Sleep Hygiene: The Risks of a Poor Night’s Sleep and Which Behaviours Can Improve It

Dr. Matthew NagraArticles, Sleep Hygiene, Tips

Image of woman looking at her phone while trying to fall asleep

What is sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleep habits. More specifically, the behaviours you have around bedtime that impact the quality and duration of your sleep. If you’re in the majority, you may not know just how much your bedtime routine affects your sleep quality. While behaviours throughout the day, such as your food and drink choices, exercise, daily schedule, evening routine, etc. all impact your ability to have a good, restful sleep, the two-hour period before bedtime is the most critical.

Why is sleep hygiene important?

There are multiple studies that point towards the health benefits of a good night’s sleep and show that sleep lacking in quality and quantity are associated with several health risks. Mentally, sleep deprivation interferes with your ability to think clearly and quickly, and can also increase feelings of irritability, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, a lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your body physically, increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

It’s important to note that clinical trials on both sleep hygiene practices and sleep quality are often based on controlled laboratory scenarios where the researchers actively disrupt sleep, potentially exaggerating the effects, which may or may not directly translate to members of the general population. Furthermore, the results found on the sleep health of the general population is limited and requires more expansive research.

How sleep impacts your health

Sleep accounts for a major proportion of the human lifespan. Despite that, its effects on health are oftentimes not prioritized nor understood compared to factors such as diet, exercise, smoking habits, etc. However, good sleep hygiene – including quality and duration – is “crucial for the regulation of body metabolism and physiological functions,” according to this 2021 umbrella review. Here are some ways that sleep – or lack thereof – can impact your health:

1. Increased Risk of Disease

A lack of sleep may significantly increase your risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  • Cognitive decline
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD)
  • Depression
  • Lung cancer
  • Frailty
  • Falls
  • Metabolic syndrome (MS)
  • Stroke

Furthermore, a dose-response analysis showed that a 1-hour reduction of sleep per a 24-hour period increases your risk of all-cause mortality, CHD, stroke, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes by 3-11%.

2. Exercise Performance

A lack of sleep could negatively impact your exercise performance. In a meta-analysis of controlled sleep experiments, results showed that the exercise tasks of those who slept 6 hours or less over a 24-hour period were consistently negatively affected by sleep loss. Interestingly though, the results pertained to the individuals who exercised later in the day, while those who exercised in the morning were less clearly impacted by sleep loss in terms of performance. Therefore, if sleep loss is unavoidable and anticipated, exercising in the morning is preferable over the evening.

3. Obesity

Short sleep duration may increase your risk of weight gain or obesity. Multiple meta-analyses of cohort studies over the last decade have shown a relationship between sleep duration and obesity in adults and children. For adults, those who slept less than 7 hours in a 24-hour period were associated with a higher risk of obesity compared to those who consistently got 7–8 hours of sleep per night. Additionally, those with short sleep durations or poor sleep quality lost less fat mass over a 24-week period while attempting to eat in a calorie deficit.

4. Mood

A 2019 study evaluated the correlation between sleep quality and mood. In fact, results suggested that sleep quality had a larger effect on mood than mood did on sleep quality. Meaning, the next-day mood of the participants was significantly affected by a poor level of sleep while their mood before bed had a lesser impact on their subsequent sleep. Furthermore, shorter sleep duration has been shown to increase an adolescent’s chances of experiencing mood deficits by 55%, including depression, anger, and anxiety, and is associated with depression in adults.

5. Injury

A lack of sleep is not only detrimental to health and disease, but it can also be life-threatening on the road. Insufficient sleep duration of 6 hours per night (compared to the recommended 7-8 hours) was associated with a 33% increased risk of being involved in a motor crash. These results were present even in those who did not report feelings of excessive sleepiness. When comparing sleep apnea to common sleep duration, there was only a 1% difference with 10% of all motor crashes being due to the former, and 9% to the latter. A lack of sleep may also increase an individual’s risk of being involved in a workplace injury.

Tips for improving your sleep hygiene

So, we’ve covered the risks associated with a poor night’s sleep. But how do you combat these risks and improve your sleep quality? Inspired by recommendations from the CDC, AASM, and the Sleep Foundation, here are some sleep hygiene practices you can integrate into your lifestyle to improve your sleep hygiene:

Set a Sleep Schedule

  • Setting a schedule for yourself can do wonders for your sleep. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each night, including on the weekends.
  • Plan at least 30-minutes of wind-down time. Identify what relaxes you and embrace these in the 30-minute window before your set bedtime. Activities such as listening to soft music, light stretching, reading, meditating, and more can put you in a calm state for sleeping.
  • Prioritize sleep. The “hustle” mindset of our generation has idealized skipping sleep to work, study, socialize, or exercise. But better health requires that you prioritize sleep. When you set a bedtime for yourself, do your best to stick to it, despite temptation.
  • Make gradual changes. Avoid shocking your body with a full 180 switch-up of your sleep schedule. Make small, step-by-step adjustments to your nightly routine to give your body (and mind) time to lean into the changes. It’s advised to shift your sleep schedule by 1-2 hours per day at most. 

Follow a Nightly Routine

  • Set the mood. Your sleep setting plays a big role in your sleep quality. To improve your sleep, ensure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature for your body.
  • Cut out pre-sleep electronics. We know that the pre-sleep scroll through your phone can be a tough habit to break. However, not only does technology delay your bedtime, but it also stimulates your mind and makes it difficult to fall asleep. Avoid screens in the 30-to-60-minute window before bed; although, some people may benefit from extending this “no tech” window to 2 hours. Lastly, consider using a traditional alarm clock rather than your phone to keep your devices out of reach.
  • Prioritize comfort. Your mattress and pillow are crucial in creating a comfortable night’s sleep. If you have trouble sleeping on your current setup, it may be time to invest in some new materials.
  • Reduce fluid intake before bed. If you struggle with being awoken by your bladder throughout the night, try limiting your fluid intake in the hour before bedtime.

Create Healthy Daily Habits

  • To help your body focus on sleeping rather than digesting, avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol in the two-hour window before bedtime.
  • Being physically active throughout the day can make falling asleep at night easier, leading to a longer sleep duration.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine stimulates the body and could disrupt your sleep, making it a large contributor to numerous sleep problems.
  • Restrict in-bed activity. The goal is to build the mental link between your bed and rest. Therefore, limiting your in-bed activity to sleep and sex is ideal. Do your best to use other areas of your home or bedroom for activities such as reading, eating, working, etc.

Should you prioritize better sleep hygiene?

Absolutely! Everyone can benefit from taking a closer look at their sleep quality to see if improvements can be made. As an inexpensive form of lifestyle intervention, sleep hygiene can act as the first step to promote healthful habits. Not only does sleep play a huge role in your long-term mental and physical health, but good sleep hygiene can improve your day-to-day. Increased energy levels, more clarity, and improved mood are just a few of the ways your sleep can help you get more out of your day.