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August 2014 Health Challenge: Improve Your Sleep Habits

There is no denying that good sleep habits are important. A good night’s sleep is restorative and refreshing. It also can make us more productive, which can help our stress levels and our health. Sleep allows our body to repair itself properly, and most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night for good health. Unfortunately, sleep can often be the first thing to go when life gets busy.

Poor Sleep Habits Can Significantly Impact Our Health

According to Harvard Medical School’s Get Sleep Website, sleeping fewer than about eight hours per night on a regular basis seems to increase the risk of developing a number of medical conditions. Study results show that reducing sleep by just two or three hours per night can have dramatic health consequences.1 Certain health risks associated with lack of sleep include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, decreased immune function, and increased susceptibility to the common cold. It is not surprising then that these negative consequences can lead to increased medical costs and decreased productivity. Inadequate sleep can also affect our mood, memory, judgment, and safety. That is why developing good sleep habits are so important.

Sleep Cycles: Make it Count

The Better Sleep Council explains four stages of sleep and suggests that to feel most rested, it’s best for you to wake up at the end of this 4 step cycle.2 A complete cycle of sleep lasts approximately 90 minutes.

  • Stage 1: Though the eyes are closed, you can be awakened without difficulty. If you are awakened from this stage of sleep, you may even feel as though you never slept. This stage can last from 5-10 minutes and you may feel like you’re falling during this stage, which can cause you to jump suddenly (called hypnic myoclonia).

  • Stage 2: During this light period of sleep, the heart rate slows and the body temperature decreases. At this point in the sleep cycle, the body is preparing to enter a deep sleep.

  • Stages 3 & 4: These are the deep sleep stages, when REM sleep occurs. These stages are known as slow-wave, or delta, sleep. If stirred from this sleep during these stages, a person may feel disoriented for a few minutes.

Another way to figure out how much sleep you need is to pick the time you need to wake up, and count backwards for five 90 minute cycles. For example, if you need to wake up at 7:00am, ideally you should go to bed at 11:30pm.

Tips and Tricks for a Better Night’s Sleep

Here are ten tips to sleep better, from the National Sleep Foundation3 for maintaining a healthy sleep cycle and ensuring the best nights’ rest:

  1. Stick to the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends.
    This helps to regulate your body's clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.

  2. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.
    A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep.

  3. Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day, but if you find that you can't fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help.

  4. Exercise daily.
    Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise is better than no activity. Exercise at any time of day, but not at the expense of your sleep.

  5. Evaluate your room.
    Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep. Your bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees. Your bedroom should also be free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. Finally, your bedroom should be free from any light. Check your room for noises or other distractions. This includes a bed partner's sleep disruptions such as snoring. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.

  6. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
    Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy – about 9 or 10 years for most good quality mattresses. Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep but also free of allergens that might affect you and objects that might cause you to slip or fall if you have to get up during the night.

  7. Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms.
    Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. This will keep your circadian rhythms in check.

  8. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening.
    Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. It is good to finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.

  9. Wind down. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading.
    For some people, using an electronic device such as a laptop can make it hard to fall asleep, because the particular type of light emanating from the screens of these devices is activating to the brain. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid electronics before bed or in the middle of the night.

  10. If you can't sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.
    It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine.

Now that you understand the importance of good sleep habits, see how you compare up by taking our sleep self-assessment. You may want to use it to discuss your sleep habits with your health care provider.

For additional sleep assistance, try a Sleep App!


  1. Harvard Medical School’s Get Sleep Web Site

  2. www.bettersleep.org

  3. National Sleep Foundation