A Recipe for Super-Good Sleep
Sleep hygiene is what it sounds like—the practice of keeping your sleep clean. Sleep is vitally important to our health and wellbeing. During sleep is when our bodies actually do a lot of their own housekeeping maintenance and hygiene.
Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga, and can be thought of as traditional Eastern medicine. In Ayurveda, sleep is one of the pillars of health; it's considered to be as important as your eating habits in maintaining health and balance in the body. Sleep is when the body is able to repair and heal itself. In Eastern healing philosophies, if you're feeling sick or rundown, exercise is swapped out for more rest. This is because you are already depleted and your body needs energy reserves to fight the infection, or to help your nervous and endocrine system recover from overwhelm and stress.
In Western medicine, we're told we need to power through and get by on pharmaceutical aid, but I encourage you to adopt a more body-centric approach. If we don't get the rest our body is asking for, we cannot absorb all the good things we're doing for ourselves—from food, to mindfulness and movement—and our body won't have the energy to handle much outside of our basic functioning and needs, much less the unpleasant and unavoidable.
In fact, most mental health distress involves some component of disturbed sleep. If you're in a particularly stressful season of life, and you're working off the bare minimum of self-care, sleep makes the short list. Prioritize it above almost everything else. Let it dictate your schedule. When you do, the rest of your schedule becomes more enjoyable because you're actually fully awake for it.
So here, we'll go down the list of things we need to do in order to maintain good sleep hygiene.
Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. If you have a warm bath, do so about 90 minutes before you want to be asleep. The key word here is relaxing. Don't add more things to your list in the name of "self-care" if it actually is just giving you a longer to-do list. Think in terms of removing things from your evening routine. How can you simplify it? Having a regular and easy bedtime routine that you complete every night will begin to help your mind associate that routine with the idea that sleep is coming. Over time, your routine will signal to your mind that it's time to sleep, and therefore help you have an easier time going to sleep.
Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, the room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright. Most people sleep best around 68-69 F (though that is way too cold for me). If you find yourself waking up sweaty or waking up because you're shivering, your thermostat is off. Adjust it a few degrees until you find the right spot for you. Having your room completely dark, or near complete darkness will help, as well. You can get black out shades or curtains, or keep it simple with a light-blocking sleep mask.
Associate your bed with sleep. It's not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV—in fact, I recommend not even having a TV in your bedroom. Your bed is also not for reading, studying, having arguments, laying awake worrying, scrolling social media, etc. Use the bed only for sleep and good sex or self-pleasure.
Maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern seven days a week. Many of us like to "sleep in" on the weekends or think that we can "catch up" on sleep. This comes from a made up idea that we need to spend a fixed number of hours asleep and if we get too few one night, we can add them back the next day. However, this is another place where it's more helpful to think of it like investing or exercising. Say you meant to exercise for an hour every day for a week, but you didn't. You wouldn't then go exercise for 7 hours on a Sunday. Even if you did, you wouldn't expect to get the same results had you spread that out over the whole week. Just like investing, if you don't put the money in, it doesn't grow with compound interest. If you put the money in the next day, you can't go back and earn what you would have made if you'd invested the previous day. Sleep is the same way—we go through daily rhythms when it comes to sleep, and requires daily investment. So even on the weekends, try to wake up within an hour or two of when you normally would during the week. If that idea feels exhausting to you, it means you're not getting enough sleep during the week.
Sleep during the optimal time for sleep—at night. Our brain has a clock that runs on a 24 hour cycle (that's what the word circadian means). That clock is set by the daylight signals that we get through our eyes. That's why you may have heard of things like shift work disorder or seasonal affective disorder—when our bodies aren't exposed to light at the rhythm and interval our bodies expect, it negatively impacts the functioning of your brain. You may notice that 8 hours of sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. feels better than 8 hours of sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Spend an appropriate amount of time in bed, not too little, or too excessive. Try 8-9 hours if you’re sleepy during the day, 7 hours if you’re having trouble sleeping at night.
Waking Up + Daytime
Ensure adequate exposure to natural light in the morning. Again, this helps keep the "clock" in your brain running smoothly. When you wake up in the morning, open all your curtains. This not only helps you wake up to a natural level of alertness, it will help you fall asleep at night because your 24-hour-brain-clock has been in sync with the natural rhythms of our daylight.
Avoid napping during the day. If you need to nap, make sure you’re awake by 1pm.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine after 3pm (or after 12pm if you’re having trouble falling asleep). Avoid large meals close to bedtime (especially overly spicy or caffeinated dishes).
Avoid alcohol in excess. Alcohol is initially a depressant (meaning it lowers activation of your nervous system). It works by enhancing how your body converts melatonin, which can make you feel sleepy and help you get to sleep. However, it does not maintain your melatonin levels, so as the effect wears off, you will become more alert and it will mess up your sleep cycles.
Exercise. Vigorous exercise should be taken in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed.
And this gets us back to that new bedtime routine you've set up for yourself!
You may find that this is initially difficult to do, or you may have a lot of resistance coming up about the idea of prioritizing sleep in your life. Most people do. Thoughts like, "but my job requires me to..." and "But then I wouldn't have time to do anything I want to do..." or "I don't know how to fall asleep without a TV..." All these thoughts signal a place of dis-ease, and in our culture most people do have a serious sense of dis-ease around sleep and rest. Most of us are taught to believe we we have to earn the right to rest, we need to hustle, and we can sleep when we're dead.
Work, activity, busy-ness, all of these things are like gas—they will take up whatever space we allow them to. If you're having some of those thoughts and feelings of resistance, it's okay. Be curious about them, what do they have to tell you? This may be a good place to journal—whatever is coming up for you about the idea of your body getting more rest and sleep, let it out.
Try This Experiment
Ask yourself, "What if sleep was non-negotiable?"
What would have to shift?
What would you have to get rid of all together?
If you have any corrections or additions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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