Sleep is an essential function that allows your body and mind to recharge. According to the Better Sleep Council (BSC), when it comes to health, consumers still rank sleep as their top priority. But many Americans only get six hours of sleep a night—or less.
How can we improve our sleep hygiene and close the sleep divide? We caught up with Ellen Wermter, a family nurse practitioner and BSC spokesperson who specializes in sleep medicine, for her advice.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Good sleep starts with good sleep hygiene.
“Sleep hygiene is a term that encompasses behaviors that may promote better sleep, like how we settle our body and mind to prepare for sleep. It can also include optimizing our environment for sleep: dark, quiet, comfortable,” says Wermter. “Our goal each night is to try and set ourselves up for having the highest chance of getting a good night’s sleep.”
But even if you set your body, mind and environment up with the goal of plenty of good Zzzs, you’re not always guaranteed to make it through the night. And even though we’re slowly coming out of the pandemic, the variety of stresses and unknowns resulting from it haven’t helped support healthy sleep habits.
“In general, the pandemic has created more anxiety and uncertainty, and those are things that don’t pair well with a restful night. Our busy brains have been kicking in as a form of survival instinct, and busy brains take more to settle down,” says Wermter.
BSC’s 2021 State of America Sleep study revealed that two of the major stressors for people are finances and job security.
“There is a strong connection between sleep and mental health and worries about money and jobs has gone up for many, which negatively affects our mental state,” says Wermter, adding there has also been the fear of getting sick or having family members get sick. “When we are feeling anxiety, our brains naturally want to solve that problem. But the worse we feel, the worse we sleep. And the worse we sleep, the worse we feel.”
Healthy Sleep Habits
So how can we sleep better? Wermter offers some tips.
1. Control what you can. “Try not to make current problems worse and get stuck focusing on short-term solutions without long-term gain,” advises Wermter. “Aim to avoid things that don’t benefit you in the end, like alcohol and caffeine.”
Incorporate things you CAN control, like exercise, which can contribute to better sleep.
2. Work with your circadian rhythm. “Try to have a predictable schedule when you get up,” says Wermter, adding that natural light exposure in the morning is helpful.
3. Increase your savings. “Through research and studies by the Better Sleep Council, we know that finances are a big stressor that keeps some people awake,” says Wermter. Her suggestion? “Do what you can to put some money aside regularly—save some of your stimulus money—and build a cushion so you’re not as worried when a surprise bill or payment pops up. This cushion can take a bit of the financial stress off.”
4. Focus on relationships. “Especially during the pandemic, a lot of people were lonely, which caused stress and affected sleep,” says Wermter, adding that relationships and sleep are related. “Sleep helps you make those connections better. If you’re more connected and have fulfilling relationships, this helps you sleep better.”
She recommends having a regular 15-minute call with a friend or get out and walk with a neighbor. “Exercise, social interaction and being outdoors are all beneficial to good sleep,” she says.
Here are a few things that can support a healthy night’s sleep.
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