UW Combined Fund Drive

March 6, 2023

Practice good sleep hygiene with these strategies

After a warm, relaxing bath and a chapter of your current page-turner, you hit the hay and quickly drift off to sleep. Before you know it, the sun is rising and you get out of bed alert and refreshed after eight hours of sleep.

If that sounds like just a dream, it’s because for most people it is!

Getting enough good quality sleep is crucially important to maintaining overall health, yet for many, it’s elusive. The National Institutes of Health link lack of sleep to numerous serious, chronic health issues like heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression.

In order to raise awareness of the importance of sleep hygiene along with the dangers of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation, March is designated as National Sleep Awareness Month.

Broadly speaking, things that negatively impact the quality and duration of sleep can be grouped into two categories: poor sleep hygiene and sleep disorders.

Sleep hygiene

Our lifestyles have changed significantly in the last hundred years or so. In 1910, the average American slept for 9 hours per night. Now, that figure has dropped to less than 7 hours per night.

Of course, in 1910, most people still lit their homes with gas lighting or candles, had no electric devices of any kind, and, with the exception of the very wealthy, spent hours of the day in manual labor and on their feet.

Fast forwarding to the present day, we have electric light allowing us to artificially simulate daylight anytime we want. We sit and stare at screens–whether phones, computers, or TVs–for hours on end. For many of us, our phones live next to our beds at night, ready to be grabbed any time our social media ping with an update. And twice a year, we compound these issues and give ourselves mini-jetlag by changing the clocks back and forth.

As our sleep suffers, we resort to artificial means to keep us going, like coffee and energy drinks, or to help us sleep with the use of supplements and medications.

Globally, sleep aids are a $65 billion industry

To borrow terms from the manufacturing industry, good sleep hygiene involves both additive and subtractive processes.

On the positive side, research has shown the benefits of increasing:

  • Daytime natural light exposure – recent research from UW biologist Horacio de la Iglesia and his team showed the importance of this–even in frequently UV-challenged Seattle–in “calibrating” our circadian rhythms.
  • Exercise – similarly, getting daytime exercise, aside from its numerous other benefits, promotes evening sleepiness.
  • The darkness of your bedroom – limiting internal and external sources of light, as well as keeping your bedroom in the seemingly chilly range of 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, has been shown to improve both the duration and quality of sleep.

On the other hand, removing or limiting certain modern and not-so-modern “vices” can also promote good sleep hygiene:

  • Caffeine and alcohol – the half-life of caffeine in our bodies is about 5 hours, meaning that late afternoon venti quad shot with oat milk and just a dash of hazelnut syrup could still impact you well into the evening. You might also want to lay off that nightcap. Although alcohol does induce sleepiness in the short-term, it lessens the quality of sleep and will often leave you waking in the middle of the night.
  • Screens – perhaps the single biggest negative impact on modern sleep is the prevalence of screens, and their blue and white light, in so many facets of life. We often go from a computer screen all day to a TV in the evening and then our phones while in bed. Experts suggest using blue light filters whenever possible, limiting screen use later in the evening, and keeping phones out of the bedroom altogether.
  • Schedules – the modern tendency to wake early in the workweek and sleep in late on the weekend after a night on the town wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythms. Nor does it work to try to compensate for a week of sleep deficits by sleeping until noon on Sunday. Instead, research finds it best to keep a fairly regular bedtime and wake-up time throughout the week.

Sleep disorders

Even when practicing good sleep hygiene, millions of people still struggle to get a good night’s sleep. This includes those who have difficulty falling asleep, those who wake during the night to use the bathroom or for other reasons, those who snore, and those who aren’t sure what’s going on but know they never feel fully rested.

Project Sleep, a nonprofit that raises awareness of sleep health and disorders, has a simple online screening tool.

Although no substitute for discussion with a licensed medical professional, it can provide the encouragement to speak with a doctor by identifying symptoms. Many with undiagnosed sleep disorders suffer in silence just because they have never mentioned symptoms to their doctor. Among the more prevalent sleep disorders are the following:

Insomnia – most people know how hard it is when sleep seems elusive; you look at the clock endlessly and worry about how you’ll get through the next day. However, facing this three or more days a week for at least three months is termed chronic insomnia. Although improving sleep hygiene and managing stress helps in many cases, it can also be caused by a wide range of other medical conditions.

Obstructive sleep apnea – this author finally agreed to undergo an overnight sleep study at the insistence of my wife who couldn’t stand my incessant snoring. After being told that I stopped breathing up to 70 times an hour (yes, more than once a minute!), I was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea and prescribed a CPAP machine. This delivers constant air pressure to keep airways from collapsing. Broadly defined, obstructive sleep apnea affects 15-30% of men and 10-15% of women.

Restless legs syndrome – if when you lie down in bed you feel a creepy-crawly sensation in your legs that you just can’t ignore, you may have this condition, which impacts up to 10% of the population.

Narcolepsyless common, but often undiagnosed, narcolepsy is a neurological condition that is characterized by brief periods of excessive daytime drowsiness, sometimes in conjunction with hallucinations and muscle weakness.

Parasomnias – this is a catch-all term for a wide range of sleep-related disorders. Some, such as sleepwalking and night terrors, only occur during non-REM (that is, non-dreaming) sleep, while others like REM behavior disorder, as its name suggests, occur only during REM sleep. Others still, such as hallucinations and the evocatively-named exploding head syndrome, don’t really fall into either category.

Ways to Support Sleep Health Awareness

Sleep is something we all do but rarely give much thought to until there are problems. Practicing good sleep hygiene can make a remarkable difference in the quality and duration of sleep for many people, but those diagnosed with sleep disorders rely on medical advances for relief and treatment.

You can help raise awareness of, advocate for and support research into sleep health through the following nonprofit organizations:

The National Sleep Foundation is an independent nonprofit, dedicated to improving overall health and well-being by advancing sleep health.

Project Sleep is non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about sleep health, sleep equity, and sleep disorders.

Check out Project Sleep’s 9th annual Sleep In 2023, an awareness campaign March 17-19 about sleep health, sleep equity, and sleep disorders. Focus your weekend around rest and recovery and invite your friends and family to join you!

Contributed by Simon Reeve-Parker. Simon is a Program Operations Specialist in the UW Graduate School.