Whether you’re someone who’s tossed and turned at night for as long as you can remember, or your sleep struggles are a new and very unwelcome overnight visitor, you might have heard the term “sleep hygiene” kicked around. It’s the go-to advice for getting better sleep for a reason; data shows that the right habits and sleep environment really do prime your body for a more restful night.
How you spend your day affects how you sleep at night
New data from SleepScore Labs, our partners in sleep science, shows that what we do during the day directly impacts our sleep at night. Habits that can worsen sleep quality and length include:
- Inconsistent bedtimes and wake-up times
- Using social media before bed
- Consuming alcohol or caffeine too soon before bed
- Eating overly heavy meals
- Feelings of anxiety or stress
- Daytime naps
Creating a calming, comfortable bedroom environment — one that’s quiet, dark, and cool, with a sleep surface that benefits your sleep needs — can help set the stage for a peaceful night, especially when paired with a regular nightly wind-down routine that cues your brain to slow its roll. A bedtime routine can involve meditation, reading, breathwork, stretching, a warm bath, or anything else that relaxes you. Most importantly, it gets you off your phone or TV.
“Sometimes it’s not so much about awareness as it is the actual implementation of helpful sleep strategies,” says Dr. Chris Winter, sleep neurologist, Mattress Firm Sleep Advisor, and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.” “This is a problem I see with a lot of patients. They know what to do, but they don’t do it.”
Here are top sleep hygiene practices and tips for incorporating them into your routine.
Sleep hygiene tip #1: Keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule
Your bedtime might vary depending on the shows you’re watching or how late you’re working. Then, after a late night, you might be tempted to sleep in the next morning. But that might not be a great idea: “Your body and brain thrive on routine, and that includes a consistent sleep schedule,” says Winter. “Your brain releases hormones that make you awake and sleepy at certain times. The more you stick to a schedule, the stronger those sleep and wake signals get. So whether it’s a workday or the weekend, try to get up at the same time, give or take 30 minutes.”
Sleep hygiene tip #2: Get early morning sunlight
When it comes to sleep, the most important thing for setting your biological clock is to get sunlight in your eyes when you wake up, says Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. The same way you need darkness to cue your brain that it’s time for sleep, your body needs light to set your circadian rhythms to daytime.
Morning light signals the brain to kick off cortisol production and stop melatonin production, letting your body know that your day has started. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, Huberman says. The important thing is to get some sun for at least a few minutes soon after getting out of bed.
Sleep hygiene tip #3: Get moving (and try resistance training)
According to a 2018 Department of Health and Human Services report, regular aerobic exercise can improve the quality of your sleep.
Angelique Brellenthin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, further researched strength training and found that resistance exercises, which work to strengthen muscles, may actually be better than aerobics for improving the duration and quality of your sleep. One possible reason is that weight training stimulates growth in muscle cells, which boosts levels of testosterone and growth hormone in the body “and both of these hormones have been linked more broadly with better, deeper sleep.”
“There’s solid evidence that exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality,” says Winter. “Moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep — the deep-sleep stage when your brain and body rejuvenate. Exercise can also help stabilize your mood and decompress your mind, a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep.
“Whatever you do, you should be moving every day, especially now. It will have a very positive effect on your sleep,” he says.
Sleep hygiene tip #4: Find stress management tools that work for you/manage your stress
According to Hopkins Medicine, a recent national survey found that 44% of adults said stress had caused sleepless nights at least once during the previous month.
“Stress and sleepless nights are closely linked,” says Winter. Stress management techniques can help you feel calmer and sleep better. Things like progressive muscle relaxation, guided breathing, journaling, meditation, and yoga for insomnia all are great tools to physically and mentally bring about the relaxation response, Winter says. And of course, exercise is a proven stress buster. All can help you sleep better … and getting regular sleep on a daily basis can definitely help in handling stress.
Don’t overlook your bedroom environment, too — keeping your sleeping space clutter-free and using calming sounds or aromatherapeutic fragrances can help ease you into sleep.
Sleep hygiene tip #5: Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet
When it comes to getting good sleep, middle-of-the-night sleep disruptors can cause major headaches. Just remember “cool, dark, and quiet” when thinking through how to manage your sleep space.
Cool means keeping your bedroom somewhere between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit and ensuring that your mattress, sheets, and pillow don’t trap heat. The right mattress should be supportive and breathable, and many have cooling properties.
Blackout curtains or a sleep mask can help keep your space dark to enable you to sleep until your natural wake-up time, and a sound machine can block ambient noise from neighbors or street traffic.
Sleep hygiene tip #6: Cut out processed foods and late meals at night, which can lead to poor sleep
When you eat a meal within 3 hours of bedtime, your digestive organs have to ramp up to process the food rather than wind down for rest. That’s not conducive to good sleep, especially if you’re prone to heartburn, which can result in discomfort that keeps you awake.
A recent study published in JAMA Network Open showed that after just 8 weeks, participants who ate more whole foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, olive oil, seafood, poultry, eggs, and herbs), avoided ultra-processed foods (processed meats, salty snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages), and increased their step count by 15% had a 51% reduction in the number of obstructive sleep apnea episodes during nightly sleep.
“If you increase the variety of your diet, and you’re getting an appropriate amount of the raw proteins needed to make tryptophan — good protein sources of tryptophan are milk, cheese, chicken, egg whites, fish, nuts, and seeds — you’re going to support your sleep in wonderful ways,” says Winter.
Sleep hygiene tip #7: Knock off/nix the nightcaps
A stiff drink or nice glass of wine initially may make you drowsy, and many people mistake the sedative effect of alcohol with relaxation and sleep. From a physiological perspective, that’s not the case. In fact, alcohol can actually disrupt the architecture and, consequently, the quality of your sleep.
Many of the neurotransmitters known to be involved in wake-sleep regulation are also affected by alcohol, and thus, not surprisingly, alcohol affects sleep in a number of ways. Alcohol consumption before bed can delay sleep onset, meaning it’ll be harder to fall asleep, Winter says. (There’s a difference between passing out and falling asleep!) “As liver enzymes metabolize the alcohol during the night, you’re also more likely to experience sleep disruptions and a decrease in sleep quality.”
Winter recommends ideally having your last drink 4 to 6 hours before bed.
Sleep hygiene tip #8: Cut down on social media scrolling around bedtime
Plenty of studies have linked smartphone use in bed to poor-quality sleep. You probably already know that blue light from electronics can disrupt your circadian rhythm, including suppressing the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. What we typically forget: The 10 minutes you’ve allowed yourself to scroll through your social media feeds often turns into an hour or more. And whatever you’re doing on your phone is keeping your brain wired and on alert.
Social media in particular can trigger a wide range of emotions that stimulate your brain and make it difficult to fall asleep. In fact, research has shown that anxiety and smartphone use often go hand in hand, especially among younger people, partly because consuming social media often makes people feel “less than” by encouraging social comparisons. A critical mass of research indicates that cellphone use at nighttime is best avoided, says Winter.
The best way to stick to your sleep hygiene routine
Healthy routines create powerful anchors for the recurring internal mechanisms within our bodies. If you’re having a hard time sleeping, or just want to dig into living as healthfully as possible, you’ll have more control over your sleep than you think. By making intentional choices — and following through — you can help train your body to sleep well.