Many of us take sleep for granted, but it's as vital to our health as food and exercise. Countless studies have connected a good night's sleep to improved mood, health and academic performance. Sleep hygiene is the collective term for behavior intended to improve sleep length and quality, such as sleeping in a cold room, avoiding electronics before bedtime and sticking to a regular routine before bedtime. As both a chronic insomniac and someone who functions poorly on low sleep, I've spent years studying and testing out different sleep strategies, some of which have worked better than others. So here's a comprehensive list of sleep hygiene tips and my experience with them.
1. Exercise early.
While there's optimistic controversy over how much exercising regularly itself improves sleep, in my experience, the most important thing is to NOT exercise too close to bed time. If you're going to work out, work out LONG before dinner time. Your body should be active earlier in the day and winding down progressively as the day goes on.
2. Turn on night shift or leave electronics out.
Your body's internal sleep clock is biologically based on when you see light or darkness, which means that your body naturally wakes up when you see more light and naturally starts to doze off in darkness. For our generation, this poses a dilemma, because our phones and computers use light. If at all possible, lose the electronics in the hour(s) before bedtime. But if you tend to spend your whole day working on a computer right up until the time you fall asleep, you can set your electronics to more sleep-friendly light frequencies by using apps like F.lux on your computer or by turning on night shift on your phone. You'll still be exposing yourself to light too late in the day, but at least it won't be as harsh.
3. Establish a routine.
An easy way to avoid electronics before bed without feeling like a recovering addict is to establish a nightly routine right before bed. Like conditioning a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, you can condition yourself to feel relaxed and sleepy by doing the exact same thing every single night right before bed. For instance, in the hour and a half leading up to bed, I shower, put on my acne medication/moisturizer, brush my teeth and do some light reading ... Every. Night. To be honest, I'm not super diligent about this in college, but when I am, I'm always in a much better mood climbing into bed.
4. Read before bed.
Speaking of reading before bed, you should do it, too! In my personal experience, reading before bed is a big help and leaves me much more tired than foregoing reading does. It relaxes me and allows my mind to wander, which generally starts me on the way to sleep. It also gives me some time to let my acne medication and hair dry before hitting my pillow. As an added bonus, you can finally catch up on your reading list! However, be wary of this if you like reading on your phone, iPad or Kindle.
5. Shower close to bedtime.
Showering helps me to relax and allows my mind to wander before bed, with the added bonuses of making me feel clean before climbing into bed. And it's not just me, either. A hot shower or bath before bed, with some time to cool and dry off, can help you get to sleep faster overall and will certainly help you to establish that nightly routine we were just discussing.
6. Try napping less often.
Studies say that naps are fine as long as they're short (about 20 minutes) and early in the day. However, I'm an insomniac, and so the first two hours of my "nap" are always the falling asleep part (20 minutes is five seconds in insomniac time). So for me, naps are completely out of the picture. It took me forever to figure this one out because my mom always told me to nap if I'm tired, but it's a really, REALLY bad idea, at least for insomniacs, because long naps are bad for your nighttime sleep. Even if you had a bad night's sleep, I've found it's a far superior idea to just go to bed a half hour earlier at night—though you should ideally be giving yourself enough time in bed at night to make up for lost sleep, anyway.
6. No methylxanthines.
Methylxanthines make up a family of chemicals that includes things like theobromine, theophylline ... and caffeine. Yep, you saw this coming. NO COFFEE BEFORE BED. Also, no caffeinated tea and, unfortunately, no chocolate (which has both theobromine and caffeine). All of these things are meant to wake you up, not put you down, and they stay in your system for six HOURS.
7. Use the bathroom before bed!
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but nowadays my most common source of grouchiness in the morning is one thing: Needing the bathroom in the middle of the night. Not only does your pressurized bladder wake you up in the middle of your REM cycle, not only do you have to get up out of bed, not only is your stomach now empty and keeping you awake with growling, but you will also likely have to turn on a harsh light while doing your business. My dorm's bathroom and hallways are always brightly lit, and the tile floors are always freezing, a perfect recipe for waking up and not getting back to sleep. Either use the bathroom before bed or don't drink so much.
Melatonin is one of the hormones your body uses to regulate sleep. Melatonin vitamins are sold over the counter as a dietary supplement and can be recommended by doctors (like mine). I personally have some peeves with melatonin: It seems to wear off quickly and cause certain side effects (in my case, nightmares). All that being said, if you're going to try melatonin, my doctor personally recommended ignoring the instructions that say to take the vitamin 20 minutes before bed and instead take it at dinner time, a few HOURS before bed. This DID work much better, with the only side effect being that I was extremely sleepy after dinner time. As per usual: Talk to your doctor, because this varies from person to person.
9. Fight for your peace and quiet.
I know this one is self-explanatory, but if people are loud into the night, tell your RA, tell your landlord, call the police if you have to. Knock on their door, and if they sneer at you because you want to sleep instead of listening to their noise all night, then you probably shouldn't care about their opinion at all, because they're jerks. You're paying the same amount to live there as they are, and you deserve some shut-eye every once in a while. If they don't realize the importance of sleep now, they will in five years when they get a real job and start forming families. After all, they can go somewhere else to party, but you can't go somewhere else to sleep. Don't let peer pressure keep you from what's rightfully yours: You're an adult now, and you need to stand up for yourself.
10. Eat dinner, but nothing afterward.
You better eat a big dinner, because you shouldn't be eating anything after that. Eating too close to bedtime, even just small snacks, is correlated with worse sleep. Conversely, it's hard to fall asleep with a growling stomach, so make sure to eat enough at dinner time!
11. Never hit snooze.
For waking up in the morning: Don't hit snooze. It just makes you more tired throughout the day and throws off your brain. I know you want to, but you have to accept that you're not going to be in bed until the end of the day. This is hard for everyone, so I've taken to giving myself something to look forward to in the morning; delicious granola for breakfast, a half hour of playing an addicting game, just one episode of that new television show ... It really helps to drag you out of bed in the morning.
12. Use your bed for sleeping only ... with one exception.
Again, establishing habits works just as well for people as it does for training dogs: If all you ever do in your bed is sleep, then you're much better off. That means no Netflix, no reading (I still need to work on this one) and no eating on your mattress. The one exception is ... satisfying certain carnal desires. Here's the official answer: Fooling around in bed is GOOD for your sleep, despite the physical exertion involved, due to the hormones you produce from pleasuring yourself or your partner.
13. Always wake up at the same time and go to bed at the same time.
I saved this for last because honestly, out of everything on this list, this is the one and ONLY thing that has come close to curing my insomnia, after spending my entire life fatigued. I know it's the hardest thing on this list to enact, but it is by far unquestionably and irrevocably the most effective. Giving yourself nine straight hours (eight if you don't have insomnia, 10 if you've got it bad) to sleep, every night, at the exact same time, is really and truly the only way to feel refreshed in the morning. This has been especially hard in college, because just as often as you're invited to a late-night party, you're also forced to get that early doctor's appointment. But as much as you can, as often as you can, DO THIS. Not even sleeping in on weekends. Trust me when I say that there is no short cut around this, and that this point is as powerful as every other tip on this list combined.
Sleep is as irreplaceable in your life as breathing or eating, but is probably one of the most ignored health aspects of college student life. But even though some of these tips may be difficult to follow, sleeping more is one of the easiest (and most relaxing) ways to better grades, health and relationships. Many of these tips have been invaluable in my battle against insomnia, and with any luck, you'll be getting a good night's sleep by the time you're done with this list.
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