Healthy sleep contributes to physical and mental well-being. It impacts our productivity, quality of life and longevity.  Healthy sleep is the result of several things, but one category not often discussed but is infringed upon regularly is sleep hygiene.  Sleep hygiene is a group of practices centered on the time and environment before and during sleep.  These practices prepare us for sleep and assist in keeping us asleep.  Uninterrupted sleep is important as sleep is a series of connected cycles of light, deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.  When your sleep cycles are interrupted or not prepared for properly, your health will be affected.

What are these practices that are so critical to good sleep which contributes to good mental and physical health and longevity?

Bedroom Environment:  Establish a cool 60-67 degrees, dark and quiet room.  Use blackout curtains if there is a lot of outside light.  Turn off screens from computers, cell phones, tablets, and TVs.  Use white noise (fan, humidifier, white noise machine) if there are outside noises or if total silence bothers you.  Make sure you have a comfortable mattress, pillow, and sheets.  If your bed partner snores discuss asking their dentist about available remedies.

Stimulants and Alcohol:  Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime and nicotine too close to bedtime.  Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it later becomes a stimulant interfering with sleep later in the night, so keep it to a minimum and three hours before sleep.  Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics making you need to go to the bathroom which will cause you to wake.

Uninterrupted Sleep:  Adults need 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Seniors need 6-7 hours and children need 10 hours.  You cannot “catch up” on lost sleep.

Napping:   One 20-30-minute nap midday can refresh you and improve alertness.  Longer naps can throw off your sleep by starting a sleep cycle.  Waking during a deep sleep cycle will leave you groggy rather than refreshed.  Naps cannot make up for lost sleep.

Exercise:  Regular aerobic exercise of as little as 10 minutes a day will improve your sleep.  Finish your work out several hours before bedtime.

Eating:  Finish meals and snacks a few hours before bedtime so your body is not in digest mode and avoid spicy, rich and large meals too close to bedtime.  Ignoring this will interfere with sleep and contribute to sleep acid reflux.

Bedtime Routine:  Have a regular bedtime and routine, i.e. warm bath, reading, meditation and/or prayer.  Our bodies respond best to regular awake and asleep cycles so are consistent with your bedtime.  Computers, TV’s, phones, and book readers are backlit which simulates a daylight reaction in our mind which delays sleep.  Natural melatonin, which induces sleep, is released as our brain notices diminishing light.  If you like to read before bed, read a book using room light.

Sun Exposure:  Get outside to stimulate your body’s Vitamin D3 production and light/dark circadian rhythm.  During winter it may be necessary to supplement with Vitamin D3.

Pets:  Do not sleep with pets in the bed.  Pets have different sleep cycles than humans.  When pets wake, they tend to wake us or bring us out of deep sleep into light sleep interfering with necessary sleep cycles.  Pets can also be a source of allergens making breathing at night more difficult.

This may sound difficult at first but once you get used to a new routine and you feel refreshed in the morning and throughout the day you will know how important sleep hygiene is for your overall well-being.

Dr. Robert A. Gallegos is a Fellow in the Academy of General Dentistry, visiting faculty of Spear Education, a member the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, and the American and Virginia Dental Associations.  Dr. Gallegos practices dentistry in Middleburg, VA.