noise can take care of some of those issues. If your bedtimes and wake-up times are vastly different, you might consider sleeping separately. Some partners find they actually sleep better in separate beds, and there’s no shame in that.
Do you share a bedroom, even a bed, with pets?
Many people sleep better with their pets nearby. If you can keep them in a bed separate from your bed, this can prevent sleep disruption from errant paws and tails. However, if you can sleep without them in your bedroom, this might be better for you. Their fur and hair can harbor dirt and dust as well as microorganisms which air quality. If you have allergies or asthma, this may be reason enough to have them sleep outside your bedroom entirely.
How much fresh air do you enjoy in your sleeping space?
If it’s the winter and your house is shut up against the cold (certainly this winter has shut in a lot of folks in Alabama!), you might want to keep your bedroom door open to allow for better air circulation. If it’s summer and the weather is too hot for fresh air through an open window, consider using your air conditioning at night, then briefly open your windows in the early morning to let in some fresh air. Anytime you can leave your windows open for a few minutes can greatly improve the quality of air in your sleeping space.
How dusty is your bedroom?
Dust isn’t usually just made up of tiny particles of dirt. Inside dust particles, parasites breed by living off of flakes of dead skin in your bedding. If your linens and window treatments aren’t dusted, vacuumed or washed regularly, these dust mites can colonize there, leading to disruptive coughing fits, allergies, and asthma attacks.
Are your sheets clean and in good shape or do they need to be washed, repaired or replaced?
Scratchy, dirty, wrinkly, stretched out sheets are no fun to sleep on, nor are sheets that don’t fit your bed properly or worn out blankets or comforters. If your sheets and covers are no longer a pleasure to sleep on, it’s time for an upgrade. Luckily, January is White Sale month, which means you can usually find some good deals on new bed linens, if you need them.
Is your pillow and mattress comfortable or uncomfortable?
Mattresses and pillows don’t last forever. If you think your bed or pillow might be to blame for pain in the neck, back, or hips, it’s probably time to go shopping. Look for holiday sales and consider special features like pillow tops, cooling gels, and other sleep-friendly options. Remember, a too-soft bed leads to posture problems and back pain, and a too-hard bed causes pain in the shoulders and hips. If you and your bed partner are too crowded, try for a larger mattress, if you can.
Do you dread going to bed because of your décor?
If your bedroom feels more like a jail cell or dank cave than a sanctuary, it's time for a facelift. Paint the walls in cool colors, update your linens, or reconfigure your furniture for a fresh new look that makes you want to go there, night after night. Wood or tile floors are easier to keep clean than carpet. Other simple ways to brighten your bedroom include using pure essential lavender oil for aromatherapy, adding vases of fresh greens or flowers, or arranging potted plants which lend relaxation while helping to filter the room air.
Start with your "nest" and work your way out
If, after improving your sleeping quarters, you still struggle with sleep, you might look at other lifestyle influences, such as diet, exercise, stress, medications, and bedtime rituals (or the lack thereof) for cues to why your sleep isn't the best it could be. But before you do that, turn your bedroom into a sleep-friendly space. You might be surprised by how many people have improved their overall sleep health and habits by investing a little time and thought into their sleep spaces. You can eliminate broken sleep, tossing and turning, racing thoughts, even "painsomnia " (insomnia caused by pain) by making your "nest" a place for more and better sleep.