Sleep Hygiene

Many people don’t think of sleep as a top priority on their health list. We tend to stay awake as much as possible to squeeze out more work, watch another Netflix TV show, or stay busy with other things. It sounds harmless enough, and that coffee or soda might seem to help you get through the day, but over time this unsustainable pattern can take a toll on our health. 

Regardless of the caffeine jolt, you’re not fully charging your battery if you’re not getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis. Running on low power due to sleep deficiency is tied to serious health issues, including heart disease — the number one killer for men — as well as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, risk of infections such as flu, frequent mental stress, anxiety, depression and more. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35% of adults in America aren’t getting the sleep they need every night. Even short-term sleep deficiency packs a punch! After several nights of poor or limited sleep — even just an hour or two per night — your ability to function can suffer as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.

Why is Sleep Important for Your Body?

A good night’s sleep is critical because it plays so many direct roles in your physical and mental health: 

  • Helps your brain form new pathways that enable you to learn and retain information
  • Repairs your heart and blood vessels
  • Maintains a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry or full
  • Supports healthy growth and development
  • Boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues
  • Plays a role in puberty and fertility
  • Defends your body against foreign or harmful substances
  • Helps you pay attention, make decisions and be creative

You also need adequate sleep to be productive at work or school. Being sleep deficient can slow your task completion and your reaction time, as well as cause you to make more mistakes. Unfortunately, you may not even be aware that your lack of sleep is affecting you. For example, drowsy drivers often feel perfectly capable of driving, yet studies show that sleep deficiency harms driving ability as much as, if not more than, being drunk. Driver sleepiness is a factor in about 100,000 car accidents each year. 

Sleep deficiency doesn’t just affect you on the road. Whether you’re a pilot, doctor, mechanic, assembly line worker — anything — good sleep is vital to your job performance, health and safety. 

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

There are telltale signs that you need more, or better quality of, sleep. Some things to watch for include: 

  • Falling asleep instantly at night: You might think this makes you a great sleeper! But if you’re out within five minutes or less of lying down, you could have severe sleep deprivation or even a sleep disorder.
  • Falling asleep easily during the day: You should feel reasonably alert in the daytime hours, so if you’re conking out during the movies, a meeting, a daytime flight, or when stopped at a red light, it could be a red flag.
  • Feeling hungrier than usual: When you’re sleep deprived, two hunger-related hormones are affected. Leptin, the hormone that tells you to stop eating, decreases. Ghrelin, the hormone that tells you to eat more, increases. You may also notice weight gain because a lack of sleep can slow your metabolism.
  • Being overly impulsive: The area of your brain associated with judgment and impulse control is greatly affected by sleep deprivation, so watch out for uncontrollable spending, eating urges or verbal explosions that are out of character for you.
  • Being forgetful or unable to concentrate: As sleep leads to memory consolidation and emotional processing, it’s harder to act rationally or thoughtfully without it. You may also struggle with making decisions.

If you’re experiencing warning signs of sleep deprivation, or if you just want to make sure you’re resting at your best, it may be time to evaluate your sleep hygiene. It’s a real thing! And it could make a night-and-day difference in your health and well-being.

What is Sleep Hygiene?

Sleep hygiene refers to the recommended behaviors and environment that help promote quality sleep at night and full alertness during the day. There are many things you can do to ensure better shut-eye, even if you’re affected by insomnia, shift work or jet lag. But first, you need a general understanding of how your body regulates sleep. 

Sleeping at night and being awake during the day is an example of your body’s circadian rhythm, which is a physical, mental and behavioral change that follows a daily cycle. A group of about 20,000 nerve cells in an area of your brain called the hypothalamus is your body’s “timekeeper,” regulating not just sleep, but also energy and hunger. 

When there is less light, like at night, this internal clock tells your brain to make melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Your body temperature also goes down. Both changes trigger you to become less alert and more likely to sleep. With the help of morning light, messages are sent to your brain to lower melatonin levels, increase body temperature and activate more of the cortisol hormone, getting you going for the day. 

This sleep pattern is a natural cycle in your body, but it can be affected by signals from the environment. Since daylight is the main influence on circadian rhythm, a change in light-dark cycles can throw off your body’s clock and interfere with your sleep.

Improving Your Sleep Hygiene

The best sleep hygiene is not about doing one specific thing, but instead taking a bunch of factors into account — from what you eat to how you set up your bedroom to the barking dog or other noise pollution outside. You might find that you’re strong in some areas of sleep hygiene, but need to work on others. While sleep hygiene varies from person to person, here are some tips to help you sleep: 

  • Stick to a schedule. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Establishing a regular, relaxing bedtime routine can help you train your body to recognize that it’s bedtime. If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do some light stretches or another quiet activity in low light, then go back to bed when you’re drowsy.
  • Watch what you eat. Save larger, high-protein meals for breakfast and lunch to give you daytime energy. Eat lightly before bed and avoid heavy, rich foods as well as dishes that are fatty, fried or spicy. These may lead to painful heartburn that can interfere with sleep.
  • Avoid the buzz. Avoid alcohol, nicotine or caffeine within 4-6 hours of bedtime. Alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, but it can disrupt the quality of your slumber and cause you to wake up during the night as your body begins to process the alcohol. Caffeine and nicotine, simply put, stimulate the brain and keep you awake.
  • Keep your cool. Lower body temperature helps promote sleep, so keep your thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees. Also, opt for light-weight pajamas and blankets.
  • Exercise at the right time for you. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can significantly improve nighttime sleep quality. Workouts earlier in the day are less likely to interfere with your sleep, whereas strenuous exercise too close to bedtime might make you feel too energized.
  • Take a nap — maybe. Napping does not make up for inadequate nighttime sleep, but many people find that a 15-minute cat nap helps them feel more alert. Others discover that naps, especially ones longer than 30 minutes, disrupt their sleep. Do your own “nap study” to find out what works best for you. 
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and comfy. Consider using blackout curtains, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing. Avoid bright light from lamps, cell phones and TV screens — remember, light can interfere with your body’s built-in ability to trigger the sleep cycle. 
  • Disruptive pets and bed partners. The dog jumping on the bed, a significant other who tosses and turns or snores all night can negatively affect your sleep. It’s best to discuss this with your significant other and family to come up with solutions. 

Is TV Interfering with Your Sleep?

You may find it relaxing to catch up on your favorite shows as you’re settling in for the night. Whether the TV is in your bedroom or you’re drifting off to sleep on the couch, background noise is likely disturbing the quality of your sleep. Unlike constant “white noise,” such as a quiet fan, TV sounds change in volume, tone and pace. Your brain continues to register and process audible sounds while you’re sleeping, so this variation can briefly disturb the continuity of your sleep even if you don’t realize it at the time. Ideally, the sounds you sleep to should be the same from the time you drift off to when you wake up in the morning. 

Your Snoring Could Be Sleep Apnea

Snoring is common, affecting about 90 million American adults. It’s the source of many light-hearted jokes, but it may be more serious. Snoring can not only greatly disrupt your spouse’s sleep, but also your own. In fact, about one half of people who snore loudly have obstructive sleep apnea, one of the most common sleep disorders — and potentially a significant risk to your health if left unchecked over time. 

Stay Alert to Sleep Apnea

Snoring sounds come from vibrations in the walls of your throat, caused when the muscles of your throat relax, your tongue falls backward and your throat narrows. Sometimes the walls of the throat collapse so much that soft tissue at the back of the throat closes the airway. Breathing pauses momentarily many times an hour, leading to disruptions in deep sleep patterns that result in chronic daytime fatigue in its early stages. Sleep apnea is not an emergency and you won’t stop breathing entirely (unlike opioid overdoses which can shut down respiratory drive causing respiratory failure and death).  

Sleep Apnea Symptoms:

  • Snoring loud enough to disrupt your sleep or that of others
  • Awakening abruptly with a snorting or choking sound, or gasping for air
  • Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat or headache
  • Feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep
  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering or staying awake

If you think you might have sleep apnea, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Left untreated over time, sleep apnea can increase your risk of heart disease, strokes, car accidents and other serious health concerns. Your doctor may refer you for a painless, overnight sleep study to diagnose your condition and determine next steps. 

For mild cases of sleep apnea, it may only take a few lifestyle adjustments — such as losing weight, quitting smoking or treating allergies. For moderate to severe sleep apnea treatment, your doctor may recommend a device to help open the blocked airway while you sleep (oral night splint). However, if your symptoms are chronic and significant enough, a sleep study may be needed. The most common and reliable method for treating sleep apnea is called “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure” or CPAPmachine. This machine delivers air pressure through a mask over your nose, keeping your upper airway passages open and preventing apnea and snoring. A variety of masks and airway pressure devices is available to meet your needs and offer a comfortable fit.

Sauk Prairie Healthcare Can Help You Rest Easy

Sleep hygiene is not necessarily a term that gets tossed around in daily conversations, and it can mean many different things. If you’re having trouble sleeping, staying alert during daylight hours, or adapting to a shift-work position that requires you to stay up at night, come talk with our Sleep Specialists at Sauk Prairie Healthcare. It may just be a matter of finding some new approaches to your sleep routine, but there also could be a sleep disorder at the root of your sleeping problems. We’re here to help. Talk with your doctor to discuss your sleep issues, which may require a consult our Sleep Medicine Clinic to help you find the answers and a good night’s rest. To schedule an appointment our Sleep Medicine Clinic, call 608-643-7574.