Courtesy of ParanoidMonk via Flickr

Experts agree that sleep is right up there with eating and physical activity when it comes to taking care of our mental and physical functioning.  Lack of sleep is suspected of causing everything from increases in accidental death to obesity. So why are we so clueless when it comes to proper sleep hygiene?

Maybe it’s because the pressure is on to get away with as little sleep as possible. You don’t have to be the parent of a newborn to be sleep deprived. With 24/7 Internet access through our smartphones, round the clock entertainment through cable television, Netflix and Hulu, a global business environment that means staying up long enough to talk with Tokyo, lack of sleep is an equal opportunity malady.

How do you know you are getting enough sleep? If most days of the week you wake up before your alarm does, you are doing pretty well.

For the rest of us a reminder of good sleep hygiene (another way of saying healthy sleep habits) may help. I can always do with a good review:

1. Establish a regular sleep schedule and try to stick to it, even on the weekends, yup, even on the weekends, give or take a half hour but not more. If you usually need to get up at 7:00 in the morning, count back eight hours to establish your target ‘go to bed’ time. If you “sleep in” for hours on your days off you are voluntarily giving yourself what amounts to jet lag.

2. If you nap during the day, limit it to 20 minutes or 30 minutes, preferably early in the afternoon. Sleeping too much during the day (unless you work the third shift) may be a sign of sleep apnea.

3. Avoid alcohol in the evening, as it can disrupt sleep. You know the drill. Three ounces of wine or 8 of beer with dinner tops! Don’t kid yourself and push for more.

4. Don’t eat a big meal just before bed-time, but don’t go to bed starving, either. If your stomach is growling eat a light snack before bed. Stick with complex carbohydrates, like cereal, or white fruit, like an apple.

5. If you use medications that are stimulants, take them in the morning, or ask your doctor if you can switch to a non-stimulating alternative. If you use drugs that cause drowsiness, take them in the evening. I know this sounds like a big “Duh!” but you’d be amazed how many of the meds we take over the counter have stimulants in them. Excedrin, for instance, and some allergy relief medication can cause wakefulness. If nightmares are keeping you up, ask your doctor if they may be a side effect of your medication.

6. Get regular exercise during the day, but avoid vigorous exercise within three hours of bedtime. Just walking for 15 minutes every day could do the trick.

7. If pressing thoughts interfere with falling asleep, write them down (keep a pad and pen next to the bed) and try to forget about them until morning. Imagine literally pulling the thoughts out of your head and placing them on the paper. There is nothing you can do about that job application at 3:00 in the morning.

8. If you are frequently awakened by a need to use the bath room cut down on fluids four hours or so before going to bed.

9. If you smoke, quit. Nicotine is a stimulant and can cause nightmares. Yeah, I know, how easily said. I’m sorry if you are a smoker and have tried to quit a million times. Please, try one more time.

10. Avoid beverages and foods with caffeine for at least six hours before your bedtime. That means decaf too, and foods and beverages with other stimulating active ingredients like chocolate.

11. Take a good look at your sleep environment. Is it soothing? Are the sheets on your bed soft, clean? Are the lights low (imitating camp fire) or overhead (like the sun, hello!). Do you have a TV in your bedroom? Experts advise you take the TV out and read a light book instead. If you must watch TV before sleeping avoid the news and go for re-runs of a familiar comedy. Leave your smartphone as far away from your bed as possible.

12. About half an hour before you hope to be asleep start your go to bed ritual. Keep to the same ritual as closely as you can every night. Our bodies are creatures of habit. If every night you check the house, then the kids, then brush your teeth, then pajamas, then bed and a little light reading, your body gets the signal, “Hey, it’s time to sleep! Release the melatonin!”

I’m getting a little drowsy just writing this!