Sleep Hygiene is the term used to describe a number of science-backed practices that are carried out during the day and just before bed that help to create the exact conditions needed to sleep well.
Our bodies have an inbuilt clock called the circadian rhythm which regulates our sleep and wake cycles across a 24-hour period. The circadian rhythm coordinates both physical and mental processes throughout the body and plays a role in :
- Sleep-wake cycle
- Endocrine system which regulates hormone release
- Digestive system
- Regulation of blood sugar levels 
- Regulation of cholesterol levels
- Cognitive function and mental health
- Immune system
When our circadian rhythm becomes unbalanced it has a wide-ranging impact on our physical and mental state, resulting in disturbed sleep.
In this article, we take a look at the main areas of sleep hygiene that help improve sleep and what to do if these techniques do not work you for.
Sleep Hygiene includes things such as establishing a regular sleep pattern, ensure your bedroom is set up for sleep, reducing screen time and having a wind down before bed. Let's take a look at each of these in more detail:
1. Regular Sleep Times
This is often the hardest thing to achieve for most people and means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, even at the weekends. Consistent sleep and wake times will help balance your body’s natural body clock.
Top Tip: Set alarms for going to bed AND waking up.
2. Bedroom Environment
Sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet room aids restful sleep. Having your bedroom at around 18.3 degrees Celsius is the optimal room temperature for sleep . Investing in blackout blinds will help to stop light flooding into your room from streetlights, or being woken up too early during the summer months.
Tip: Turn off your radiator in your bedroom and open the window before sleep to ensure a cool room.
3. Reduce Screen Time Before Bed
Stop any activity on your mobile phone, laptop or tablet an hour before bed to ensure your brain is not stimulated by blue light. You can set wind down reminders on most mobile phones nowadays to trigger you to switch off your phone and so something else such as reading, bedtime yoga or meditation.
Tip: Set a bedtime wind down on your phone.
4. Wind Down Routine
As well as turning off any electronic devices, it’s good to establish a relaxing pre-bedtime routine to get your mind and body ready for sleep. This could be a nice warm shower or bath. Writing a ‘to do’ list for the next day or writing in a journal to help prevent remunerating over the day's issues while trying to go to sleep. Reading a good book or doing some wind-down mediation in bed. The Calm and Headspace apps provide some great guided bedtime mediations.
Tip: Download sleep mediations to help you wind down to sleep.
However, for some people, particularly those who suffer from more chronic sleep issues such as insomnia, Sleep Hygiene may not work.
When Sleep Hygiene Doesn’t Work
The traditional advice of doing things to help you sleep better can actually add to sleep problems for some people, particularly those suffering from insomnia.
Although good advice, sleep hygiene promotes the act of ‘doing’ to get to sleep, which can be counterproductive.
Stop Trying To Sleep
If you ask someone who doesn’t have a sleep problem how they get to sleep they will most likely say, ‘well, I go to bed, turn off my light and go to sleep’.
Yet, if you ask someone suffering from insomnia what they do to fall asleep it may go something like this…’ I don’t eat too late, I wind down an hour before bed which includes a warm bath, I make sure my room is cold and there is no noise or light to interrupt my sleep, I read until I’m sleepy and if I don’t fall asleep, I get up and go downstairs.’.
Understandably, people who suffer from serve sleep problems are desperate to get a good night’s sleep and will do anything to make that happen. But that’s the problem, they are trying too hard to make it happen.
The difference is the amount of ‘doing’, someone who doesn’t have a sleep problem does nothing to get to sleep. Our bodies know how to fall asleep, we just need to learn to get out of the way. This is where ACT comes in – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Advocates of ACT such as the Sleep School teach people to accept what is happening and learn mental flexibility and openness to uncomfortable situations rather than struggling against them. In other words, stop struggling against not sleeping.
Learning to accept that you cannot sleep along with adopting other ACT techniques, helps to improve your relationship with sleep. Over time, it teaches you to relax and accept whatever comes up in the mind or body. It teaches you that resting in bed and adopting mindfulness techniques, as opposed to getting up, is far better in aiding rest. Although rest is not as good as sleep in terms of restoring the mind and body, it is giving the body some chance to recoup from the day. More so than getting up.
In some cases, people who suffer from sleep problems have lost their relationship with sleep and sleep is seen as an issue they have to solve – like any other problem in life. But ACT and mindfulness aim to improve that relationship you have with sleep.
Practising good Sleep Hygiene can help your body's circadian rhythm stay in balance, helping you to get a restful night's sleep. This in turn helps your body recover from the day and has a long term positive impact on your physical and mental health. It helps keep your immune system strong, supports hormone health and helps regulate the body's metabolism.
When Sleep Hygiene doesn't work, as in the case of insomnia, then other techniques need to be employed to help your mind and body get back into their normal rhythm of sleep. This is where techniques such as ACT and mindfulness can help people overcome insomnia and anxiety related to not sleeping .