Counsellors often hear recurring themes and difficulty with sleep is a common one. Lack of sleep can seriously impact productivity, efficiency, relationships, and decision-making.
While the perspective in this article is rooted in Western practices, it’s important to acknowledge that traditional Chinese medicine also offers valuable insights and has benefited countless people worldwide. If that sounds more like you, it’s worth consulting a professional in the field.
For those who generally enjoy restful sleep, the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies. An occasional night or two of bad sleep is normal. So individuals who typically sleep well should exercise caution with making any changes - stick with what’s already working effectively.
Sleep is a skill, and just like any other skill, it is something that can be improved. Small behaviour and lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in sleep quality. However, anyone struggling with insomnia should seek help from a specialist if none of these tips seem to help.
So what are some ways to improve sleep? Let’s have a look at some tips.
Alcohol and Caffeine
This might not be news to anyone, but for individuals who are struggling with sleep, sometimes it helps to start with the basics. Some people may assume that having a nightcap may help with sleep, and alcohol does in fact help us fall asleep. However, the problem is that when the effects of the alcohol wear off, it can cause wake-ups. So, for a good night’s sleep it’s best to avoid alcohol before bedtime.
Caffeine can also be a culprit in poor sleep. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, but caffeine has a half life of six hours, meaning six hours after it’s consumed, half of it remains in the body. So you may want to think twice before having that last coffee of the day.
Even if someone manages to fall asleep after consuming caffeine, the quality of their sleep may be disturbed. So for a quality night of sleep, it’s important to be mindful of what is consumed leading up to bedtime.
Light and Circadian Rhythm
When it comes to sleep, another major thing to consider is light. Circadian rhythm can be thought of as the body's built-in 24-hour clock, guiding various bodily functions like hunger and hormone regulation based on light exposure.
The good news is your circadian rhythm can reset itself. So if you find yourself staying up late one night, there’s no need to overcompensate by going to bed earlier the next night or squeezing in a nap. In fact, experts recommend sticking to your usual routine and allowing your circadian rhythm to naturally adjust.
Since circadian rhythms are impacted by light exposure, here’s a handy tip; as evening approaches, consider reducing exposure to blue light and introducing more warm, orange/red-hued light into the home. An excellent example of this cozy, orange/red light is candlelight. Some people prefer the glow of candles in the evening rather than harsh, overhead lights.
For midnight trips to the bathroom, opting for a gentle night light instead of flipping on the bright overhead fixture prevents sending signals to the body that it’s time to wake up. Making these simple adjustments to lighting choices can help better align the body’s circadian rhythm with sleep goals, helping promote a more restful night's sleep.
Darkness is Key
Ensuring a dark sleeping space is essential for a good night’s rest. If the room can’t be completely blacked out, a sleep mask can be a great option. Europe and South America seem to have this figured out. Many of the homes in these regions have black-out blinds or heavy drapes to keep the light out. When properly chosen and installed, shades and blinds can substantially reduce unwanted light infiltration, positively contributing to sleep quality.
Embrace the Morning Sun
As crucial as it is to maintain a dark environment during the night, it’s equally important to greet the morning light upon waking. Experts recommend going outside shortly after rising; at the very least by mid-morning. However, in Canada, especially during the cold, dark winter, this can pose a challenge. A good solution for this is to use a “happy light.” These specialised lights aren’t just for combating the winter blues, they can also be an excellent tool to help support a well-regulated circadian rhythm. By harnessing the energy of natural light or light from a “happy light” during the morning, it’s possible to create an environment that helps promote healthy sleep.
Once cozied up in bed, it’s best to avoid any kind of blue light such as from phones or computers. For those dealing with significant insomnia, consider making the bedroom a dedicated place for two things only: sleeping and sex. This practice helps condition the body to associate the bedroom exclusively with these two activities. So, skip late-night TV, put away the books and refrain from using devices in the bedroom. Doing this creates a quiet and distraction-free environment that can significantly enhance sleep quality over time.
Keep it Cool
One last essential aspect of sleep hygiene is the temperature of the sleeping space. The ideal sleeping environment is relatively cool, typically ranging between 15 and 19 degrees celsius. If 15 degrees feels too cold, gradually work towards this by lowering the room temperature by one degree each night until you find your sweet spot.
Solutions such as mattress coolers or cooling pillows can help achieve the ideal sleep temperature. These items can be game changers for anyone struggling with temperature regulation during the night. By maintaining a cool sleep environment the stage is set for a comfortable and restful night’s sleep.
What have we learned about sleep hygiene?
Remember sleep is a skill and with a few behavioural and lifestyle tweaks it can be improved. If all else fails, don’t hesitate to call in the experts. Sweet dreams!