Clean Your Life with Sleep Hygiene

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sleep hygiene

Basic sleep hygiene consists of first: admitting that you need to sleep!

Basic sleep hygiene consists of first: admitting that you need to sleep! That you most likely do indeed need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Then you rearrange your schedule and say no to a host of things (that pesky time management thing again) so you actually go to bed with the lights out at 10PM in order to get up at 6AM. 10PM to 6AM is eight hours. If you have to get up at 5AM then you have to go to bed, lights out, at 9AM. And then you sleep. You don’t keep your phone by your bedside, you don’t read, you don’t watch TV, you don’t keep checking your email, you lay quietly in the dark and wait for sleep. No electronic devices with alarms or blinking lights to keep you awake anywhere near you.

Keeping to a lights out routine can be very hard. All that work left undone calls to you. All that must see TV, books, surfing, games, etc that you want to see, read, do; calling and calling for your attention. Block them out as best you can and stick to a schedule. Sleep specialists say that you should get up at the same time on weekends as you do on weekdays. We still don’t do this, even though we stick pretty well to lights out at 1030PM. My DH will get up if he doesn’t feel the need to sleep more. I nearly always want more sleep so I tend to sleep in until — gasp — 8 or even 9AM on weekends.

Dark matters. You don’t want any lights. Room darkening shades and room darkening drapes help immensely to block out unwanted outside light. They also make it possible to sleep in the day, if you are so unfortunate as to do shift work. Room darkening shades and heavy drapes muffle sound and act as insulation against the cold. Look for the section in Fortress Peschel on windows and draperies for more information on how, exactly, you should proceed with your window treatments.

After you get rid of the outside lights with the room darkening shades, get rid off all the blinky lights that distract you inside the bedroom. The only light in our bedroom when we sleep is the red numbers on the clock radio. It is high enough up that they aren’t inline with my eyes and I have to make a conscious effort to look at the numbers. Not seeing the time is a big help for insomniacs by the way. I’ve gone ahead and put a piece of black electrical tape over the blinking light on the carbon monoxide detector. It would flash every minute, a tiny strobe light. You don’t want this. Taping over the light did not affect the functioning of the CO detector.

My whole house is done up with room darkening shades and heavy drapes. This provides much needed insulation against the cold, sound deadening — always a big help with outside noise —, and keeps sunlight from filtering into the rooms when you don’t want it too. Early morning? It stays dark. Have to go to bed before it gets dark outside? No longer a problem. My house is designed to bounce light from room to room via mirrors and high gloss walls so if I let light pour into the living room via its windows, that light very quickly spills over into the bedrooms waking us up. Thus the room darkening shades in rooms that don’t seem to need them.

I do keep a nightlight in the bathroom to make it easier and safer to use at 3AM. I get the lowest wattage bulb I can find at the supermarket and keep the door partially closed to keep the light contained in the room where it needs to be. It is slaved to a photocell so the light turns itself off during the day.

I’ll repeat: get rid off all the electronic devices with lights on them other than the alarm clock. None of that stuff should be in the bedroom with you. Get rid of your partner’s distractions too, as they are also distracting to you.

You say you need to be in touch all the time? Really? Are you on call for ambulance duty? Will the world come to an end if you get some sleep? Graveyards are full of people who thought they were irreplaceable. Every single one of those people was wrong. They got replaced and life went on.

Bedrooms should be reserved for two functions: sleep and sex. No home offices, no libraries, no TV watching, no craft stations, no exercise equipment. None of that stuff. We do have to use our bedroom to store clothes in the closet so we can get dressed but this is a very minor offense compared to having a work station next to the bed, training your subconscious to realize that someone somewhere wants you to get back to work. The closet should be tidy enough so you can close the doors and keep that clutter away from your mind and body. Clutter is distracting too. It reminds you of all those not done jobs. Keeping the bedroom reasonably neat doesn’t just keep you from falling over your shoes; it might make it a little bit easier to fall asleep.

I will admit that we do read in bed. This can be a no-no for many people. Your reading material does matter. Stimulating books like Stephan King horror novels don’t make the best bedtime reading. I tend to read sewing magazines and soil management books before lights out. They aren’t what you call hugely exciting and they haven’t caused me much of a problem. If reading in bed causes problems, then read less stimulating books (tax code law!) or drop the books all together. See what works for you. Whatever you do, don’t do your reading on a platform that invites other distractions. Processed tree carcasses (i.e., real books) don’t invite in the outside world like an iPad will. Kindles are somewhere in the middle; no one can call you and you can’t check your email but you can have dozens of titles to choose from, all begging for your attention right now.

In addition to the room darkening, I’ve decorated the bedroom to make it more conducive to sleep. The walls are a deep midnight blue with sparkly silver and gold stars on them. I made them out of contact paper and they are stuck up all over the walls. There are spatters of silver model airplane paint on all the walls, looking a lot like the Milky Way. The drapes, rug and bedding all reflect this night time sky theme. The original idea was to make it more conducive to sleep for my DH when he worked evening shifts. A darker room is just easier to sleep in. It turned out to help my insomnia, just a little. So even if you paint the rest of your house sunshine yellow and arrest me red, don’t make your bedroom loud and crazy. Soothing, calming, cool, dark and serene is your goal.

Other basic things you can do: don’t eat after 6 to 7PM. This cuts down on the risk of acid reflux. Ice cream right before bed? The sugar buzz will keep you awake. No coffee or any other caffeine products after 12NOON. Cut way back on your caffeine in general. It stays with you far longer than is widely realized. Alcohol doesn’t help you sleep. A glass of wine can be soothing and relaxing but after you go to sleep, a few hours later you may be restless, wake up, and then be unable to fall back asleep. More alcohol will not make it better. Experiment and see what helps you.

One of the most difficult aspects of sleep hygiene is your partner. If your partner snores, has restless legs, coughs all night long, talks in his sleep, sleepwalks, thrashes about like a gaffed fish, wants the bedroom the opposite temperature you need, works bizarre hours, comes to bed at random intervals, insists on having her smartphone on all night (the president might call!) and totally denies that he is your reason for sleep deprivation, then you have a real problem.

Sleep studies always ask about your partner because they are so often the reason you can’t sleep. Sleep study questionnaires also ask whether or not you sleep better when you are away from home. Same set of reasons, really. What keeps you from sleeping at home and can you fix it? Good sleep hygiene is very dependent on having a partner who doesn’t try to sabotage your efforts.

If your partner can’t or won’t change, then you get to suffer. This is the reason for separate bedrooms. This solution has its own set of drawbacks (where are you going to put your snoring husband, especially if you can hear him throughout the entire house?) but it may be your only hope if you can’t stand earplugs. Some of the above conditions can be fixed: sleep apnea treatment can cure snoring. Others are predicaments that have to be managed as best you can: irregular work hours are an excellent example. Keep in mind that fixing a few things that interrupt your sleep (lighting and electronic devices come to mind) may make other issues easier to cope with.

Another thing to look at is your bed. Is the mattress collapsing under you? More than twenty years old? Big enough for you and your partner and your four cats and the dog? The dog can be trained to sleep in his own bed, on the floor, thus freeing up some space. Training cats is a lost cause so close the door (and listen to them meow on the other side all night long), get a bigger bed, or live with it. If you wake up every day with a backache, a new mattress may help quite a bit. Unfortunately, you won’t know for sure until after you purchase one. If you sleep better when you are not at home, the mattress may be the culprit (or one of them) so this is worth looking into.

When you shop for mattresses, take your time and do your homework. Expect to spend some serious money to get a better mattress and box spring. Get warranties so if the new mattress doesn’t make your sleep better, than you have some faint chance of getting your money back. New bedding is expensive and a pain to do, so do the easier sleep hygiene stuff first.

sleep hygiene

The white noise machine we use lets us listen to the ocean waves, waterfall, trains, city noises and other soundscapes.

If noise or tinnitus is a distraction, then a white noise machine can help. I have tinnitus: that constant ringing static in the ears. There is very little to be done about it, other than maintaining healthy blood pressure. The white noise machine helps mask the never ending buzzing that tinnitus gives. A white noise machine can also help mask ambient outside noises too. We finally bought one about two years ago and it really helps. It’s the Ecotone model ASM 1002. We listen to ocean waves all night long. DH likes it and I don’t hear the endless buzz and crackle my ears never stop giving me quite as much. If you are concerned that a white noise machine will keep you from hearing prowlers or other potential problems, set the sound at the lowest level that works for you; upgrade your locks; and get a dog. Or learn to live with the noise, outside and inner. I like our white noise machine so much, that I’ve already decided that we will replace it within seconds of our current model failing. I might even pay for same-day shipping from Amazon, because it means so much to me.

Lastly, start training your mind to sleep. I attended a sleep doctor’s lecture and he said that we have a kind of switch in the brain. On means being awake, off means being asleep. But it isn’t always easy for the brain to realize that it needs to turn off. So you give it a pattern to recognize that tells your brain, “It’s time to shut down”. What I learned to do is make word lists.

Every night, as I’m laying there in the dark, I focus on my word list. A word list should be just complex enough to keep you from losing focus and boring and soothing enough to encourage your mind to shut down. The two lists that I have used are fruits & vegetables and animals. This sounds dopey but it really does work.

For fruits and vegetables, make a list of every single one you can think of, in alphabetical order. That is, apples, apricots, artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocados, bamboo shoots, bananas, basil, beans, beets, blackberries, blueberries, bok choy, boysenberries, breadfruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, continuing until you get to the end of the alphabet with yams, yuca root, and zucchini. Do this every night and after a few weeks you begin to train your brain: “oh, I recognize this list. It’s time to sleep”.

I also use the animal list: aardvark, aardwolf, adder, Afghan hound, Airedale, Akita, akula, albatross, alligator, alpaca, anaconda, anchovy, ants, anteaters, antelopes, apes, armadillo, asp, ass, and aye-ayes proceeding through the alphabet ending at last with yaks and zebras. When I started with animals, I could go through the entire list and then restart with ‘A’. Now, after months of training, I tend to fall asleep long before I reach ‘P’.

When I wake up in the night (which I do routinely), I start the list again. And I tend to fall asleep quicker. This list routine only works if you do it faithfully. It needs to become a habit. Your brain needs to be trained to recognize that it needs to shut down and sleep. Whatever you choose, it needs to be calming, repetitive, and just involving enough that your mind doesn’t drift into anxiety patterns but boring enough to let your brain relax.

The word list was my last step in improving my sleep hygiene and it really helped. I learned it from a book on sleep called “Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health” by Michael Breus. The trade paperback version was retitled “Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great through Better Sleep.” There are now plenty of better sleep books out there as well as resources on line. I look at them all, even though there isn’t much that’s new to me anymore. So why keep studying sleep hygiene? It reminds me how important my sleep is, and, sometimes, I come across something I had never thought off. I had never heard of the word list trick before and so that book, full of otherwise duplicate information (for me) was absolutely worth reviewing.

Good sleep hygiene is so important. Better sleep will make you feel so much better. When you are awake, you will be more focused, more even tempered, and better able to do every job on your list. Your health will improve. Your weight will be a little easier to manage (not much, but a little). There aren’t many downsides to sleeping better, other than having to say no to things you want to do. But if sleeping more forces you to be better organized in your day so when you are awake, you are focused and more productive, how did you lose?

So improve your sleep and improve your resilience. When you take better care of yourself, you can take better care of everyone else.

Next Week: Exercise: Loving Life While Wanting To Die at the Same Time