Sleep is essential for physical performance, cognitive functioning, and mental health. A proper night’s rest makes us feel rejuvenated, energized, and motivated to start the day. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on our bodies, minds, and overall outlook on life. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. The National Sleep Foundation notes that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 require seven to nine hours of sleep per night — but a recent poll by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that more than one-third of adults in the U.S. get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.
There are a myriad of reasons why adults don’t get enough shuteye. Some are natural night owls prone to staying up late, even on weeknights. Others consume too much sugar, or drink caffeine and/or alcohol before bedtime. Sleep disorders may play a role, as well; millions of Americans struggle with insomnia alone, and other conditions like sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and parasomnia can also significantly disrupt sleep. Many people turn to prescription medications or cognitive behavioral therapy to alleviate their sleeplessness. These methods have proven results — but studies have also shown that people can improve poor sleep on their own by adjusting their daily routines and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule.
We’ll discuss what it means to have proper ‘sleep hygiene’ and share a few science-driven hacks that will help you sleep better and wake up feeling rested. First, let’s discuss how sleep works from a scientific perspective — and why it’s crucial to get enough sleep each night.
How We Sleep
Sleep in humans is directly tied to our circadian clock, an internal timekeeper that is designed to follow a 24-hour cycle known as circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is regulated in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) region of the hypothalamus gland found in our brains. The SCN uses receptors to track natural daylight and temperature, and produces a sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin when the receptors indicate nighttime has arrived.
As a result, we feel alert and refreshed during the daytime — when it is lighter and relatively warmer — and start to feel sleepy after dusk when it is cooler and darker. Humans naturally feel the sleepiest between 12am and 6am. The immune system also plays a role by releasing sleep-inducing chemicals called cytokines. This is why you tend to feel fatigued when you are sick.
In healthy adults with a functioning circadian rhythm, sleep is broken up into two phases: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM).
The first NREM stage consists of two light sleep stages that kick in right when you doze off. Your muscles relax, your brain activity slows down, and you heart rate slowly drops — but because it is light sleep, you will be easily awakened by noises, movement, and other disruptions.
The second NREM stage consists of two deep sleep stages, also known as slow-wave sleep. Your body will stop moving as your blood pressure and heart rate hit their lowest levels.
Together, the two NREM stages last roughly 30 minutes. After half an hour, the REM phase will begin. This phase is characterized by deep sleep and dreaming, as well as shallow breathing and increases to your heart rate and blood pressure. Your eyes will also dart back and forth below your closed eyelids, hence the name.
The average adult will cycle through the NREM and REM phases every 90 to 120 minutes, meaning they experience four to six cycles during eight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, the circadian rhythm is fragile and easily disrupted by bad habits, unhealthy food, physical discomfort, and other mitigating factors. And because the circadian rhythm is tied to your overall health, not getting enough sleep can cause negative side effects, including:
Poor concentration and memory recall
Low energy and motivation
Additionally, lack of sleep can put you at greater risk of being involved in a car crash or a workplace accident. It can also affect your employment status. According to a study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, roughly $40 billion in revenue is lost in the U.S. every year due to drowsiness-related accidents and poor work performance.
What Is Sleep Hygiene?
Originally, ‘sleep hygiene’ referred to the literal cleanliness of one’s sleep environment in regard to bed bugs, dirt, and other contaminants. Today the term applies to practices and habits — both good and bad — that impact your ability (or inability) to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.
Here are some factors that affect sleep hygiene:
Mattresses and bedding materials
Light and noise levels
Prescription medications (and their side effects)
For those who have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, improvements to sleep hygiene practices and habits can make a significant difference. On the other hand, poor sleep hygiene choices can transform a healthy adult into a sleep-deprived zombie.
Some bad sleep practices may be unavoidable. For instance, recent studies have noted widespread sleep problems among people who work night/graveyard shifts. A primary reason why shift workers struggle to sleep is because lack of sunlight and exposure to darkness can meddle with circadian rhythm. As a result, many shift workers return home after a full night’s work feeling restless and alert when they are getting ready for bed. These employees also tend to experience drowsiness and lack of concentration while they are at work. In the auto manufacturing industry alone, the incidence rate for workplace accidents increases by 30% to 50% during night shifts. Poor sleep conditions among these employees are so common that they have received a medical classification: shift-work sleep disorder. Shift workers are also prone to heart problems, digestive issues, and infertility, and drowsy driving — another commonly reported trend among shift employees — is a major public health problem, as well.
Historically, sleep scientists and researchers have experimented with ‘workaround’ strategies to a good night’s sleep. The U.S. military has led the charge on many of these studies. In the 1940s, stimulants like modafinil — as well as amphetamines — were distributed to pilots and other personnel who worked at night. More recently Special Forces units have provided sleep-inducing z-drugs to soldiers to ensure they are well-rested before missions. Pilots today are given helmets fitted with lights to mimic sunlight and keep them awake. The U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has also developed the Somneo mask, a heated device that fits snugly over the face to block out light and regulate body temperature.
Sleep restriction is another experimental strategy that has gained traction in recent years — and also generated a fair amount of controversy. Studies have shown that some humans are able to voluntarily reduce their sleep time from eight hours to as few as six per night without altering circadian rhythm. However, sleep restriction has yielded mixed results, and supervision is crucial to ensure subjects don’t experience any adverse effects. Another technique known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is designed to stimulate the temples with a slight electric charge. The FDA has approved tDCS for treatment of some brain disorders, and researchers hope it will someday be used to induce slow-wave sleep in people with insomnia and other sleep issues. Similar tests have been run using a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which has been approved to treat depression; scientists believe this form of stimulation can enhance sleep quality while also shortening sleep times.
However, none of these experimental methods should be considered a ‘cure’ for a healthy night’s sleep. While they may relieve symptoms of tiredness and fatigue, they cannot replace the importance of healthy, restful sleep. In lieu of a scientific miracle that allows us to sleep less without experiencing any negative effects, improving sleep hygiene habits and practices is the best course of action for most of us.
Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene
Below you will find a list of expert strategies for falling asleep, staying asleep throughout the night, and waking up refreshed each morning.
Crafting a Daily Sleep Schedule
A consistent sleep schedule can greatly improve sleep onset and sleep maintenance. As a rule, do your best to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time each morning. Set an alarm if necessary, and try to follow the same schedule on the weekends or when you’re on vacation. Sleeping in on your days off may be tempting at times, but resetting your sleep cycle will only make it harder to wake up on Monday morning.
Wake up with the sun. Natural sunlight regulates your circadian rhythm by resetting the 24-hour biological clock. Sleep experts recommend exposure of up to an hour of morning sunlight for people who have difficulty falling asleep. This is also effective treatment for jet lag. If natural sunlight is unavailable (due to your geographical location or the time of year), then bright bedroom lights can also do the trick.
Don’t nap too close to bedtime. Naps can greatly improve nightly rest for people with insomnia and other sleep problems. However, napping less than three hours before bed can interfere with your sleep-wake schedule. You should also avoid napping for too long during the day. Ideally, you should take your nap in the mid-afternoon, and it should last 25 minutes or less.
Many prescription and over-the-counter medications cause insomnia, increased alertness, headaches, nausea, and other side effects that interfere with sleep. Other drugs cause excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which can also affect your sleep-wake cycle. Be mindful of the effects of medications you’re currently taking, and be sure to consult a physician if these effects are impacting your sleep to an unhealthy degree.
If you work a night or graveyard shift, then there’s a good chance you’ll experience sleep difficulties. As a rule, allow more time for sleep when it’s time to go to bed; shift work has been linked longer sleep latency (or time to fall asleep) — so as a rule, try to allow more time for sleep when you go to bed. Make sure your bedroom is darkened and temperature-controlled, and that other people in the house know not to disrupt you. When you’re at work, consume caffeine during the first half of your shift and then try to curtail your caffeine intake during the latter half.
Pre-bedtime Do's and Don'ts
Find the right balance of pre-bedtime eating. Going to bed hungry can disrupt your sleep in the night, but heavy meals before bedtime can also cause discomfort. Everyone metabolizes food differently, so the ‘right amount’ of eating and snacking before bed will vary from person to person.
Avoid drinking fluids in large quantities for at least two hours before bedtime. A full bladder — as most of us know — can disrupt sleep during the night.
Avoid stimulants before bedtime. Caffeine is especially detrimental to sleep; it can stay in your system for up to 14 hours, and may reduce total sleep time and cause nighttime waking. Nicotine and foods with high sugar content should also be avoided. Additionally, you should refrain from drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Although alcohol is a depressant that will initially sedate you, alcohol forces your brain to remain in light sleep, making it harder for you to advance to the deep sleep and REM phases. Arousals due to alcohol can cause sweating, headaches and intense dreaming.
Exercising for at least 20 to 30 minutes per day can help you fall asleep and stay asleep through the night, but avoid exercising for at least three hours before bedtime. Physical exertion can elevate your heart rate, making you feel more alert when you should be winding down for the night. Instead of exercising, try adopting a relaxing pre-bedtime routine. This may include a warm bath, light stretching, listening to soothing music, reading or other relaxing activities.
Beware of blue light exposure before bed. Many electronic devices — including televisions, computers, tablets, ebook readers, and smartphones — emit a blue light that reduces melatonin production, preventing you from getting sleepy at bedtime. Avoid activities involving electronic devices for at least one hour before bed.
Optimizing Your Bedroom Conditions
In addition to electronic devices, LED and fluorescent lights also emit blue light, as well as artificial light, which also interferes with melatonin production. Adjustable lights in your bedroom with a dim setting can cut down on your exposure to blue and artificial light.
Temperature is crucial for regulating your sleep-wake schedule, so be sure to set the temperature in your bedroom at a comfortable level for you and your sleep partner.
Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex. Other activities like watching television, using a laptop, eating, or reading should be off-limits. Restricting your bed for these two purposes will help you establish it as a relaxing environment.
Sleeping with your pet can be tempting, but cats and dogs are notorious sleep-stealers. Between their constant fidgeting and tendency to cause allergies, pets can greatly reduce your overall sleep quality. A good rule-of-thumb: keep your pets out of the bed whenever you are sleeping. For some animals (especially cats), it can be hard to distinguish these boundaries unless they are imposed at all times — so the easiest course of action may be to ban animals from the bed altogether.
Practice good sleep manners if you share a bed with someone else. Avoid keeping bright lights on when your partner is trying to doze off, as well as getting up frequently in the night. If your nighttime arrangement isn’t working, try shifting positions or replacing your mattress with a model that causes less motion transfer.
Mattress and Bedding Considerations
If you are experiencing nightly discomfort and sleep disruption, then it may be time to replace your mattress — especially if your sleep partner has the same complaints. Like other products, mattresses are susceptible to lumpiness, indentations, and other wear-and-tear after prolonged use. Most mattresses need to be replaced after seven years, regardless of what the warranty says.
When choosing a mattress, it’s important to take your sleep position into account. People who sleep on their back or side tend to feel the most comfortable on mattresses made of soft, figure-conforming materials like latex and memory foam. These mattresses are designed to align your spine and conform to your figure, creating a cradle-like impression that targets pain and pressure points. Although innersprings are the most widely sold mattress models in the country, they have a firm surface and do not conform to your figure at all; as a result, these models tend to be less suitable for back- and side-sleepers.
Your mattress may also be to blame if you find yourself ‘sleeping hot’ at night. Materials like memory foam and polyfoam are not very breathable, and can absorb your body heat in the night. Latex and innerspring mattresses, on the other hand, retain less heat and allow you to sleep cooler.
Motion transfer occurs when someone shifts their sleep position or gets up from bed, causing a disturbance in other areas of the mattress. This is a common complaint among innerspring mattress users, since innersprings are bouncier and more responsive to movement. Alternatively, latex and memory foam beds are designed to reduce motion transfer. These may be your best option if you and/or your partner are easily awoken in the night by movements in bed.
Like sleepwear, your sheet and blanket selection should depend on the climate and personal comfort preferences. Breathable cotton or linen sheets topped with a thin blanket or comforter are usually the best choices for warmer environments. Cotton bedsheets also trap heat, making them suitable for when the temperatures are low. Comforters with materials like wool or goose down usually offer the most warmth, but beware — these materials can trigger allergies and disrupt sleep.
Everybody has different preferences when it comes to what they wear — or don’t wear — in bed. The trick is to find sleepwear that feels comfortable to you. For many, the biggest factor is temperature, so finding a nighttime ensemble that balances heat and cold is important. Pajamas range from long-sleeve shirts and pants to tanktops and shorts. Some prefer to sleep in robes, from flowing kimonos to shorter terry cloth wraps. Nightgowns are also available in different lengths, as well as long- or short-sleeve or sleeveless styles. And while most prefer not to sleep in the nude, this may be the best option for those who tend to ‘sleep hot’. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different sleepwear arrangements in order to find the ensemble that feels best.
Fabric is another key consideration. While style and fit are important, fabrics that don’t breathe well or irritate the skin can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Fabrication also comes down to personal preference; most sleepwear items sold today are made of natural, breathable fabrics like cotton, wool, and silk, as well as soft, lightweight synthetics like polyester and rayon. In addition to sleep quality, fabric may also impact the overall cost of your sleepwear. This includes the initial price-point, as well as any special care requirements, such as pure silk or wool garments that should be dry cleaned instead of washed in a machine.
In warmer sleeping conditions, cotton pajamas with a high thread count are a lightweight, breathable option. Very few people are allergic to natural cotton, and these garments can be machine-washed and tumble-dried without ruining the fabric.
On cooler nights, flannel or fleece are good choices. Flannel is usually derived from wool and/or cotton that has been blended with synthetic fibers for added durability and flame retardation. Fleece is also usually derived from wool or a synthetic substitute; microfleece, which features a lower pile than traditional fleece, is also popular. The biggest drawback to flannel and fleece is itchiness, either due to the rougher texture of the fabric or residue from lanolin, a substance found in natural wool that makes the material water-repellent. You can often wash flannel and fleece garments in a machine, but most should be hung or laid flat to dry (rather than tossed into an electric dryer) in order to avoid shrinkage.
Silk and satin are two fairly luxurious sleepwear alternatives. Silk is a natural, durable fiber that has been used for centuries as an insulator. Satin, which is often derived from silk, is cooler to the touch, making it suitable for warmer climates. Both of these fabrics tend to be more expensive and require more specialized care than other materials, but they have proven to be a popular sleepwear choice nonetheless.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, go to another room and do something restful until you feel tired. Don’t try to read in bed, either. If you want to read, go to another room of the house.
‘Clock watching’ can also hinder sleep onset. If you need a clock in your room as an alarm, make sure the front of it is not facing you in bed. You can simply turn it around, or store it in a dresser drawer.
Do your best to avoid getting upset or stressed in bed. If you are dealing with a problem or personal crisis, make time to deal with the issue the following day, and then try to clear your mind of negative thoughts and associations.
If you need to get up during the night, do not expose yourself to bright light. Intense light can reset your internal clock and make it harder to get back to sleep.
Additional Tuck Resources
For more information on strategies and techniques for improving sleep hygiene, check out these other pages on Tuck.com.