Often called ~THE~ solution to chronic insomnia, sleep hygiene is both vital and overrated. Here’s why.

a bar with one overhead light with the sign 'relax' hanging.

If you are not familiar with the term, sleep hygiene is the daily practice of implementing good habits to regularly sleep well. It is also quite likely the first thing you’ve come across when looking into how to solve insomnia.

Sleep hygiene is often touted as THE solution to chronic insomnia. And I bet you’re thinking, “yet another person telling me to get better sleep hygiene. Thanks for the hot take, Sacha.”

We both know that’s unequivocally not true. But I will tell you, good sleep hygiene is a significant PART of solving chronic insomnia. 

These are the building blocks that will permanently change your sleeping habits. Depending on who you are, creating good sleep hygiene might not be a big stretch from what you are already doing. But for others, there may be some major overhauls in your lifestyle. Wherever you lie on the ‘good sleep hygiene’ spectrum, it’s a significant piece of the “insomnia slayer” puzzle. 

Exercise

We’ve all heard this one before. I know you are thinking “I’m not sure how I’m going to exercise on X hours/minutes of sleep”. Trust me, I can truly empathise. The last thing you want to do is move your body when you’re in pain from not sleeping.

However, no one is demanding that you deadlift your maximum weight here. Be gentle on yourself. Go for a walk. Try some body weight exercises. Do yoga. Go golfing and use a cart. 

I actually found this guy named Hampton. He has a very approachable take to fitness that I think works really well for any energy level. This isn’t sponsored, I just think he’s great.

Hampton from Hybrid Calisthenics

Check out his website here.

Exercise serves 3 purposes:

  1. It physically expends energy. This is especially important if you have a desk job or sit all day. It is surprising how much our bodies want to naturally move, even when sleep deprived.
  2. You will feel better. If your insomnia is caused by anxiety or depression, moving your body for at least 20 minutes per day releases endorphins (which make you feel better). It also decreases stress hormones like cortisol (which makes you feel worse)1.
  3. Exercise can be a time to get all of your worries out. It gives you space to think and sort out any issues you are currently dealing with.

I know that you are not feeling well. It is awfully hard to have the willpower to exercise, let alone when you haven’t slept. I promise you though – it won’t kill you, and you won’t regret it.

Alcohol: A Sleep Hygiene Nemesis

A bar with many bottles of alcohol. Picture on article talking about sleep hygiene and why alcohol should be avoided.

Cutting out alcohol (or greatly limiting it) is one of the best things you can do to treat insomnia.

Having even one drink can produce sedative effects and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. However, once it starts metabolizing in your body after 3-4 hours, the rapid eye movement (REM) and deep stages of sleep will be disrupted2. As stated previously, these are the stages that are the most regenerative for your body.

Essentially what is happening is alcohol is a depressant and your body tries to compensate by releasing stimulants. The depressant effect of alcohol kicks in first, so you are able to fall asleep. As the effect of alcohol wears off, your body is still working to combat the depressant effects while you sleep. So what you are left with the longer-lasting stimulants. This is why you wake up earlier or have a less restful sleep in the second half of the night when you drink3.

From my experience, while you are trying to treat insomnia, it’s best to simply cut out alcohol for the time being. If you are inclined to drink, finish your last drink 3-4 hours before bed. This will give your body time to process any alcohol so it minimises the disruption to your sleep. 

Caffeine

You’ve already heard that if you drink excessive caffeine and are having trouble sleeping, you should cut back or stop drinking it altogether. If you do decide to keep drinking your daily dose of caffeine, here are some tips:

  • Brew coffee at home. Coffee from chain restaurants can be very high in caffeine.
  • Brew half regular and half decaffeinated.
  • Limit yourself to only 1 cup per day.
  • Drink caffeine before 12pm, ideally before 10am. The half life of coffee is 5-6 hours, and isn’t fully out of your system for 10-12 hours.
  • If you aren’t too addicted to coffee, switch to tea. It typically has less caffeine than coffee.

Darkness

full moon in front of a black sky

You’ve probably read that your room should be dark, so if you aren’t following this advice, do it. Darkness is how the aforementioned melatonin ‘knows’ when to start releasing into your body, so light does in fact keep you awake. Do yourself a favour and get dark or black out curtains for your room. 

Also, turn off all unnecessary lights at night, and dim the lights that you are using as you are approaching bedtime (30 minutes to an hour before bed). This will help your body know that it should be winding down and start preparing for sleep.

The Sleep Hygiene Diet

What you eat is critical to your overall health and can very much affect your sleeping patterns. If you are eating poorly, it can cause indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea which makes it harder to sleep. 

I’m not going to give you a detailed diet plan, but I do have a suggestion for you to get around this: eat a lot of good things, minimize the sugary/salty things.

Yet another hot take, right? But I strongly suggest you do yourself a favour and rule out poor diet as the reason for your insomnia (or at least, something that contributes to insomnia). 

Eat frequently throughout the day so you aren’t digesting a mass amount of calories, and avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed. Digesting food takes energy, and this can keep you awake. To this day, I still won’t eat steak after 6pm. If you are hungry before bed, have low calorie snacks like the ones shown here.

Tip: A really handy app is My Fitness Pal. You can track what you are eating and see how much sugar, sodium, calories etc. you are getting.

A Note About Water

Anecdotally, the only time I didn’t sleep at all at night (literally 0 hours and 0 minutes) was when I was dehydrated. Make an effort to drink a minimum of 2 litres per day. This can come in the form of water, sparkling water, flavoured water (like Mio), etc. Just make a point to stay hydrated.

📍Mini Quest! What is something you can do to your diet this week? Is it cutting your pop (soda) consumption in half? Is it adding one more serving of a fruit or vegetable every day? Should you skip dessert? Is it making sure to drink two litres of water per day? Pick one thing that is a reasonable action for you (don’t suddenly go paleo or something if you’re not already). Small wins for health can create a positive chain of events. 

Limit Screen Time

static like what you would see when cable channels would go offline

I’m sure you know by now that being on your phone, computer, or watching TV isn’t a good before going to sleep. Artificial light suppresses our body’s natural mechanism to create melatonin. This throws off our 24 hour biological clock and in turn disrupts our sleep/wake cycle4. Not only that, but it also stimulates neurons in our brains to be more alert.

IDEALLY, you would turn off any and all screens 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed to avoid looking at bright lighting that may keep you awake. This is not only to avoid artificial light, but to create a wind down period for yourself (be honest – mindlessly scrolling social media or going down a rabbit hole of youtube can be stressful). 

If you are having a hard time putting your phone down or turning screens off for even 30 minutes to wind down before bed, use apps to dim your screen. 

For example, F.lux is a program that dims your computer screen as the sun sets. Also, turn your phone to ‘night mode’ a few hours before bed. Alternatively, turn off your wi-fi after a certain time to avoid any temptation. You can get smart plugs that have timers on them for as little as $20. 

Also, I strongly suggest you leave your phone outside of your room. Just the mere presence of it can make you hypervigilant of every buzz from a text or a light from a notification. So keep it out of the room, period. Plus, there is no temptation to turn to your phone when you can’t sleep. You know it’s not an effective method anyway, so just remove the temptation. 

For an alarm clock, buy a no-tick analogue alarm clock with no (or optional) lighting. 

Shower Timing: An Underrated Sleep Hygiene Tool

When your body is winding down for the night to prepare for sleep, your body temperature lowers. It is preparing to go into a bit of a hibernation mode. And a way to get this to happen faster is by taking a hot shower or bath at night.

A group of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin compiled 5,000 sleep studies. What they found is you can fall asleep 10 minutes faster than normal. You do this by taking a warm bath or shower of 40-42C (104-109F) 90-120 minutes before bed for as little as 10 minutes5.

It seems counterintuitive to take a warm shower before bed when you need to lower your body temperature. But when you do, it moves heat away from your core and into your extremities and to the surface of your body. In turn, the warm water actually drives your core internal temperature down, helping your body prepare for sleep. 

For some people though, they get their best thinking done in the shower. Or it’s how they wake up for the day. If you are one of these people, keep showering in the morning. Your body temperature will still lower as it needs to at night. 

Home Temperature and Humidity

sand under white and blue sky

Your body temperature naturally falls when your body is preparing to sleep so make sure that your home is not too hot. Conversely, being too cold can cause discomfort. Try to aim for a room temperature between 18C-20C (65F – 68F).

Also, high humidity can affect your sleep. High humidity in hot weather can make you sweat or feel clammy. When it’s too humid, our sweat can’t evaporate so then our bodies work harder to get rid of it. This results in excessive sweating, increased blood circulation and increased respiration6. If you have high humidity in cooler temperatures, it can cause allergy-like symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, and cough7. All of these high-humidity reactions can keep you up at night.

Alternatively, low humidity can also keep you up at night by causing a dry cough, irritated sinuses, nose bleeds, and dry and itchy skin. So keep your home between 30-50% humidity (usually on the lower side in the winter, and higher in the summer). 

A Good Bed and Pillow

All of the aforementioned things to try (or avoid) assumes that you have a reasonably comfortable bed and pillow. You can’t treat insomnia if you’re waking up with a sore back or hips and need a new mattress. If you wake up with a stiff or sore neck, try a new pillow. Beds are typically good for 10 years, while pillows should be replaced after 12-18 months. 

If your bed is the problem but a new one isn’t in the budget, get a foam topper if you need more support.

Make your Space Inviting

white bed linen with yellow and black pillows with a cow hide rug on the floor and a tape couch with a white blanket draped over it.

If you haven’t already, make your bedroom an inviting space. Add some decor that you love like a piece of art, or a personal memento. If you’re not sure what you want, look to Houzz or Reddit’s /r/cozyspaces for inspiration on how you want your room to look. Fair warning – it’s mostly fairy lights and an abundance of plants.

When it comes to your bedding, do you have good quality sheets and blankets that are soft? What about the bedroom furniture? I had the same bedside tables since I started University (over 15 years ago) and a beat up dresser. Setting myself up with nice bedroom furniture made me feel better about my space and hence more welcoming to sleep.

New (or like new) stuff doesn’t have to be expensive either. Online market places and thrifts shops carry tons of ‘like new’ furniture.

No Clocks: A Mental Trick for Sleep Hygiene

a pile of broken clocks

How many times have you tossed and turned in the middle of the night. Then you look over at your clock to see how much time has passed…

And then you start doing the math. If you don’t fall back asleep sleep NOW, you’ll only get ‘x’ number of hours. Or have you looked at the clock and said “OK! Time for bed. It’s 11pm and I need 8 hours!”, forcing yourself to try and sleep even when you are not tired?

I call this sleep math.

You stress about thinking of the number of hours you have left. In turn, you stay awake and keep thinking of how the clock is ticking. You fear you won’t sleep, so then you don’t sleep.  

I have a super simple solution to that problem – eliminate glowing clocks so you can’t do sleep math.

And avoid looking at them like the plague. As mentioned above, consider a no-tick analogue clock. To this day, I still don’t look at the time once 10pm hits – that’s it for me. I fall asleep when I’m tired, and that’s all that matters.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Set your alarm early in the evening (after dinner) so you don’t have to look at your alarm clock right before you go to bed.
  • If you MUST use your phone for an alarm, face the screen down. That way, you won’t see the time if it happens to flash. Always put it on night mode or silent so you don’t receive any notifications. 

Block Noise

Hopefully it goes without saying that if you’re in a noisy environment or you’re a light sleeper, noise can greatly affect your sleep. Whether it’s living in a noisy neighbourhood or you have a snoring partner, use earplugs. It can at least get rid of noise as a factor for insomnia.

Chamomile Tea

white and brown ceramic teapot on wooden tray

Some people swear by chamomile tea to help them sleep. Chamomile tea is a wild flavoured tea with no caffeine that can produce a calming effect. One study found that it’s a natural sedative because it calms your central nervous system8.

Drinking tea is not a necessary step for good sleep hygiene, but it can be a part of a good bedtime routine that gets you into a state of relaxation. Just make sure to drink it at least an hour before bed so you don’t have to get up to use the bathroom during the night.

Stink Free

Having a neutral smelling room is hopefully something you already know helps you sleep. Smells can be distracting, even if they’re something good like fresh flowers. If your room stinks because of other reasons (lack of upkeep), now is the time for some house cleaning and opening of windows for fresh air. If it’s too cold, invest in an air purifier. 

📍Quest #3

What can you do differently this week that will help facilitate sleep? Pick at least one thing to work on or implement. Once you feel comfortable with that, add another.