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Why sleep hygiene advice isn't helpful

Today, 19th March 2021 is World Sleep Day. In aid of World Sleep Day I’d like to share the truth about sleep hygiene advice. Good sleep hygiene is important, but striving for perfection is not the way to a normal, healthy and regular sleep pattern.

Common sleep hygiene advice includes:

  • Going to bed at a regular time each day

  • Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep each night

  • Avoid caffeine after noon

  • Avoid blue light from electronic devices close to bedtime

  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine such as a warm bath, herbal tea and reading through the evening

So, why is this sleep hygiene advice unhelpful? It tells us that there is a right and wrong way to approach sleep. Some of the advice can be difficult to adhere to and can actually cause more stress in the run up to bedtime.

Find someone who regularly sleeps well and ask them if they stick to these so-called golden rules. Do they really avoid using their smartphone and watching television for the 2 hours before bed? Do they strictly drink decaf herbal teas past midday? Do they make sure they are in bed every day by 9.30pm because they know they need an 8 hour sleep window and they have to be up early the next day for work? The answer is probably no… Good sleepers tend to only go to bed when they are sleepy and they rarely go through their day worrying about how a good or bad night’s sleep is affecting them - they simply carry on with what they need to the following day. Being too focussed on perfectionism can lead to further problems with sleep. Insomnia sufferers will often change their behaviours with ways they believe may increase their opportunity for sleep. They might start going to bed earlier in the evening and sleeping in later in the morning, napping during the day, avoiding social situations or exercise because they feel tired. The reality is, these changes often make the problem worse.

The best thing you can do for your sleep is to maintain a regular wake up time, get some natural daylight in the morning and go to bed when you’re sleepy. Forget light boxes, bright bulbs and fancy gadgets, natural sunlight is free and the brightest light your retinas recognise - even on a cloudy day. Our bodies love routine and don’t know what a weekend is. Starting the day at a similar time each morning will make a huge difference and you should start to feel less groggy when you first wake up. Natural light exposure and getting outside helps your body recognise that it’s daytime. Melatonin production will cease and you’ll start to feel more alert. A short walk outside in the fresh air is a perfect start to the day, try getting up 15 minutes earlier each morning to fit it in. Good sleepers’ bed time will vary day to day. This is completely normal and only going to bed when you’re sleepy is key to maintaining a healthy relationship with sleep. Going to bed when you aren’t sleepy and spending a lot of time lying in bed awake can lead to overthinking, stress and frustration in bed - not relaxing at all!

Although these tips are great for the general population, if you think you may be struggling with insomnia and have had sleep difficulties for months or even years it really is worth seeking additional help from a sleep specialist. We can provide you with the tools to change your sleep pattern and let you finally have a restful night’s sleep.


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