8 Scientific Tips for Improving Sleep

Have you ever been told to go to bed at the same time every night, or to avoid your cell phone and other screens before going to bed? There’s a term for these practices: “sleep hygiene.” These kinds of tips are backed by science, and here are a few of those research-supported ways to improve your sleep.

1.Keep a regular sleep schedule. A study by Kang and Chen found that those who kept a regular schedule experienced better-quality sleep (though, interestingly, weren’t necessarily less tired during the day compared with those who didn’t).

Jiunn-Horng Kang, & Shih-Ching Chen. (2009). Effects of an irregular bedtime schedule on sleep quality, daytimesleepiness, and fatigue among university students in Taiwan. BMC Public Health, 9(1), 248–253. https://doi-org.libprox1.slcc.edu/10.1186/1471-2458-9-248

2. Dim the lights before bed. Your body works on a circadian rhythms, and hormones related to sleep and wakefulness change during the 24-hour day. Dimmer lighting is the natural cue for your body to start producing melatonin, the sleep hormone. Bright lights before bed delay this process.

Gooley, J. J., Chamberlain, K., Smith, K. A., Khalsa, S. B., Rajaratnam, S. M., Van Reen, E., Zeitzer, J. M., Czeisler, C. A., … Lockley, S. W. (2010). Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 96(3), E463-72.

3. Naps? They’re probably just fine. Though some sources on sleep hygiene say we need to avoid napping, a 2001 study in Behavioral Medicine found no difference in quality or quantity of sleep between non-nappers and those who take short or longer naps. A 2002 study found after-lunch naps plus a moderate exercise routine actually improved quality of sleep (and mental health) in the elderly.

Pilcher, J. J., Michalowski, K. R., & Carrigan, R. D. (2001). The Prevalence of Daytime Napping and Its Relationship to Nighttime Sleep. Behavioral Medicine, 27(2), 71. https://doi-org.libprox1.slcc.edu/10.1080/08964280109595773

Tanaka, H., Taira, K., Arakawa, M., Urasaki, C., Yamamoto, Y., Okuma, H., … Shirakawa, S. (2002). Short naps and exercise improve sleep quality and mental health in the elderly. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 56(3), 233–234. https://doi-org.libprox1.slcc.edu/10.1046/j.1440-1819.2002.00995.x

4. Take some time to put the worries to rest first. Anecdotally, I hear about lying in bed and worrying as something that makes it hard for a lot of us to fall asleep. In a 2015 study, researchers found avoiding stressful and anxiety-provoking activities (like studying for a difficult test) before bed to be the only thing out of a variety of suggestions that actually helped participants sleep significantly better. Journaling before bed might be another way to help you avoid lying awake and staring at the ceiling; meditation practices can also be useful.

Lucinda Mairs & Barbara Mullan: Self-Monitoring vs. Implementation Intentions: a Comparison of Behaviour Change Techniques to Improve Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Outcomes in Students. Int.J. Behav. Med. (2015) 22:635–644 DOI 10.1007/s12529-015-9467-1

5. Optimize your environment. Taking some time to make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and comfortable can be beneficial for sleep. In one study, researchers found their participants slept better when they reported their pillow was comfortable and their bedroom was quiet. Another found individuals who slept with an “inhalation patch” with lavender essential oil slept better than those without.

Desaulniers J1, Desjardins S1, Lapierre S1, Desgagné A2. Sleep Environment and Insomnia in Elderly Persons Living at Home. J Aging Res. 2018 Sep 27;2018:8053696. doi: 10.1155/2018/8053696. eCollection 2018.

Angela Smith Lillehei, PhD, Linda L. Halco´ n, PhD, MPH, RN, Kay Savik, MS, and Reilly Reis, MS: Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial. THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE Volume 21, Number 7, 2015, pp. 430–438

6. Consider having Fido move to the floor. This 2015 study found “sleep efficiency” for humans was worse for those who slept with a dog on their bed versus just in the room.

The Effect of Dogs on Human Sleep in the Home Sleep Environment. Mayo Clin Proc. 2017 Sep;92(9):1368-1372. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2017.06.014. Patel SI1, Miller BW2, Kosiorek HE3, Parish JM4, Lyng PJ4, Krahn LE5.

7. A few studies have found factors that make sleep worse–consider this the DO NOT list:

–Going to bed thirsty

–Environmental noise

–Worrying while trying to fall asleep

–Consuming alcohol, coffee, or energy drinks

–“Long-term” cell phone use

Franklin C. Brown PhD, Walter C. Buboltz Jr PhD & Barlow Soper PhD (2002) Relationship of Sleep Hygiene Awareness, Sleep Hygiene Practices, and Sleep Quality in University Students, Behavioral Medicine, 28:1, 33-38, DOI: 10.1080/08964280209596396


8. Finally, actually use sleep hygiene practices! There are a ton of studies that have found that people who know more about sleep hygiene get better sleep (just one is cited below).

Kloss JD, Nash CO, Walsh CM, Culnan E, Horsey S, Sexton-Radek K. A “Sleep 101” Program for College Students Improves Sleep Hygiene Knowledge and Reduces Maladaptive Beliefs about Sleep. Behavioral Medicine. 2016;42(1):48-56. doi:10.1080/08964289.2014.969186.

You can take action and get better sleep–science believes in you!

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