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The term sleep hygiene was coined by the psychologist Peter J. Hauri in 1977, as a term for the good habits that help a person get the right amount of good-quality sleep. Principles of sleep hygiene revolve around avoiding stress and distractions at bedtime, avoiding things that could disrupt your sleep, and keeping regular, consistent routines that can remind your body when it’s time to sleep.
It’s up to you to take care of your own sleep hygiene, but poor sleep habits may not always be your fault. Many people develop bad sleep habits because of circumstances in their lives such as college, a change in work schedule, or the birth of a new child. Common influences in your life that could disrupt your sleep habits include:
If you need to improve your sleep hygiene, the best indicator may be that you’re tired during the daytime. You don’t need a diagnosis from a doctor to start developing healthy habits, but a visit to a doctor may help you make sure that the problem with your sleep isn’t caused by a medical issue, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.
If you go to your doctor, the visit may start with questions about your sleep habits and possible causes that may disrupt your sleep, such as stress at work or disorder in the home. A physical exam may be necessary to check for medical problems. Your doctor may also ask you to keep track of your sleep habits and patterns in a sleep diary. In a few cases, an overnight sleep study may be necessary, although sleep studies aren’t usually required when sleep hygiene is the only issue.
The main symptom of poor sleep hygiene is trouble sleeping at night. You may have trouble getting to sleep, or you might wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. Alternately, you may have an irregular sleep pattern, where you go to bed at different times from one night to the next, and you can’t predict when you will wake up in the morning.
Trouble sleeping often leads to being unusually tired during the day. This can lead to changes in mood or other symptoms, such as:
Your body needs sleep to function properly. Failing to get enough sleep can lead to serious health problems. Over time, inadequate sleep hygiene may lead to serious health problems, such as depression, heart disease, and diabetes. Missing sleep can also put you at risk for serious accidents. Drowsy driving kills 1,500 people every year in the United States.
One study found that people who sleep less than 6 hours per night or rely on sleeping pills die at an earlier age, on average, than those who get 7 hours of sleep per night.
Improving your sleep hygiene is largely a matter of changing your own habits. Your doctor can make suggestions, and refer you to a cognitive therapist or other help if you have a lot of trouble getting on track, but your sleep hygiene is mostly up to you. Here are some things you can do to improve your sleep hygiene:
Lack of sleep can be a serious problem, but not all doctors screen for sleep hygiene issues. If you are having trouble getting enough sleep at night, or if it’s hard to you to stay awake in the daytime, talk to your doctor before it becomes a more serious problem. Your doctor has several questionnaires and screening tools available, including:
The good sleep hygiene habits you can use to help get your sleep back on track can also help you keep your sleep habits on track from the start, if you begin practicing them before you have a problem with your sleep. These include:
There are medical treatments to help you sleep, but you should not rely on sleeping pills as a first resort. Short-term use of sleep aids can help some people get their sleep on track, but long-term reliance on sleeping pills may lead to addiction or dependence, and get in the way of developing the good habits you need for long-term sleep hygiene.
If your sleep habits are off kilter and sleep hygiene alone doesn’t seem like enough to help you get yourself back on track, there are some treatments your doctor can prescribe or refer you for. These treatments include:
If sleep hygiene and behavioral therapies aren’t enough, then short-term medication may help, but most doctors recommend limiting sleep aids to just a few weeks, until you get your sleep schedule back on track.
In addition to behavioral therapies, lifestyle changes, and medical sleep aids, there are many complementary and alternative treatments that may also help you sleep.
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or progressive relaxation are a mainstay of sleep medicine. These include:
Some studies have found acupuncture to be very helpful with sleep disorders, possibly in as many as 9 patients out of 10, although more research is still needed.
Another popular approach is melatonin, a sleep hormone your body produces naturally. Melatonin supplements appear to be effective for some specific sleep disruptions, such as jet lag.
Other complementary and alternative approaches that may help you sleep include:
Always talk to your doctor about any treatments you use, including alternative and complementary treatments. Many herbal medicines and supplements may cause side effects or interact with other medicines you take.
Lack of sleep can be devastating to your overall health and the quality of your life. Practicing good sleep hygiene is something you can start on your own, but if it’s hard to change your habits, or if good habits aren’t enough, then there’s no shame in asking for help. If poor sleep makes it hard for you to function during the day and trying to improve your sleep hygiene doesn’t help, or if you have trouble sleeping 3 or more nights a week for 3 months or longer, talk to your doctor.
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
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