If you are having a difficult time getting a good night’s sleep, you are not alone. The increased stress and disruption of routines over the past 12 months have had a serious impact on sleep quality for many of us. Poor sleep leads to fatigue and can harm a person’s mental health, which affects our ability to cope with life’s ups and downs.
Fortunately, there are several easy steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene. It starts by changing the way you think about sleep. We’ve all heard that an adult needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night to fully recharge for the next day, but what many people don’t know is that a regular sleep pattern is just as important.
I tell my patients that it’s better to get into bed at roughly the same time every night rather than starting at 9 p.m. one night and 11 p.m. the next. Avoid napping during the daytime, which leads to poorer quality sleep at night.
Regular cardiovascular exercise can improve sleep quality, but timing is important. It’s best to exercise earlier in the day or at least several hours before sleep. Working out too close to bedtime can make you too energized to be able to settle down easily into sleep.
Similarly, drinking stimulating substances such as caffeine or alcohol too close to when you go to sleep can make it more difficult for your mind to stop racing. I suggest no caffeine four to six hours before bed for a good night’s sleep, and try to avoid the habit of having a nightcap.
Good sleep hygiene also means being aware of your thoughts and moods as you go to bed. The hardest thing for most people to do when trying to fall asleep is to avoid thinking about what they need to do the next day.
It’s common to worry about tasks you need to get done or stew about something you wish you had done differently. We are all human. These kinds of thoughts can cause your mind to race and make it more difficult to fall asleep.
One trick that you can practice to calm your mind is to imagine your thoughts contained in individual boxcars passing by on a slow-moving train. Imagine you’re looking down on your thoughts from a bird’s-eye view, then as each boxcar rolls by, imagine dumping them out and letting them go.
Simple thought exercises like this serve a meditative purpose and slow down your brain to prepare for sleep. Breathing exercises work, too – the important thing is that you are training your brain to let go of thoughts that can wind you up and prevent sleep.
A few other techniques include the following:
Keep your bedroom cooler. The ideal room temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees. Your body temperature naturally lowers as you fall asleep, and a cooler room can help make that happen faster.
Develop an evening routine. Starting an hour before bed, ease yourself out of your day with relaxing activities like stretching, taking a warm bath or listening to relaxing music. A consistent routine trains your body to ready itself for sleep.
Make your bed a sanctuary for sleep. The place where you sleep should be free of the distractions from your day. This is especially important for people who are working from home. Try not to read, scroll on your phone or watch television in the same place you plan to fall asleep.
By practicing good sleep hygiene, we can get the rest we need naturally to take on the challenges of the day.
Dr. Jeff Markin is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Veradale Medical Center.
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