How to Hack your Sleep Hygiene
Do you wake up refreshed and alert and ready to take on the day, or do you wake up groggy and scrambling for the snooze button? Do you fall asleep easily or do you toss and turn, worrying about whether you’ll get enough sleep before you have to wake up?
Sleep is probably one of the most important (if not the most important) pillars of our health. Sadly, it is also a very overlooked and often compromised pillar of health. It is only in recent years that we’ve really started gaining an understanding of the immense importance of getting enough quality sleep, with the link between poor sleep and chronic disease being undeniably strong.
We all have busy schedules and to fit in with family, work, workouts and everything else, we tend to go to bed later and wake up earlier. However, the downstream consequences of increased stress, eating more, gaining weight due to insulin resistance, out-of-whack hormones, impaired muscle repair and impaired brain functioning are serious, and we should all try to OPTIMIZE our sleep as much as possible!
Sometimes people can’t sleep because of recent trauma, and other times people suffer from chronic insomnia. The latter is often caused by one or a combination of the following which we can all relate to at some point or another:
- Anxiety or depression
- Physical pain
- Hormonal changes
- Environmental toxins
- Excess cortisol and stress
- Past trauma
- Autoimmune disorders
- Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and certain medications
- Inconsistent schedules and travelling
- Poor sleep hygiene
Below are six key sleep habits (known collectively as sleep hygiene) that can help you find your way to optimal sleep. Small adjustments over time all add up and allow you to be at the top of your game and OPTIMIZE your overall health!
1. Sleep Schedule
Going to bed and waking up at consistent times (even on weekends to the extent possible) sets our internal clock and regulates melatonin (sleep hormone) production. This means that even if you had a bad night’s sleep, aim to still get up at the same time you usually do. When you do this, you train your brain to create a pattern of consistency, and you are able to fall asleep easier and wake up feeling refreshed because your body knows exactly what to expect. Part of going to bed at the same time is setting a wind-down routine for yourself, which we will discuss next.
2. Pre-bedtime Routine
The actions you take in the hours and minutes before you turn off the lights make all the difference to the quality of your sleep! Which means you’re super empowered to dictate your sleeping superpowers.
Wind-down routine: 30 minutes prior to bed, make a concerted effort to wind down. This could include stretching, reading a book (preferably not on an e-reader), or using apps like Calm, BrainFM or Oura that have specific music or stories to listen to that get you ready for sleep. Lavender oil or magnesium in a bath also works well.
Manage stress: This is a good time to meditate, journal (it helps to “deal” with the day’s stressors in a tangible way), breathing exercises or spend time with loved ones just chatting.
Lights: You want to start dimming the lights in your house. If you’re able to, replace the lights in your house with red incandescent lights or wear blue light blocking glasses to avoid the melatonin-inhibiting effects of blue light. Red light therapy devices are also useful in a pre-bed routine.
Screen time: Avoid screens as much as possible and make sure that they’re switched to Night Mode. Just reducing the brightness increases the flicker so won’t help on its own. It’s also best to avoid social media or work on your devices that have the potential to rile you up before bedtime!
3. Food, Drink and Alcohol
Food: Eating a heavy meal close to bedtime negatively affects the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and melatonin.
Alcohol and caffeine: These are both stimulants that impair our sleep quality. While alcohol may help you wind down and feel drowsy, it actually hinders your ability to go into REM sleep, which is crucial for memory and learning, as well as physical recovery. If you are drinking, try moderate your intake or stop as close as possible to bed. Caffeine from tea and coffee is just going to keep you awake, especially if you are a slow metabolizer of coffee. Rooibos or chamomile tea on the other hand don’t have caffeine and can help calm you before bed to lull you to dreamland.
Water: A reason why people often experience having to pee frequently during the night as they get older is due to how cortisol (the “stress” hormone) is regulated as we age. So, a calming pre-bedtime routine is key, but it’s also important to not drink too much water before you go to bed, which obviously doesn’t help the problem! Rather save that water for first thing when you wake up and your body is naturally dehydrated.
4. The Bedroom Environment
Temperature: The ideal average temperature for most people for a good night’s rest is around 18 degrees. Keep your bedroom in this region if possible for optimal sleep, or look into “cooling mats” that you can put on your mattress for better sleep.
Light: A recent study from Northwestern University called “Close the blinds during sleep to protect your health” showed that even moderate exposure to light (for example from street lights shining in or that red light on your multiplug) during sleep can harm your cardiovascular and glucose regulation, which means your heart health and insulin resistance is impacted negatively. I’ve actually seen this glucose spike at night on a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), so prioritise sleeping in a very dark bedroom (sorry, no night lights, preferably not for kids either!). Block out curtains and a good sleep mask makes a world of difference. Also, if you have to get up at night, a good habit is to grab blue light blocking glasses to minimise the impact of blue light in your nightly wanderings.
Noise: We can’t always control outside noises, so there are a number of apps that generate pink noise (white noise also works) which is quite beneficial for sleep. The app BrainFM also has 8-hour long options for sleep that I’ve personally found really great for sleep.
Grounding mat: Given the benefits of earthing for our overall health, buying a grounding mat and sleeping on that mat (i.e. it’s placed on top of your sheets) has a really positive impact on your sleep.
Cosy and comfortable! Sleeping on soft sheets in a calm, comforting environment makes a big difference to your sleep mindset. Make your bedroom a place of tranquillity and peace (a TV is definitely not recommended) to really enjoy your ZZZ’s to the maximum!
A bedroom is good for two things: sleep and sex. Keep work and TV and other distractions out of it!
Very interesting research postulates that the “natural” and original daily routines for humans include sleeping twice daily. One long sleep at night and a nap during the day. Siesta anyone?! It’s best to keep naps to 20-30 minutes, but they should never last longer than 90 minutes, at which time sleep inertia sets in and you’ll feel very groggy when waking as your body will go into a second sleep cycle. Taking a nap (and no later than 4pm so your “night” sleep isn’t affected) has actually shown to improve sleep and health. Sounds like dreamy medicine to me!
Despite all of the above advice, we sometimes need a little extra help with sleep. It’s not really practical to stay off of all devices, live by candlelight and avoid a late-night snack or drinking alcohol all the time!
There are a number of problems with sleeping pills, least of all that they don’t do your sleep quality any favours, even if they do help you fall asleep. But there are some natural supplements that do a magnificent job at supporting your ability to fall asleep as well as keeping you asleep and ensuring that you have good quality sleep.
Some of my personal favourites are magnesium glycinate (or even taking a bath with Epsom salts), Phenibut, the Huberman sleep stack (which contains L-Theanine, Magnesium L-Threonate and Apigenin), a good amino acid complex, PrimeSelf’s Natural Sleep and NeuroActive’s Neuro Night. The last two have innovative combinations of some of the best-known natural ingredients to promote sleep and they work like a charm!
There are some more complex reasons and conditions that inhibit sleep, like sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy. There is definitely a time and place to seek medical advice to address these, especially as sleep apnoea appears to be becoming more prevalent and few people are even aware that they suffer from it.
However, the above six sleep hygiene hacks go a long way to helping most people get the quality sleep that they require for optimal health. Studies show that driving on inadequate sleep is MORE dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol, so no matter how much you feel like you can compromise sleep, the truth is simply that no one can compromise on sleep!
Follow the above advice and over time, reap the benefits and enjoy a longer, healthier life with your best sleep ever!
- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.