What does "healthy" look like to you? Does this word conjure up images of green veggies or the interior of a gym? Food and fitness are often first-to-mind on the topic of "healthy." Sleep? Not so much.
When we discuss "healthy balance" as it applies to nutrition, some of the unsung heroes to maintaining that balance can very often be the patterns and habits we keep outside of the realm of our plate.
Take sleep hygiene, for instance. Despite how it may sound, sleep hygiene does not mean sleeping in clean sheets or taking a shower before bed. It is the habits and practices that are conducive to sleeping well on a consistent basis.
When you have a jam-packed schedule, it can be a major challenge to get to sleep at a decent hour, and to give your brain and body the rest they need. For those of you who struggle with insomnia or simply catching enough zzz’s, you know how sleep deprivation can place stress on your life. Research shows lack of sleep leads to stress, depression and even weight gain. In fact, when we are sleep deprived, our bodies produce more of the hormone ghrelin, which increases appetite, and less of the hormone leptin, which decreases appetite. We are also more likely to skip workouts and to grab take-out for meals when we are tired.
Improving Sleep Hygiene
The first piece of sleep hygiene is creating a relaxing bedtime routine, which means avoiding emotionally upsetting conversations or activities before trying to sleep. Journaling can be a wonderful outlet to release any negative feelings or problems from the day.
Make sure the temperature in your bedroom is not too hot, cold or bright. Also, don’t bring your laptop into bed with you. Associate your bed with sleep, not watching TV or scrolling on your phone. On that note, it’s best to end “screen time” at least an hour before bedtime, to avoid disruption of your circadian rhythm, or sleep/wake cycle. And try not to eat large meals directly before bedtime, as digestion can disrupt sleeping.
For further relaxation, try deep stretching or yoga, breathing techniques (*see below for an example of one) and any other activity that relaxes you.
Finally, it’s important to remember sleep hygiene goes beyond the nighttime hours. From the beginning of your day, you can make decisions to set yourself up for a sound sleep that night. Make sure you get outside during the day and have exposure to natural light because it helps to maintain your sleep-wake cycle. Try to avoid stimulants like caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. You may argue that a glass of wine before bed lulls you right to sleep, but chances are your body will wake up during the second half of your sleep cycle when it starts metabolizing the alcohol. Also, try to do any vigorous exercise in the morning hours or late afternoon, to avoid over-stimulation.
With some dedication, sleep hygiene practices will help you set the groundwork for night after night of sound sleep. Sweet Dreams!
*Try the “4-7-8 breath,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained medical doctor.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
This article was written by Caroline Young Bearden, Graduate and Nutrition Dietetic Student at Georgia State University.