When we think of difficulties in sleeping the first thing that probably comes to mind is the word “insomnia”. But sleep disorders are not only reduced to insomnia but this is the most prevalent sleep-related problem in our society.

Below you will read some tips for a good night’s sleep that are very easy to apply. These measures to get a good rest are known as “sleep hygiene”.

The problem of insomnia

Insomnia is a disorder that can affect all ages and affects both men and women, although it is more prevalent in women, especially after climacteric.

In our society the vast majority of people rest little and badly , specifically we Spaniards sleep an average of 40 minutes less than the rest of Europeans. This is largely due to our nightly schedules, a trend we share with Argentina and other Latin American countries.

Around 40% of the population suffers from sleep problems , in fact it is estimated that we lose around 480 hours of sleep a year.

The consequences of not resting

Sleep is a necessity, in fact if a person did not sleep at all he would die within 7 days. People who do not get good rest in the short term have their physical, mental and emotional health impaired and are in fact 40% more likely to have a road traffic accident.

Among the most important repercussions of the lack of rest are the increase in accidents (traffic and work), the effect on mood and behaviour problems , as well as the capacity to concentrate and retain information, which leads to school failure. It also accelerates ageing, decreases libido and makes it more difficult to lose weight.

Elements detrimental to sleep hygiene

It is clear that sleep is not only important, it is indispensable, and although we know that it is a necessity it is also a habit subject to certain routines . If we abandon or change those routines, the habit of sleeping can be harmed.

Stress, obesity and sedentariness are three factors that negatively affect rest, so adopting a healthy lifestyle and keeping stress at bay will encourage our rest and have an impact on greater health and well-being.

There are specialists in sleep medicine who can help us when one has tried everything to sleep, without success. However, most people who go to a specialised sleep unit do so because of insomnia caused by bad habits, which can easily be corrected with so-called “sleep hygiene” . Sleep is something that occupies one third of our lives, so let’s get it right.

Hours needed for rest

The number of hours a person needs to have a restful sleep is very relative, it depends on genetic factors and the age of the individual . The number of hours needed to rest ranges from 5 or 6 to 9 or 10 hours of sleep.

To find out what hours of sleep you need, you can:

  • Add up the hours you sleep during the week and divide by 5.
  • Add up the hours you sleep in the last three weekends and divide by 6.

  • Compare; the results must be balanced, otherwise we are taking away hours of sleep on the working days.

Substances that sabotage rest and substances that promote it

Being awake or asleep is related to the presence or absence of certain chemicals in the brain ; during the day catecholamines like adrenaline and hormones like cortisol (our biological alarm clock) keep us awake. At night these chemical messengers descend and melatonin is generated, which helps us to rest.

This chemical balance can be altered by other chemicals that we introduce into our bodies, for example through diet. Caffeine is an example .
In addition to the chemicals, regularity of meals, body temperature and exposure to sunlight also modulate the sleep-wake cycle.

Sabotage the rest

Coffee, tea, mate, cola, tobacco and alcohol increase the chances of suffering from insomnia, as well as gastritis and other digestive problems.

The case of caffeine

Any stress-related illness will be aggravated by the use of caffeine, so in these cases it is necessary to avoid it.
The best time to drink caffeine is during breakfast and it should be eliminated from midday onwards.

The effects of caffeine last in the organism for a greater or lesser number of hours depending on the individual, and can extend beyond seven hours.
Excessive consumption increases the risk of palpitations, chest pains and coronary diseases.

Although it is a widely accepted substance, commonly used in our society and apparently harmless, we must not forget that, like alcohol, if not used properly it can lead to addiction problems , with its corresponding withdrawal syndrome.

Chocolate and cola add to their addictive potential not only high amounts of caffeine, but also high sugar.

The case of alcohol

Alcohol, contrary to what is popularly thought, also hinders sleep because although it is true that one falls asleep more easily when consuming alcohol, rest is fragmented and unrefreshing, as it prevents reaching the phases of deep sleep and also harms REM sleep (paradoxical sleep, in which memory is consolidated).
Alcohol should be avoided in the three or four hours before bedtime.

Other substances

Nicotine, marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines also impair sleep, in addition to other harmful health effects. The latter can also lead to nightmares.
There is also a long list of drugs that can alter sleep, these are just some of them: antidepressants, antihypertensive drugs, anti-asthma drugs, oral contraceptives.

Substances that help you sleep well

Tryptophan is the natural precursor of serotonin , a neurotransmitter essential for proper psychic functioning.

We can add tryptophan to our diet, especially at dinner. We will find it in eggs, ham, poultry, oily fish, dairy products (a natural sedative) and to a lesser extent in rice, barley, wheat, bread, pasta and tapioca, also in potatoes, cabbage, pumpkin and nuts.

Vitamin b6 helps the metabolism of tryptophan, it is present in eggs and in all kinds of meat and fish, so including these foods in the dinner can help us to rest .

Complex carbohydrates such as potato, pumpkin, rice and pasta also promote sleep. If you are a vegetarian, you can substitute tofu or nuts for your meat. You can also use lime blossom, verbena, chamomile, valerian or passion flower , in an infusion or as a roofie. A scented bath or massage with essential oils can also help to relax and induce sleep.

The awakenings

People who are on a diet sometimes get up at night because of hunger from eating low-sugar foods (they have a hypoglycemia).
To prevent hunger from waking us up, we can eat a small snack before going to sleep, although we should not be in a hurry when it comes to wanting to reduce our weight: slowly but surely.
If the raids on the fridge are very repeated, it may be a psychological problem that requires more specialized treatment.

Sleeping with the TV or radio on can also wake us up. Some people claim that this helps them to sleep, but this is not advisable: the noise, light and radiation emitted by the television disturbs and fragments our sleep.

We will not leave furniture or objects that we might trip over in our way between the bed and the bathroom, and on cold nights we will have a blanket, duvet or thick socks at hand so that if we need it we do not have to clear ourselves looking for it at midnight.

Keep in mind that drinking too much water can make it easier to get up and go to the bathroom.

The bedroom and the bed

The bedroom should be the sanctuary of sleep, should have a comfortable bed and the mattress should be changed every ten years. Silence, darkness and an ideal temperature for rest (that which is between 18 and 22º), will facilitate our sleep.

Bedroom furniture and bedroom activities are much more important than many people realize. In the bedroom, a bed is enough and little more than that, work desks, stereos, televisions and other furniture or appliances that are not intended for rest are not needed.

Ideally, we will limit our activity in the bedroom to the act of sleeping or making love, it is very important that these are the only activities we do in bed, because if we do other things like watching TV, listening to music, eating, studying, surfing the internet… we confuse our brain and break with the unconscious associations that help to automate the act of getting into bed and sleeping.

We can listen to soft music or read a little before going to sleep , but this is better not done in the bedroom and in no case will we do it in bed, nor will we listen to the latest CD of our favorite heavy metal band or do a dense or especially stimulating reading.

Avoid clocks, set the alarm clock facing the wall. Make your bedroom a timeless space.

Some remedies for noise are to use earplugs, thick curtains, carpets or rugs , double glazing on the windows and in extreme cases cork on the walls or anti-noise plates.

Before Sleep

From 18:00 we must disconnect from work, and do light exercise in the three hours before dinner. Never exercise intensely (this is better in the morning), as it increases the body temperature and this clears us. Dinner should be light , we can introduce sleep facilitating foods, ideally we will have dinner two hours before going to bed.

Avoiding alcohol and heavy dinners, especially when the heat is pressing, is a factor that makes it difficult to sleep. On especially hot nights you can put your pillowcase on the fridge for a few minutes before going to bed.

In the two hours before bedtime we can schedule the next day, but we should not exceed 15 minutes, it is about reviewing the agenda, not about getting to work. We can make a list of issues that we are concerned about or tasks that need to be done and forget about them until the next morning.

During this time before going to sleep, you should avoid arguing, getting caught up in a TV show or a movie that ends late. It is also advisable to set a time at which we will turn off the computer , the exposure to the blue lights emitted by devices with screens like the telephone, the television or the computer sends signals to our brain that make it think it is daytime. There is a free software, f.lux, that eliminates these blue lights.

Carrying out relaxation techniques will help reduce the tension accumulated during the day. Regular schedules and sleep-inducing rituals will help us send signals to our brain that indicate that it is getting close to bedtime.

Other tips for sleeping well

To enjoy good sleep hygiene, follow these other tips.

1. Sleep-inducing rituals

Each animal species has its specific sleep rituals, dogs rotate around on what will be their bed, humans sleep in bedrooms: a specific area in our home dedicated to sleep, and we like it to be always the same.

We too can put certain rituals into practice: putting on our pajamas, brushing our teeth, drinking a glass of milk, reading for a while … are actions we do every day (we can skip it one day, but this should be the exception and not the rule).

As an example, we can use them as rituals:

  • Turn off the television, draw the curtains, prepare the clothes for the next day, prepare the table for breakfast, take out the garbage, walk the dog, go to the bathroom…
  • Go to sleep when you are sleepy, ideally we will always go to sleep at the same time, an adult’s brain is programmed for that time to be between 11 and 1 in the morning.
  • Set regular schedules for going to sleep and getting up, even on weekends.
  • No tossing and turning.

In line with the above, if after 10-15 minutes we don’t fall asleep we will get up, go to another part of the house to do something monotonous and boring until we fall asleep and then we will try again. It will probably work, but if not we will repeat the process, avoiding tossing and turning without sleep. The bed is for sleeping, not for tossing and turning thinking “I can’t fall asleep”.

2. Sleep medication

Sleep medication (hypnotics) are very useful if used correctly, but this always involves professional supervision , time-sensitive use and the right dose. These medications cause tolerance and dependence, which means that if they are used incorrectly, they are a remedy that instead of solving the problem, aggravates it (and can make things much more complicated).

3. Naps

The nap is recommended if it is taken between 2 and 4 in the afternoon and does not last longer than 20 minutes, ideally it should be taken 8 hours after waking up in the morning . If you suffer from insomnia, you should avoid it.

4. Insomnia and mental disorders

It is known that anxiety disorders and mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder) are closely related to the quality and quantity of our sleep, so much so that when our rest is spoiled the disorder is aggravated and likewise when we rest better the disorder remits.

A final clarification

All these guidelines are useful for people who suffer from transitory insomnia due to bad sleep habits, for people who suffer from insomnia as a symptom of a more complex symptom picture this may be useful but insufficient, in these cases the help of a professional may be required to treat the primary problem.

Bibliographic references:

  • Estivill,E. & Averbuch, M.. (2006). Recipes for a good night’s sleep. Barcelona: Plaza & Janes Editores.