Healthy sleep patterns are a fundamental part of living a healthy lifestyle. They are as important to your health as good nutrition, regular exercise and other healthy habits.
What’s the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep? Practice good “sleep hygiene” - a range of healthy sleep habits that promote both better sleep quality and duration, and which will be explained below.
Before we get into the detail of sleep hygiene habits, it’s important to note that there is a difference between experiencing poor sleep and having a sleep disorder.
- Poor sleep refers to a poor quality and quantity of sleep that, while serious, is not linked to a medical disorder.
- Sleep disorders are serious medical conditions. They require medical or psychological intervention. These disorders include insomnia (difficulties in falling and or staying asleep), apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep), parasomnias (nightmares, sleep walking and sleep paralysis), restless leg syndrome, hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness) or narcolepsy (a chronic, uncontrollable neurological disorder that may cause a person to fall asleep at any time).
- If you suspect that you might be experiencing a sleep disorder or are concerned that your quality and quantity of sleep are impacting your physical and emotional wellbeing, be sure to contact your doctor to access the necessary treatment.
Your sleep quantity and quality both matter
- What is sleep quality?
Sleep quality refers to how well you sleep. The National Sleep Foundation says that for adults this means falling asleep within 30 minutes or less, sleeping soundly through the night, waking up no more than once each night and staying awake for 20 minutes or less. Overall, good sleep quality means being asleep at least 85% of the time that you are in bed.
- What is sleep quantity?
How much sleep should you be getting every night? The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and American Psychiatric Association recommend the following hours of sleep for each age group:
|ADULTS (18 – 60 YEARS)||7-9 HOURS|
|OLDER ADULTS (65+ YEARS)||7 – 8 HOURS|
|TEENS (13 – 18YEARS)||8 – 10 HOURS PER 24 HOURS|
|PRIMARY SCHOOL (6 – 12 YEARS)||9 – 10 HOURS PER 24 HOURS|
|PRE-SCHOOL (3 – 5 YEARS)||10 – 13 HOURS PER 24 HOURS (INCLUDING NAPS)|
|TODDLER (1 – 2YEARS)||11 – 14 HOURS PER 24 HOURS (INCLUDING NAPS)|
|INFANT (4 – 12 MONTHS)||12 – 16 HOURS PER 24 HOURS (INCLUDING NAPS)|
What are the consequences of poor sleep quality and quantity?
It’s no surprise that virtually all bodily systems are impacted by poor or inadequate sleep. Good sleep is a buffer against common infections and illnesses, against chronic illnesses, general stressors and mood disorders.
- Poor sleep quality contributes to drowsiness and difficulty concentrating increasing your risk of occupational or road accidents.
- Lack of sleep can also affect your balance and coordination making you more accident-prone.
- Adequate sleep is vital for clear thinking, concentration, learning and memory. Poor sleep quality and duration have been associated with a decline in performance at school and in academics in general and will affect your ability to be productive at work.
- A lack of sleep can make you moody, emotional and quick-tempered. Chronic sleep deprivation can affect your mood to the extent that it could lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, decreased resilience and an inability to handle stress.
- Sleep disturbance has been associated with a weakened immune system affecting your ability to fight off common colds and other such infections.
- Poor sleep quality and duration are linked to an increase in the risk of developing high blood pressure – which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Poor sleep quality affects your body's release of the blood sugar lowering hormone, insulin, which increases your risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Inadequate sleep also interferes with the hormones that signal to your brain that you are full after a meal, so you may overeat putting you at risk of weight gain.
- Poor sleep quality is linked to a decline in physical activity. Conversely, regular exercise – a key habit in warding off chronic illnesses like diabetes - facilitates better sleep.
- Poor sleep quality is associated with an increased risk of unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and substance abuse.
- People who don’t get enough sleep often have a low libido, and in men this may be linked to a drop in testosterone.
Ensuring good sleep hygiene
Good sleep hygiene habits are the result of paying attention to your behaviours, your sleep environment, your nutrition and physical activity:
Healthy behaviours for excellent sleep
- Consistency is key. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time, both on weekdays and weekends.
- Try to go to sleep when you are sleepy, and not when you are just tired.
- Schedule sleep to allow for at least seven (or more) hours of sleep.
- Minimise excessive time spent in bed.
- If you cannot fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and try again when you are feeling sleepy.
- Once you’ve woken up from sleep, do not stay awake in bed for more than 10 minutes.
- Create a relaxing bed-time routine. This can include relaxation techniques, like:
- A warm bath
- Relaxing reading
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Mindfulness practices
- Breathing techniques
- Autogenic training (a self-hypnosis technique)
Nurturing your sleep environment
Make the environment in which you sleep one that encourages relaxation and healthy sleep patterns:
- Close to bedtime, reduce exposure to bright lights - use dim lights or darken your room.
- Ensure you have comfortable mattresses, linen and pillows.
- Check your room temperature – between 15 and 19 deg C is recommended for better sleep.
- Reduce loud noises. If you need to block out noises, try foam ear plugs.
- Soft, steady sounds can be soothing – some people find that white noise helps them to fall asleep.
- Your bed should be a calm space reserved only for sleep or sex. Avoid other activities like eating, working or watching TV in bed. These may interfere with your brain's association between bed and sleep.
- Avoid using electronic devices and engaging in emails, internet browsing or social media, 30 minutes before bedtime as these will interfere with your brain's relaxation before sleep. Swap late night texting for a good book.
- Avoid using mobile phones or screens that project LED displays with blue lights. Blue light suppresses the production of melatonin – a hormone that regulates your body’s sleep and waking.
Getting your nutrition right
- Avoid eating large and heavy meals right before bedtime. If you are hungry before bed, try to eat a light, healthy snack.
- Try not to drink too many fluids before bedtime as this may prompt you to wake up more frequently to go to the bathroom.
- Wind down with herbal tea or a warm, milky caffeine- and sugar-free drink.
- Avoid any stimulating foods or substances that might keep you awake, like caffeine and nicotine.
- Avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime – alcohol may also act as a stimulant.
- Avoid visual stimulants in your bedroom. If you find that seeing the light on your alarm clock prevents you sleeping or creates anxiety about the time, position it so that it does not catch your attention.
Timing your exercise
- Regular exercise, either in the morning or early afternoon, helps to promote a good night's sleep. Try not to exercise close to your scheduled bedtime as this could keep you awake. If you prefer exercising at night, try to do so at least an hour before bedtime and then engage in a moderate-intensity activity as very vigorous exercise close to bed time, may keep you up at night.
Finally, remember to investigate any symptoms you're concerned could be affecting your sleep to ensure diagnosis and treatment of any underlying medical or psychological problems that you may have.
Public Health England. 2020. Guidance for the public on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus (COVID-19). https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-public-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing/guidance-for-the-public-on-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-aspects-of-coronavirus-covid-19
World Health Organization (WHO). 2020. Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/mental-health-considerations.pdf