We all could use more sleep. When juggling life’s many demands, sleep is usually one of the first things to take a backseat. Even when we make a concerted effort to catch more Zs, it can prove to be a serious struggle. “It took years of practice and experience to realize just how important rest and sleep are to total well-being," recounts Jasmine Rausch, yoga therapist, educator, and sleep hygiene expert. We reached out to her to explain what sleep hygiene is and offer actionable advice for how to improve it.
"Sleep hygiene can simply be described as sleep habits and practices that allow us to have high-quality restful sleep," explains Rausch. It’s the cumulation of the choices you make, not just before bedtime but during your day. And in the modern world, sleep hygiene is challenged more and more. "Today we’re confronted with constant stimuli and the hectic schedule of modern life,” observes Rausch. She notes that adults are averaging six and a half hours of sleep and are operating from a place of depletion. “Studies have proven that sleep deprivation can negatively affect memory, judgment, mental and emotional health, and can compromise our immune system,” she warns. “Additionally, lack of sleep puts us at greater risk of preventable chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer."
Overhauling our sleep hygiene is a proactive way to ensure you’re getting more—and higher quality—shut-eye. “There is no one size fits all when recommending a sleep routine, but there are some key habits that science has told us to avoid—like caffeine, technology, and light—to limit sleep disturbances and improve the quality of our rest,” explains Rausch. “It's always wise to listen to your body's sleep cues and not fight your primal need and want for rest.” Here, Rausch details how to overhaul your nighttime routine to clean up your sleep hygiene.
One of the most impactful ways you can adjust your nighttime routine is to make an effort to unplug when you begin to wind down for bed. "After a long day, I used to find comfort in falling asleep to the noise of the television or reading news on my phone until my eyes got heavy," describes Rausch. "My heart sank when scientists discovered the negative effects of this habit."
Rausch goes on to explain that televisions and cell phones—as well as other devices—emit blue light, which has been shown to keep you stimulated, suppress melatonin production (the sleep hormone) and shorten our sleep cycle. "Studies show that those exposed to blue light before bed were sleepier and took longer to wake up," she says. Make a habit of minimizing your screen time just before bed.
Cut back on caffeine.
“We all think we're invincible to the powers of caffeine and that it has little to no effect on your sleep,” observes Rausch. “But the truth is that caffeine stimulates your nervous system and causes a sense of excitability and alertness in the brain.” So the next time you’re at a restaurant and the server asks if anyone wants a coffee to wrap up the evening, it’s wise to pass and just ask for the bill. “While you may feel comforted and soothed by your nighttime treat, you are most likely risking the amount of deep sleep you'll enjoy throughout the night,” warns Rausch.
It isn’t just after-dinner espressos that are threatening your shut-eye. Turning to caffeine to cure an afternoon slump at the office can be problematic too. ”Studies done on caffeine and sleep show that consuming caffeine six hours prior to bedtime can have significant effects on sleep quality and lead to sleep disturbances,” cites Rausch. “This is definitely a good reason to also rethink that midday pick me up!" As a general rule, it’s advised to cut off your caffeine intake after 4 p.m. if you want to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep.
Stretch before bedtime.
Stretching does more than just signal to your body that it’s time to begin winding down. "Gentle stretching coupled with slowed breathing is a great way to progressively relax our muscles and let go of the day’s energy,” says Rausch. “We are not only encouraging our muscles to release, but we are also releasing tension in our fascia—the thick connective tissue that covers every muscle, bone, nerve, and organ.” She explains that because our fascia runs throughout the entire body, releasing fascial tension can stimulate our nervous system.
Rausch recommends two particular stretches to help with sleep. The first is supported bridge pose or legs up against the wall (or headboard). She explains that this “helps reverse rounded shoulders, promotes lung expansion to ease breathing, lengthens the cervical spine, and allows blood to easily flow to vital organs.” You can place a block or pillow underneath the hips for support and to create an incline. The second pose Rausch recommends is seated or reclining forward fold which she says “stretches the entire back body, helps focus our attention inward, and offers a cooling effect on the nervous system.”
Take a bath.
Who doesn’t want to sink into a soothing bath to unwind from a long tiring day? Well it might also be the secret to better sleep. "Taking a warm relaxing bath or shower at least two hours before bedtime can be a great way to ease muscle tension and cleanse yourself of the work day busyness,” says Rausch. “Our body temperature dips when we sleep so raising it a degree or two with a bath will lead to a quick cool-down period immediately afterwards. This is likely to relax you and prepare you for deep sleep."
Go to bed before you're ready to completely pass out.
"This one is huge!" exclaims Rausch. "I only started doing this a year ago and it has worked wonders." She explains that feelings of sleepiness and drowsiness are our bodies' cues that we are ready for sleep. "As we get older, we are more inclined to dismiss these cues and, instead, choose to stay awake and fight sleepiness in order to finish emails, watch our favorite shows, or send one last clever GIF to our friend," she describes. "Taking some time to wind down, listening to my body's sleep cues, and hopping into bed before I completely crash has afforded me time to reflect on the day, express my gratitude, and reconnect back with myself."
Use your bedroom solely for sleeping and intimacy.
"On your way home from a long day of work, where do you fantasize about being?" asks Rausch. "For me, it's my bedroom—that's because it's my safe haven." Even though most of us can agree, she points out that many of us still use our bedrooms as a place to watch movies, snack, do work, and scroll through social media. "With all these distractions, we are teaching ourselves to recognize our bedroom as a place of activity and not one of rest and intimacy," Rausch warns. "By limiting our bedroom activities and keeping our safe haven truly safe from all the world's distractions and life stressors, we can shift our relationship with our sleep space and ultimately improve our well-being."
Optimize your bedroom.
Create an environment that will encourage you to fall (and stay) asleep. “Set the temperature between 61 to 67 degrees for optimal comfort,” advises Rausch. “Because our bodies naturally drop in temperature when we sleep, changing the temperature of your room can help this process.” She recommends listening to relaxing music or a guided meditation to help drown out unwanted noises or disturbances—and also to silence your phone so you’re not interrupted by incoming texts or emails. “Use a diffuser to help bring an aroma—like lavender or chamomile—into the space to invite in calm and ease,” suggests Rausch. And last but not least, “keep your room dark to increase the production of melatonin and to signal to the brain that it’s nighttime.
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