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Even during the dark days of winter, many of my patients report difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or both. I often discuss “sleep hygiene” with patients but this information will benefit everyone with occasional or chronic sleep problems. Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness. Depending on your own sleep patterns and lifestyle, you may find that some of these suggestions are key for you and that others are more negotiable.

Here are a few suggestions:

Limit naps to 20-30 minutes. A short nap can help improve your mood, alertness and performance. Some people find that napping disrupts their sleep patterns, if so, avoid them.

Avoid stimulants before bedtime. This is particularly an issue with caffeine, nicotine and for some, sugar. Some of my patients need to avoid all stimulants after noon-2pm, others can tolerate them later in the day without negative impacts on sleep.

Alcohol may make you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts deep stage sleep. Deep stage sleep is when your body regenerates and repairs damaged tissues. I have noticed a connection between moderate to heavy night time alcohol use and poor sleep later in the sleep cycle. Some people are more sensitive to this than others.

Exercise helps promote quality sleep but timing is important. Many people need to avoid strenuous exercise in the evening because of impacts on sleep but this is not true for everyone. If you must exercise in the evening and experiencing sleep problems, consider less strenuous activities like walking or yoga.

Expose yourself to natural light when possible during the day. Here in the PNW this can be a challenge during the winter months when daylight hours are short. Exposure to natural light helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Try a walk or bike ride outside mid-day, open your blinds to let the light in. If you need to get up while it is still dark outside in the morning, consider a light-box next to you during your morning routine to help you wake up.

Consistent bedtime routines help your body know it is time to sleep. Most parents utilize a bedtime routine for young children but may not realize that a similar concept is beneficial for all ages. This could include taking warm shower or bath, drinking a cup of warm herbal tea, meditation, reading a book, or light stretches. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before attempting to sleep. Turn off electronics before the your bedtime routine and dim household lights.

Expose yourself to complete darkness when it is time to sleep. Make certain that you don’t have glowing electronics in your bedroom- turn off your phone, computer and TV a full hour before you want to fall asleep at night. Don’t let light from other areas of the house creep under your bedroom door. Close the blinds completely and consider black-out shades if you have outside sources of light such as cars or streetlights. An eye mask can help block out unwelcome sources of light.

Set your bedroom up for successful sleep. You need a pleasant environment that is conducive to sleep. Ensure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and appropriate for your sleep position. Most people do best with a somewhat cool bedroom at night- 60-67 degrees but adjust this based on your preferences so you stay comfortable throughout the night with the bedding you prefer. The room should be very dark with no sources of light visible. Some people need soothing sounds such as a fan, calming music or a “white noise” machine running.

If you're experiencing sleep problems, give these suggestions a try. If sleep hygeine isn't enough, come in and I'm glad to help you develop a treatment plan to get you those ZZZZs!

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