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  • Writer's pictureLehandra Riley

Sleep Hygiene

Yes you read right and no it does not refer to climbing into bed washed and clean (however, that is not a bad idea) or sleeping in the bathtub. Sleep hygiene refers to good sleeping habits. In this post you will find some interesting facts about sleep and helpful tips for improving overall sleep hygiene.

When I think of the word sleep I cannot help but think about my cats and how peacefully they seem to fall and stay asleep without a care in the world. It goes without saying that cats have the good life when it comes to sleep as they catch between 12-16 hours of zz's a day. When it comes to us humans the amount of sleep we need depends on our age.

According to the above table newborns can sleep even longer than cats, while the elderly need the least amount of sleep. It is important to remember that the amount of sleep we get each day plays an important part in maintaining our overall health and wellbeing. Good quality sleep is especially essential.

Why is sleep so important?

There exists a myriad of evidence and research on the importance of sleep. Some of the main reasons why sleep is important is:

  • It is essential to every process in the body

  • It affects our physical and mental functioning

  • It affects our ability to fight disease and build immunity

  • It also affects our metabolism and chronic disease risk

Sleep is therefore truly interdisciplinary as it affects every aspect of our health.

What happens when we do not sleep?

In short it will severely impact your overall health and wellbeing, while complete lack of sleep can (in severe, but rare cases) lead to death (as with sleep disorders such as Fatal familial insomnia). It therefore goes without saying that it can be extremely dangerous to go without sleep (even for one day) as it can severely impact our cognitive functioning.

Do not attempt this: During a sleep experiment (December 1963-January 1964) Randy Gardner set the record for the longest amount of time a human has gone without sleep. Gardner stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes (264.4 hours).

It is unclear how long humans can survive without sleep, however it does not take long before the effects of sleep deprivation starts to appear. After only three or four nights without sleep we can start to hallucinate. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to:

  • cognitive impairments

  • irritability

  • delusions

  • paranoia

  • psychosis

What happens when sleep deprivation becomes chronic?

In short chronic sleep deprivation (CSD) refers to getting insufficient sleep or experiencing sleeplessness over an extended period of time. CSD can vary in its severity. It may be primary or secondary, meaning that it could be a problem in and of itself (e.g. when CSD is caused by anxiety or insomnia) or caused by another unrelated issue (e.g. a medical condition).

CSD is different than pulling an all-nighter once in a while or staying awake a few hours past your bedtime.

Not getting enough sleep over a short period, such as a week, may cause:

  • anxiety

  • unstable mood

  • drowsiness

  • forgetfulness

  • difficulty concentrating

  • difficulty staying alert

  • cognitive impairments

  • decreased performance at work or school

  • increased risk of illness or injury

In the long term, not getting enough sleep can reduce immune functioning and increase your risk of certain health conditions. These include:

  • high blood pressure

  • heart disease

  • stroke

  • obesity

  • type 2 diabetes

  • mental illness

Even though it is unclear how long we can truly survive without sleep it is clear that extreme symptoms can start showing in as little as 36 hours. These symptoms reduces our ability to think, leads to poor decision-making and speech impairment.

If that deadline is near or you had to work way past bedtime once every couple of months there likely would not be long term damage. However, it is important to consult your doctor if you notice any change in your sleep patterns and habits. Your doctor can get to the root cause of the disturbed or irregular sleep patterns or habits and help you to get your sleep back on track. If you are staying awake out of necessity (e.g. night shift), your doctor might be able to offer you advice on how to do so in the most health-conscious way.

When do I know that I need to improve the quality of my sleep?

Even though the amount of sleep we get each day is important, other aspects regarding sleep also contribute to our health and wellbeing. Signs of poor quality sleep includes:

  • Not feeling rested even after getting enough sleep

  • Repeatedly waking up during the night

  • Experiencing sleep disorder symptoms (e.g. snoring, gasping for air) Any sleep disorder symptoms such as snoring or gasping for air can indicate a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.

If you experience any of the above it would be a good idea to improve your sleeping habits or consult a doctor or sleep clinic.

Technology and sleep

The number one culprit that affects healthy and uninterrupted sleep is technology.

A technology-free bedroom can enhance sleep by preventing various problems brought on by device usage at night, such as:

  • Delaying the time we go to sleep by using devices.

  • Stimulating our mind and making it harder to fall asleep.

  • Sound and blinking lights can cause unwanted awakenings (when sleeping next to devices).

  • The blue light emitted by many devices can disrupt our natural melatonin production and throw off our circadian rhythm.

Remember: Even when we put our devices on silent mode, having these devices in our bedroom creates temptation to use them.

In cases where you need to have your phone near (e.g. emergencies or being on call) put the phone face down on your bedside table and resist the temptation to use the device unless absolutely necessary.

When technology benefits sleep

Even though technology could be a major hindrance to healthy sleep hygiene, there are plenty of upsides when it comes to sleep technology too. Some examples of beneficial technologies to aid sleep include:

  • Apps that use sound recordings to track snoring.

  • Apps that help adjust your sleep schedule when traveling (to aid with jet lag).

  • Guided medications to help ease sleep.

  • Ambience noise e.g. ocean waves, nature sounds etc.

There are plenty of innovations when it comes to the development of new technological devices to aid sleep. Recently, engineering students at Western Michigan University developed a wearable wristband for narcolepsy with sensors to detect when someone is about to fall asleep. There is even a new device intended to reduce sleep disturbances related to nightmares.

Top tips for healthy sleep hygiene

Now that we know how essential healthy sleep hygiene is for us we can explore some interesting and helpful tips to help us improve our overall sleep hygiene.

  1. Consistency is key. Follow a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning (including weekends). Going to bed when you are most likely to feel sleepy is a good place to start.

  2. Give your body cues associated with sleep. An example of this is listening to some ambient noise or soothing music 15 minutes before you are scheduled to sleep.

  3. Make your bedroom an inviting space to sleep by making sure it is quiet, dark, relaxing and at a comfortable temperature. An eye mask can help with blocking out light and creating a darker environment. Interesting fact: According to researchers sleeping in a overly warm environment can lead to nightmares and more vivid dreams.

  4. Try to create a technology free environment in your bedroom as much as possible. Cut down on screen time at least two hours before bed.

  5. Avoid large meals (three hours before bed), caffeine (six hours before bed) and alcohol (three hours before bed) before bedtime. Interesting fact: The half life of caffeine is between four to six hours. This means that up to six hours after consuming caffeine it still has a stimulating effect on your body that can keep you awake.

  6. Sunlight is your friend. Spend about half an hour each day in direct sunlight. In the morning go outside and feel the sun for about 15 minutes. This will help regulate your circadian rhythm.

  7. Get moving! Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep much easier at night.

  8. Associate your bed with sleeping. Make your room a tranquil place and work-free zone.

  9. Take a nice warm bath about two hours before sleeping. This relaxes the body and the two hour time frame gives your body ample time to cool down before sleeping.

  10. Use relaxation, meditation and deep breathing as a sleeping aid. Feel free to use the various deep breathing and relaxation techniques that we explore during our counselling sessions for help with sleep. If you would like more information on this tip feel free to ask me anytime.

  11. Bonus tip: Smell plays a powerful role in sleep and wakefulness, therefore certain scents can be beneficial in helping us fall asleep. Some of these scents include:

  • Lavender

  • Rose

  • Roman Chamomile

  • Jasmine

  • Cedar Extract

  • Cannabis (CBD)

  • Ylang-Ylang These scents have a relaxing and soothing effect and also aids in balancing our circadian rhythm. A good place to start is by climbing into a bed with fresh linen and sheets. This not only creates a welcoming sleep environment, but gives us something to look forward to when going to bed.

Waking up refreshed:

Going to bed and having a good night's sleep is just as important as waking up refreshed and ready to face the day. Here are some tips for waking up ready to face the day:

  1. Have something to look forward to. To prevent that urge to stay under the covers longer than needed plan something to look forward to when starting the day. This could range from a tasty breakfast to reading a passage from a great book. Anything that excites helps us to wake up (That is why it is so difficult to go to sleep when we anticipate something awesome the next day).

  2. Wake up and smell the coffee. Having a sip of your favourite coffee gives you a dopamine and serotonin boost. This can help boost your energy levels and focus. However, avoid this if you have caffeine sensitivity.

  3. Get moving! Starting your day with some light exercise or yoga is helpful in getting the heart pumping and the mind ready to start the day.

  4. Have a bite to eat. Not all of us have an appetite early in the morning. However, it is important to eat something to fuel us for the day (even if it is just a snack).

  5. Just as with sleeping smells also help to refresh us and wake us up. Here are some scents that help with wakefulness:

  • Coffee

  • Rosemary

  • Peppermint

  • Sage

Final thoughts

Sleep is important and essential in keeping us healthy and functioning well. It helps repair, re-energise and restore our body and minds. Our sleep hygiene practices have a direct influence on our daily functioning. I hope you found this blog post interesting, enlightening and helpful in building healthy sleep hygiene. Sweet dreams and happy waking!


Knaus, W. J. (2006). The cognitive behavioral workbook for depression: A step-by-step program. New Harbinger Publications.


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