Sleep Hygiene: What is sleep hygiene and why is it important to know about?

Yes, there actually is such a term as sleep hygiene!

Sleep hygiene is simply about habits and practices that support sleeping well on a regular basis.

Without proper, regular and recuperative sleep, the body suffers and this can result in daytime fatigue, increased anxiety and feelings of overwhelm, inability to focus and concentrate on tasks, increased risk of accidents, increased need for food accompanied by cravings for sweet or salty foods etc. and longer-term health issues such as depression, hypertension, diabetes and adrenal fatigue to name a few. Over time lack of quality sleep reduces mental and physical health.

What causes this poor quality sleep in the first place?

Often this comes from the stress that is perceived or real and from overriding our natural body clock. Did you know that the body has a natural and inbuilt ‘clock’ that regulates our diurnal (day time) and nocturnal (night time) rhythm? We have certain hormones such as cortisol and melatonin that amongst many other natural chemical messengers in the body, support regulating our sleep patterns. Melatonin is secreted by the hypothalamus and blood levels of this hormone are high at night and low during the day. Cortisol on the other hand has a peak secretion early in the morning and then drops throughout the day to have a low throughout the night in order to then re-peak again for the next morning.

So in adults, the melatonin onset typically occurs during low cortisol secretion. In other words, at the end of the day when cortisol levels should be low, melatonin secretion is triggered in conjunction with the reduced daylight factor (sunset). However, in times of stress, we usually have increased cortisol levels which can delay melatonin secretion and hence result in trouble with falling asleep or sleeping well. Melatonin and cortisol rhythms are altered from a natural rhythm in a variety of circadian (24-hour day) rhythm disorders.

Interestingly it seems that for adults, this peak time for sleep falls around the 9pm mark, much earlier than what most people put themselves to bed. When the body’s rhythm is working correctly and the hormone levels are in line with nature, then most adults will find that they get sleepy around 9 or 10 pm. Of course we can use nervous energy to over-ride this natural urge, but does this not set us up for sleep issues down the track? Similarly, with high stress levels which can cause high cortisol levels, we can throw off our natural rhythm of falling asleep.

So how then do we respect and work with the body’s natural diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night) clock?

  • Regular Bedtime – One of the best things that you can do for yourself is to establish a regular time to put yourself to bed for sleep and a regular time to wake up and get up out of bed for the day. Regularity and consistency are what the body thrives on, but make sure this regularity is one that is actually in line with or as close as possible to the natural rhythm of the body, in other words, the 9 pm mark for adults.
  • Wind Down – Another thing that can support proper sleep tremendously is to have a wind-down period in the evening that starts a good few hours before going to bed (incidentally some people may need this wind-down period to be longer). This wind-down period is best to include activities that are non-stimulating and calming, such as having a bath, stroking your pets, going for a quiet sunset walk etc. Contrary to popular belief, activities such as watching TV, listening to music or radio and reading books are generally quite stimulating mentally and so are not that conducive to quality sleep.
  • Diet – Another simple rule is to not eat your dinner too late and then go to bed with a full stomach. It is best to eat a few hours before going to bed. This extra time between your evening meal and bedtime allows for the body to digest food more effectively and hence allow for a smoother sleep.
  • Environment – Keep your bedroom purely for sleep and rest. The bedroom should ideally not be a place for TV or other stimulating activities as this creates an environment that is not conducive for the body’s shut downtime. When we consistently keep a space for sleep only, then this encourages the body to wind down whenever that area is accessed.
  • Herbal medicines can play an important part in supporting proper sleep patterns. Some herbs that are calming for the body and support the wind-down period in preparation for sleep include Chamomile, Lemon Balm and Valerian. These herbs are non-stimulating and help to lull the body into its nocturnal rhythm. Of course, it is important not to place unnecessary demands on a herbal mixture and to still work with all other areas that support sleep.

If none of the above seems to make a distinct difference, it could be that your natural body clock is out of whack due to the biochemistry being altered! Don’t despair as there is much that can be done to support the return of the natural rhythms. So, if you have a restless night, it is important that you review your day to determine the choices and reactions that may have contributed to it.

Overall, we need to realise that the quality in which we experience and live the day is reflected in the quality of our sleep at night. This is why children as well as adult bodies actually thrive on rhythms and rituals that truly look after and benefit the body.

To read more on how sleep can be our daily medicine click here.