What is sleep hygiene?

I bet I know what you’re thinking: what the hell is sleep hygiene? Do I need to change my sheets?

Well not exactly (but yes, obviously, do that too).

It’s just a term to describe a variety of practices to improve sleep quality – and in turn alertness during the day.

We all know that sleep is important, but maybe we don’t know exactly why. Apart from those “I’ll sleep when I’m dead, bro” folks, who are missing out on something essential to a happy, healthy life.

The thing is, literally everyone can benefit from improving their sleep. And to do so, it usually involves changing a few habits around sleep. Better sleep can lead to improvements in physical and mental health, as well as things like the production of growth hormone, your ability to learn and remember information and patterns, your ability to focus on tasks in the day, you ability to retain muscle mass and use fat as a fuel source. It’s a pretty long list.

How much sleep a person needs can vary, but the general recommendation for a healthy adult is between seven and nine hours a night. Ideally you want enough sleep to get through a couple of cycles of REM and NREM sleep.

How to improve sleep hygiene

According to the National Sleep Foundation, you want to limit daytime naps to 30 mins. And if you struggle to get enough sleep in the evening, maybe take out the afternoon nap all together and see if that leaves you tired enough to fall asleep a little earlier in the evening.

If the nap is necessary, you want to keep it short enough that it doesn’t interfere with your night time sleep. But the nap can help to improve mood, alertness and performance.

Avoid stimulants close to bedtime. Different people metabolise caffeine at different rates. I know people who can have an espresso after dinner and sleep like a baby, while my sleep is affected if I have anything after about 1pm!

The half life of caffeine is about five hours, which means after five hours there’ll be about half as much caffeine in your system. People who drink large amounts regularly can build up a tolerance, while other people might feel the effects for way longer than average.

Something to consider for fitness people, is the use of caffeine as a preworkout. If you’re training in the evening, and you’re taking preworkout first or drinking a can of Monster, that’s probably going to still be in your system come bedtime. If you’re struggling to get to sleep, that’s definitely a good place for you to take a look at first.

Exercise can help. Different people can often find training in the morning or in the evening to affect their sleep differently, so find something that works for you. Doing regular exercise that is intense enough to leave your body tired, is usually helpful when it comes to falling asleep.

Establish a regular bedtime/wake time. Getting into a routine whereby you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends to a degree) will make a huge difference when it comes to your body feeling tired and awake when you want it to. Sticking to your schedule will help you regulate your body’s internal clock.

Establish a regular bedtime routine. Do something relaxing for about 30 minutes before bedtime. It can be whatever you want, but ideally it’s something relaxing and doesn’t involve looking at a screen. So that’s no phone, no TV. The blue light the LEDs emit tell your brain it’s awake time, which is the opposite of what you want at bedtime. (I find it’s quite helpful in the morning though, when you’re trying to wake up. Although most people recommend not looking at your phone first thing…)

Possible ideas for you: reading, stretching, meditating, having a quiet chat with your significant other, having a warm bath, spending time cuddling a cat. I’m sure the neighbours have one you can borrow if you don’t have your own…

Set up a pleasant sleep environment. You need a comfortable mattress and pillows, with a cool, dark bedroom. Things like black out blinds can be quite helpful. You want your room to feel like your resting place, so try to avoid doing work in bed. Maybe incense helps you feel at peace.

Benefits of sleep

I was listening to a great podcast today, Empowered by Iron, where the hosts, Dr Kristin Lander and Dr Mary Morton, discuss some of the benefits of sleep and what benefits you get from the different kinds of sleep.

So far we don’t know how to make sure you get a particular kind of sleep, so just make sure you’re getting enough.

One of the most interesting (in my opinion) benefits of good sleep, is the effect on your ability to learn.

Have you ever learnt a new skill, totally sucked at it, then come back a few days later and it’s like it suddenly makes more sense? That’s your beautiful brain doing some good sleep learning. I remember the first few sessions I spent learning how to clean and jerk. The first time mostly involved me hitting myself a lot and not really comprehending the pull or the drop, then after a bunch of sleeps trying again and actually doing one that was alright.

That was a similar story to when I learnt how to juggle. I’ve probably hit myself in the head learning new skills a few too many times. Luckily our brains are protected by fluid and skulls and faeries. Well, maybe not so much the last bit, but they’re pretty sturdy!

Another benefit of sleep is the impact it can have on your diet and body composition. The Stronger By Science blog has a call article on a sleep study that basically says getting decent sleep will help with hunger, better workouts and recovery. And a lack of sleep directly makes it harder to burn fat – and increases your risk of losing lean mass.

So if you’re training all the time but you’re not sleeping enough, you’re doing yourself a disservice (and will probably have to diet for way longer to get results).