Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe all the day-to-day things you can do which may make you sleep better or worse.
Below is a list of good and bad sleep habits. Improving sleep hygiene won't always resolve sleeping problems, but any sleep disorder can be improved to an extent and some sleep problems can be completely resolved.
What can I do to improve my sleep?
Sleep is a passive process and you cannot make yourself fall asleep. Neither is sleep like a light bulb, either off or on. Our body responds more positively when regular daily routines are maintained. Therefore, regular bedtimes and wake-up times are important; we are all likely to sleep better if we maintain a steady pattern of both sleeping and waking.
Introduce a regular bedtime routine
If you don’t already, you should think about introducing a bedtime routine: dimming the lights reminds your body clock what time it is; have a calming shower or bath; play soft relaxing music or listen to relaxation or meditation records; or reading quietly for a short while can all help.
Turn off gadgets
Try to spend 30 minutes of the evening winding down and avoid late-night distractions from all sorts of gadgets that have screens. These emit bright light and noise which can stimulate your brain and stop you falling asleep, or affect the quality of your sleep.
Moderate caffeine intake during the day is unlikely to disrupt your sleep, but this is a long-lasting stimulant and can remain in your system for several hours, causing disruption to your sleep later in the night. It is best to only consume decaffeinated drinks from mid-afternoon onwards. Nicotine is also a stimulant and can affect your sleep in the same way as caffeine.
Many of us believe a night-cap or a glass of wine will help us nod-off, but while it might mean you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, the effects won’t last. Alcohol may help you to feel relaxed and sleepy initially, but it causes your sleep to be fragmented.
It is not helpful to go to bed when you are hungry or when too full. Being hungry makes you desire food and helps to keep you alert. Eating a large meal close to bedtime can make you feel uncomfortable. There is a substance in the brain that makes us feel both hungry and wide awake, or satisfied and sleepy so it’s important to get the balance right.
Taking regular exercise is a good way to maintain general good health and a feeling of well-being, but exercising too close to bedtime (within three hours) can stimulate your body and mind too much.
Lastly, our bedroom should be a place where we feel comfortable and at ease (consider your bed as a haven of rest). It is important to establish a relaxed environment away from daytime activities.
Is sleep hygiene the same for everyone?
The basic concept of sleep hygiene - that your environment and habits can be optimised for better sleep - applies to just about everyone, but what ideal sleep hygiene looks like can vary based on the person.
For that reason, it’s worth testing out different adjustments to find out what helps your sleep the most. You don’t have to change everything at once; small steps can move you toward better sleep hygiene.
It’s also important to know that improving sleep hygiene alone isn't a panacea and won’t always resolve sleeping problems. People who have serious insomnia or sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) may benefit from better sleep hygiene, but other treatments are usually necessary as well.
If you have long-lasting or severe sleeping problems or daytime sleepiness, talk to your GP who can refer you to a specialist centre to investigate and decide the appropriate treatment.