Do you fall asleep immediately and feel refreshed in the morning or do you toss and turn for hours before dragging yourself from bed? Whatever your sleep hygiene habits, there’s always room for improvement, says sleep expert Motty Varghese. We spoke to him following the sold out WellFest Pop-Up, The Key to a Good Night’s Sleep, to find out about sleep hygiene and how we can improve our sleeping patterns.
Why is sleep so important?
It goes without saying that getting enough sleep makes us feel better. We know we function better after a good night’s sleep, but we also feel more alert, more energetic and happier. A proper sleeping pattern also enhances our ability to remember things; helps us become more efficient and improves our ability to focus. On the flip side, not getting enough sleep can result in some serious health issues, including cardiovascular disorders.
Are there different levels of sleep?
Yes. Sleep can be broken down into four different stages, stages 1, 2, 3 and 4 (which is also known as REM sleep), and all have their own functions, so it’s important for us to spend a certain amount of time in each. For instance, if we have sufficient Stage 3 sleep we’ll feel very refreshed. While if we have sufficient REM sleep, we consolidate our memory. It’s worth noting that there are also different cycles of sleep, each lasting 90 minutes and made up for the stages mentioned above. It’s important that we get at least 5-6 sleep cycles, so in other words 7-9 hours of sleep.
What is sleep hygiene and what are its main principles?
Sleep hygiene is basically your habits around sleeping, but it is extremely important, especially if you’re a difficult sleeper. Good habits include
Avoiding blue light
Light impacts our sleep / wake cycle so by limiting your exposure to light you can enhance melatonin production and induce sleep. So, try to avoid the blue light from phones, tablets, LED lights and laptops for at least two hours before bedtime.
Regulating your body temperature
Our body needs to be at a cooler temperature in order to fall asleep peacefully so try to avoid anything that raises the body temperature before bedtime. In particular, don’t exercise for three hours before bedtime and try not to shower for two hours before bedtime. It’s also worth keeping your bedroom as cave like as possible – dark, quiet and cool.
Maintaining a consistent bedtime and rise time
This includes at the weekends. Sleep has its own way of compensating for the lost sleep. So, sleeping in is not a good idea as it will affect the sleep drive.
This is an obvious one, but try to avoid caffeine in the afternoons and evenings as it can affect your ability to fall asleep.
What can people do if they struggle to sleep?
Accept you have a problem! Spending time in bed wide awake yet napping in the evening can actually worsen the problem. It’s important to maintain the association of bed and sleep. The mantra is sleep only in bed and do not stay awake in bed. If none of this helps, then non-medication management like cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi) is a very successful way to treat insomnia.
Likewise, if you snore heavily, stop breathing or wake up numerous times tossing and turning and feel sleepy during the day, you may be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea has serious health consequences like any other sleep disorder and needs to be treated by a specialist doctor.
Finally, any tips for shift workers?
Shift workers often complain about sleep problems. A couple of things to remember, avoid or limit light exposure before bedtime. It is hard to avoid daylight on the way home, but use dim lights once you reach home and avoid using blue light emitting devices. It is equally important to expose yourself to good bright light when you wake up from sleep which will stop the melatonin production and improve alertness.
Motty Varghese is a sleep physiologist, a licensed sleep technologist with the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists in the United States and currently works as senior sleep physiologist in St James’s Hospital. He also set up the Sleep Therapy Clinic which offers CBTi. For more information visit sleeptherapy.ie