Studies routinely show a majority of Americans are running a sleep deficit -that is, most of us aren’t sleeping enough. Most adults require between 7–8 hours of quality sleep to replenish vital bodily systems and to feel well rested. Yet besides leading to groggy, grouchy mornings and less productive days, many of us don’t realize that not getting enough good sleep can also make us more susceptible to illness.
Quality sleep is important for your immune system to function at its best
A recent German study found that sleep plays a direct role in regulating important immune system cells called T cells. Sleep also helps reduce inflammation in the body, limits the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and increases blood sugar regulation. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can keep our bodies in a ‘fight or flight’ state which over time taxes our immune system’s ability to respond effectively to antigens — toxins and substances foreign to the body that induce antibody production. These can include common irritants that cause allergic response such as pollen, dust and pet dander or pathogens that cause disease such as cold and flu.
What is sleep hygiene?
As with other forms of personal hygiene, such as how we go about brushing our teeth or the order in which we put on our clothes, sleep hygiene is the routine or set of habits a person utilizes to foster quality sleep. Here are a few important aspects of good sleep hygiene from which to build your own routine:
1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Throughout the night, our bodies shift between lighter and deeper sleep cycles several times, roughly analogous to how a washing machine has a soak, wash and rinse cycle. The body regulates these cycles through a complex system called circadian rhythm, which is the body’s way of synchronizing with night and day. Circadian rhythm is very sensitive to even small changes. This is why staying in bed longer than usual — ‘sleeping in’ — on the weekends can leave you feeling groggy and under rested. For this reason, endeavor to schedule for yourself a bedtime and wake up time that allows for 7–8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night and stick to it, even on weekends. Oh, and wean yourself off of snooze button use; that extra 5–10 minutes of usually restless sleep is just enough to interfere with your circadian rhythm.
2. Don’t eat heavy meals right before bed and be mindful of caffeine intake
Finish any heavy eating 3 to 4 hours before bedtime. If you’re a late-night nibbler, try snacking on foods that promote relaxation and do not inhibit sleep, such as almonds, cottage cheese or berries. Fatty, sugary and spicy foods can tax the digestive system and/or induce alertness, so avoid consuming them late in the evening.
The stimulative effect of caffeine lasts for many hours after consumption and can disrupt your circadian rhythm. A good rule of thumb is to take your final cup of coffee or tea at least 8 hours before your scheduled bedtime.
While a glass of wine or a so-called nightcap can indeed induce sleep, alcohol intake is known to disrupt sleep cycles. If you must imbibe, take with your evening meal and be sure to limit your intake.
3. Create a wind down time each evening
Give your body a clear signal that it’s time to relax and get ready to sleep. An hour or two before bedtime, turn off electronic devices and tie up any loose ends of the current day. Blue light from TV, computer and phone screens has been shown by researchers to be stimulative and have an adverse effect on sleep quality. So make a habit of turning off your blue light emitting devices and picking up a book or magazine to read instead.
4. Try adding some light stretching and breathing exercises before bed
While any exercise that significantly raises the heart rate should be completed at least 4 hours before bed, many people find that a few non-strenuous yogic poses or other light stretching can help lead to restful sleep.
Meditation, prayer or mindful breathing are also proven effective at promoting relaxation which can lead to good sleep. Find an app for guided meditations (one that can be used without looking at your screen!) or put on some gentle music or nature sounds and breathe deeply and mindfully for a few minutes. Focus on clearing the mind and setting aside the issues from the day so that your brain isn’t distracted from getting a good night’s rest.
5. Keep the room where you sleep dark and cool
Use blackout curtains, retractable window coverings or wear an eye mask to block out as much outside light as possible. Even a small amount of early morning sunlight hitting your eyes before your wake-up time can cause you to begin to awaken prematurely or adversely affect the quality of your sleep.
A considerable body of research informs that the ideal room temperature for sleeping is 68 degrees Fahrenheit. While maintaining a constant temperature can be a challenge in homes without a centralized climate control system, particularly during summer months in warmer climes, try your best to keep room conditions cool. Window based air conditioners, box fans and ceiling fans can all be of help in either actually reducing the temperature in a room or circulating air enough to give the body a cooler feeling.
Sleeping with as few items of clothing on as possible and choosing bed sheets made of breathable fabrics, such as cotton or bamboo, can also contribute significantly to ensuring a cool, comfortable sleeping environment.
We all know how amazing that ‘pep in your step’ feeling of starting the day refreshed after a great night of sleep feels. In our always on-the-go culture, achieving that feeling consistently is undoubtedly a challenge. Yet it’s one of the most impactful personal habits we can develop and improve upon to prime our immune systems and keep ourselves healthy. So here’s to better and more restful sleep, starting tonight!