Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for physical and mental health – but most Aussies just aren’t getting enough rest.
The Sleep Health Foundation reports that 60% of Australians have at least one chronic sleep symptom, including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Sleep deprivation has almost become the norm, with real consequences for our health and quality of life.
As the levels of physical and mental stress increase, so does the amount of sleep we need. For most of us, though, sleep is the first thing we compromise on. With late nights followed by poor-quality sleep and early starts, it’s no wonder we end up so low on energy!
If we’re stressed, hurried and overworked, it can be tough just to fall asleep at night. Fortunately, by following some simple sleep hygiene tips, you can set yourself up for a better night’s rest.
In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into “sleep hygiene” – what it is, why it matters and how to optimise your daily routine to improve your sleep. If you’re looking to get more restful slumber, read on!
What is Sleep Hygiene?
‘Sleep hygiene’ might seem like an odd term, but it’s shorthand for ‘healthy sleep habits’. Basically, sleep hygiene is the collection of habits and practices that help you get more quality sleep.
Of course, sleep hygiene includes strategies to help you relax and drift off. However, it’s also about setting up your day-to-day schedule to maximise the quality and quantity of sleep you get.
A good sleep hygiene routine can also help promote better quality sleep, reducing the health risks that sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep cause. While genetics and medical conditions can be a factor in how well we sleep, our daily habits play an essential role, too – and that’s where we have the most control!
If you’re ready to get more restful sleep, keep reading – these are the tips you need!
The Ultimate Sleep Hygiene Checklist
Are you struggling to get a good night’s rest? Try following these tips for seven days in a row and watch how your sleep patterns improve.
During The Day
Sleep hygiene doesn’t start at bedtime! Follow these tips during the day to set yourself up for a quality snooze:
1. Wake up at a regular time
Have a regular wake-up time and bedtime. This means rising within a 2-hour window, even on weekends. Sticking to a sleep schedule helps synchronise your internal body clock or circadian rhythm.
Getting to bed around the same time each night helps ‘train’ your body to fall asleep at a consistent hour. Sticking to a sleep schedule might mean getting less sleep some nights, but in the long run, the benefits are worth it.
2. Get some morning sunlight
Exposing yourself to natural light in the morning can help set your body clock and sleep-wake cycle. In fact, bright light in the morning can be an effective treatment for sleep-onset insomnia.
If possible, try to spend some time outside in natural light as part of your morning routine – 10 minutes is a good number to aim for. If sunlight isn’t an option – like if you’re working night shifts – a sunlight lamp or bright light exposure can still help regulate your circadian rhythm.
3. Exercise in the AM or early PM
Exercise is fantastic for sleep – both duration and quality. Tiring your body with a good workout prompts your body to get better rest that night, including more deep sleep. However, exercising too close to bedtime can be overly stimulating, so evening exercise can delay sleep.
For best results, schedule your workouts earlier in the day. I love training first thing in the morning for a fantastic energy boost! However, midday or early afternoon is good, too – just avoid intense exercise for about 5 hours before bedtime.
4. Avoid caffeine for 90 minutes after waking
Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in our brain and increases cortisol levels, blocking feelings of tiredness. However, consuming caffeine within 90 minutes of waking up disrupts the hormones that regulate our sleep-wake cycle, which can lead to sleep difficulties at night.
It’s safer to consume caffeine once our hormone balance has transitioned to ‘daytime mode’. This means the ideal time for coffee or caffeinated tea is between 1.5 hours after waking up and lunchtime (another reason why exercise first thing, on an empty stomach, can be a good idea).
5. Avoid the bedroom during the day
Try not to use your bedroom for anything other than sleep, sickness and sex. This helps associate the bedroom with sleep and relaxation – conditioning your brain to fall asleep more easily.
Whenever possible, use a different room for work, study or leisure. Otherwise, your brain can associate that space with work, stress or otherwise stimulating activities (like watching an exciting movie).
6. Create a comfortable space for sleep
Your sleep environment is important, so ensure your bedroom is set up for quality sleep. First, you’ll want to be comfortable – so get the best quality linen, mattress and pillow possible. If travelling, consider taking your own linen and pillow for more refreshing sleep.
Next, is your bedroom cool, dark and quiet? If any of these three conditions aren’t met, see if there’s something you can change. Heat exposure decreases sleep quality – so can you invest in air conditioning or an extra fan? A noise machine or sound-dampening curtains can help to create a quieter sleeping space.
In the Afternoon
As the day winds down, start your sleep hygiene routine with these simple steps:
1. Avoid caffeine after 12pm
We all know that caffeine is a stimulant, but did you know it can impair sleep for 6 to 14 hours after consuming it due to its long half-life? Yep, coffee (and caffeinated tea) can still stop us from falling asleep or impact sleep quality long after the buzz wears off. For better sleep, avoid caffeinated drinks after 12pm.
However, if you’re having seriously disrupted sleep, consider taking a break from caffeine. Caffeine consumption during the day hinders melatonin production and worsens sleep that night, and if you have insomnia, it’s worth finding out if your coffee fix is the culprit.
2. Skip the afternoon nap
Napping can feel helpful when we hit a 3pm slump, but unfortunately, it can also impact night-time sleep. If you can’t avoid a catnap, keep it short and sweet – 15-30 minutes is ideal. Midday to early afternoon is the best time for naps since anything later can make getting a full night’s rest hard.
Avoid napping within 3 hours of bedtime, too – once your body starts sleeping at night, levels of sleep hormone drop. If we need to get up after napping on the couch, get ready for bed, and then hit the sack, it can be a real challenge to drift off again.
3. Avoid alcohol for 4 hours before bed
Alcohol is the enemy of good quality sleep! A few drinks can help us drift off since alcohol reduces sleep latency – the time it takes to fall asleep. However, this sedative effect is a dangerous illusion.
Later in our sleep cycle, alcohol becomes disruptive, leading to reduced deep sleep, unbalanced REM sleep, and a 25% higher chance of sleep apnoea. Using alcohol as a sleep aid is a recipe for feeling tired and groggy the next morning.
Unfortunately, even one or two drinks decreases sleep quality by 9.3% – 24%, and the impact multiplies with heavier alcohol consumption. For better quality sleep, avoid alcohol for at least 4 hours before bed.
Since I started tracking sleep with my Apple Watch, I was shocked to discover how alcohol impacted my sleeping heart rate and sleep quality. Even a small glass will increase my average heart rate by close to 10 BPM, so it has been a big motivator to drink less.
4. Offload your worries
Stressful events or emotions cause the body to release cortisol (the stress hormone) and trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response. Stress hormones drain our energy and make it paradoxically harder to fall asleep, thanks to increased blood pressure and heart rate.
To reduce your stress response, spend 10-15 getting worries out of your brain and onto paper. This can include journaling, setting up a to-do list for the next day, or anything else that helps clear your mind. Try to get this step out of the way well before bed, leaving you enough time to destress afterwards.
You’ll also want to avoid making big decisions close to bedtime – leaving them until the morning will help you get a better night’s rest. Schedule a time tomorrow to deal with any problems so you can wind down.
As evening turns into night, following a few key sleep hygiene tips can help you get better quality rest:
1. Avoid meals after 7pm
Eating a late dinner can interfere with sleep. First, it becomes harder to digest our food properly if we eat a lot before bed, making it harder to get good quality rest. Additionally, eating close to bedtime increases our core temperature, making it harder to drift off.
Aim to finish meals by 7pm or earlier to give your body time to digest before bed for better quality sleep. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a late-night snack – just make sure it’s light and easy on your stomach, like a piece of fruit or a handful of almonds. Ideally, leave 2 to 4 hours between eating and sleeping.
2. Choose relaxing activities
Your sleep hygiene routine should start about two hours before bed. Just as we do with small children, creating a bedtime ritual keeps things predictable, telling our brain it’s time to switch off for the night.
During this quiet time, limit exposure to loud music, big-screen TVs, bright lights, computers and work-related stress. Avoid evening exercise if you’re having trouble falling asleep, too. Stick to calming activities – like reading a book, taking a bath, listening to soft music or meditating. The aim is to reduce stressors and stimulators, allowing the mind time to wind down before bed.
Anxiety is the enemy of sleep, so you’ll want to stay as calm as possible. If your mind starts dwelling on stressful thoughts, try redirecting yourself to avoid activating your ‘wakefulness’ hormones. If you’ve taken the time to ‘offload’ worries and sort out tomorrow’s to-do list, remind yourself you’ve got it covered instead of ruminating.
Of course, you should avoid screens during this time – more on that below!
3. Detox from screens for 1-2 hours before bed
Screen time isn’t just a concern when it comes to our kids! To sleep better, avoid using computers, smartphones or tablets for two hours before bed. The blue light from electronic devices can increase arousal levels and suppress production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
If you feel it’s impossible to ditch the screens for one to two hours, one hour of phone-free time is a good start. If you must watch a movie, aim for something that isn’t too stimulating or fast-paced. You might also find that blue-light-blocking glasses help reduce the effects and use ‘night mode’ on your devices.
However, if you’re struggling with insomnia, I’d highly recommend trying a screen-free activity to help you wind down at night. That could be yoga, meditation or swapping TV time for a book or audiobook. On the nights when I skip TV and just read, it’s surprising how much earlier I start nodding off!
4. Take a hot shower or bath
Showering can help our bodies transition from an awake to a sleepy state. The warm water helps relax muscles, reduces tension and increases core temperature – and as our body cools down afterwards, it’s the perfect time to drift off.
Our sleep-wake cycles are linked to core body temperature, which naturally fluctuates on a 24-hour cycle. At night, our temperature falls – and research shows that heat loss is the biggest factor in making us feel sleepy. If you’re having trouble winding down, a hot shower increases blood flow, ready for rapid heat loss when cooling off, which triggers the rapid onset of sleep.
If possible, take a hot shower an hour before bed for the best results. Using a lavender bath wash or moisturiser afterwards can add a bit of aromatherapy to your bedtime ritual. Over time, a consistent bath or shower habit – with familiar smells and sensations each time – helps cue your body to the fact that it’s bedtime, and you’ll find yourself ready to snooze.
5. Eat a banana before bed
If you start to get peckish at night, bananas are an ideal bedtime snack! First, a medium banana provides about 8% of our daily magnesium intake. Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant that helps regulate neurotransmitters for sleep.
Munching on a banana also provides the body with tryptophan, an amino acid that increases levels of serotonin and melatonin (the sleep hormone). Finally, the carbohydrate boost from a piece of fruit also helps the body create melatonin and helps us fall asleep more easily.
Feeling hungry can also lead to lying awake, but you don’t want to eat right before bed. For best results, tuck into your banana about an hour before you hit the hay, giving your body time to produce those crucial sleep hormones.
Time to hit the sack? Here are the top bedtime tips to help you doze off safe and sound:
1. Keep your phone out of reach
It’s important to keep our phones out of the bedroom – or at least out of arm’s reach! The addictive nature of our notifications and the lure of endless scrolling makes it hard to resist.
Once we give in to workaholic habits for one last inbox check, the brain is stimulated all over again – and if we spot a stressful email, it can take hours to doze off.
Instead of relying on your phone for an alarm, I recommend getting a ceiling-projection alarm clock. They’re not very expensive, and it also avoids having a glowing clock face keeping you awake.
2. Try box breathing or meditation
If you’re usually lying awake stressing, try some calming breathing exercises or meditation instead. This can help ‘reset’ your brain and body to ease into rest mode.
My favourite technique is ‘box breathing’ for one or two minutes each night. To use this technique, lie on your back and imagine a box. Picture each side of the box – for the first horizontal line, breathe in for a count of four, then hold for a count of four on the vertical side. For the second horizontal line, breathe out for a count of four, then hold for a count of four again.
Meditation can also be effective in calming your brain and body for sleep. Guided meditation podcasts are a great way to get started while lying in bed.
3. Tire your brain (but keep it boring!)
If you struggle to sleep, make your brain tired with something that isn’t too stimulating. For example, try thinking of an animal for each letter of the alphabet (A is for Ant, B is for Bear, etc.) – or count sheep, if that fancies you!
When you’re really struggling to feel sleepy, doing something extra boring can help slow the mind. Try listening to the radio or a podcast in a language you don’t understand, or pick something extra boring to read – like a financial report or terms & conditions document. The trick is keeping it so dull your brain isn’t stimulated!
4. Try reverse psychology
If you find yourself lying in bed and anxious about sleep, try reverse psychology on yourself! Remind yourself that it’s perfectly okay to lie there and not fall asleep, and avoid worrying about how tired you’ll be tomorrow.
This avoids the spiralling ‘sleep anxiety’ that activates our stress hormones and keeps us awake. Instead of trying hard to fall asleep, focus on resting and relaxing, and let your body get there naturally.
5. Get up & try again later
If you are not asleep in 30 minutes, then get out of bed to do a quiet and calming activity. This avoids sleep anxiety that can make your brain associate bedtime with stress.
Instead, find a comfortable place to read or undertake another quiet activity. This is a great time to try a meditation podcast, listen to a calming audiobook, or read something that isn’t too stimulating. Return to bed once you start feeling drowsy.
Next Steps for Better Sleep
These are just some of the tips you can use for better sleep hygiene. With a bit of practice and patience, these habits will become second nature – and hopefully, you’ll be enjoying a generous night’s rest!
However, if you’re still facing sleep difficulties after covering the sleep hygiene basics, there’s still hope.
First, try these expert sleep hacks from sleep scientist Dr Carmel Harrington. If you feel like you’ve tried everything, there are some less typical suggestions on the list!
If you think your sleep difficulties might extend beyond habit change, don’t hesitate to talk to your GP, who can refer you to a sleep specialist.