Self-Care During Recovery: Sleep Hygiene

Photo of young woman sleeping in a dark room
A common challenge for people in recovery, particularly early in the recovery process, is engaging in a healthy self-care recovery routine, which includes getting a healthy amount of sleep. The problems with sleep can go in either direction. Some people report excess fatigue and say they sleep all the time: that’s one extreme. Others report excess energy and can’t sleep at all: that’s the opposite extreme.

Still others go back and forth. Some nights are fine, some nights they toss and turn, and some days all they want to do it sleep.

We have good news for people in recovery: there’s a way to manage your sleep – well, everything around your sleep, really – that increases your chances of getting a solid, healthy amount of sleep more nights than not. That’s what you want, because sleep is essential for optimal health, and optimal health both supports and protects a successful recovery.

The way sleep experts recommend getting a good night’s sleep is with sleep hygiene. We realize that phrase sounds a little silly but give it a chance. Hygiene means practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness. Therefore, sleep hygiene means cleaning up your sleep habits to promote better health.

That makes sense.

But why is sleep so important?

The Purpose of Sleep

Perhaps the best way to understand why we need sleep is to have a look at what happens when we don’t sleep. Things go wrong in two categories: the psychological and the physiological. Here’s a simple breakdown of the problems we face when we go without sleep:

Psychological Effects of Sleep Deprivation

  • Problems concentrating
  • Problems making decisions
  • Difficulty coping with/managing emotions
  • Slowed or sluggish thoughts
  • Problems speaking clearly/coherently
  • Impulsivity

Physiological Effects of Sleep Deprivation

  • Slowed physical reaction time
  • Poor balance
  • Poor coordination
  • Decreased immunity
  • Increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke
  • Stomach problems
  • Increased risk of kidney disease
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders

Without sleep, we basically start to fall apart. It happens psychologically, emotionally, and physically. That’s not news: sleep deprivation is a torture device because it destroys our minds and bodies at the same time. In fact, a study from Harvard University showed getting less than five hours of sleep a night has an increased risk of premature, all-cause mortality by 15 percent.

If you’re in recovery, that’s a compelling way to look at it: not getting the sleep you need is like literally torturing yourself. And that’s the opposite of what you need during recovery, which is self-care.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”

-William Mizener

Scientists have studied sleep for the better part of two centuries, but the most substantial progress has occurred in the last fifteen years, with the advent of modern brain scanning technology. We’ve learned that our brain is not idle while we sleep.

When we sleep, we dream – but that’s not all.

Our brain stays busy directing our bodies to rebuild, restore, and regulate all our essential physiological processes. The brain sends messages that control our digestive system, our cardiovascular system, our immune system, and itself: the central nervous system.

Scientists now know a good night’s sleep consists of cycles, with each cycle containing five stages of roughly 90-120 minutes. Healthy adults need at least five of these stages per night to keep functioning at maximum efficiency – that’s about 7.5 hours of sleep per night.

However, data from research performed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) show indicate that a significant percentage of people don’t get the sleep they need for ideal health:

  • Children 0-12: 34.1%
  • High School/Middle School Students, 12-17: 6%
  • Adults 18+: 5%

Let’s put figures to those percentages. Around 1.6 million children, 2.0 million high teens, and 83.8 million adults don’t get the sleep they need every night. We can extend this information to people in recovery, too. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SMAHSA) indicate that 21 million adults in the U.S. are in recovery, which means roughly 6.8 million adults in recovery probably don’t get the 7.5-8 hours of sleep they need every night.

How to Improve Your Sleep for Recovery

Sleep experts identify two categories of activities/habits related to sleep:

  1. Things you can do during the day to improve your sleep
  2. Things you can do before bed to improve your sleep

Here’s a list from the first category: things you can do during the day to improve your sleep.

Keep a Consistent Schedule

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and don’t deviate much on the weekends. There are exceptions, sure. Some mornings you need to sleep in. However, establishing consistency trains your body, normalizes your circadian rhythms, and improves hormone balance and overall health. Therefore, do your best to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

Regulate Napping

Avoid napping after 3:00 pm, because it will make it harder to sleep at night. Also, don’t nap too long. There’s a difference between a nap and an actual session of real sleep. Naps are, by definition, short. Keep them to 30 minutes or less, with an ideal length of about 20 minutes. Napping longer than 30 minutes can cause grogginess and reduced cognitive capacity that’s hard to overcome, whereas napping closer to 20 minutes generally leads to feeling physically refreshed and mentally alert.

Get Daily Exercise

This is simple. A good amount of exercise or activity during the day tires both body and mind, which makes it easier to fall asleep at night. For some, exercising close to bedtime delays sleep, but not for everyone. With regards to impact on sleep, experts recommend exercising in the morning or mid-afternoon.

Reduce/Eliminate Nicotine

Tobacco products that contain nicotine – vapes, cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, dip – have a negative impact on sleep. Nicotine is a stimulant that causes increased respiratory rate, blood pressure, and heart rate, which are the opposite of what you want in order to fall asleep. Short of ceasing nicotine consumption entirely, experts recommend avoiding nicotine for at least four hours before bedtime.

Let the Sun Shine In

Natural light and dark have a direct impact on our circadian rhythm, which is a way of describing the automatic clock in our brains that control our cycles of alertness and sleepiness. Aligning yourself with the natural cycles of the earth – waking close to sunrise and going to sleep not too long after sunset – can help keep your natural cycles of sleep and wakefulness functioning smoothly.

Now let’s look at a list from the second category: things you can do before bed to improve your sleep.

No Caffeine After 3:00 pm

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant with an energizing effect that can last up to six hours. Having caffeine in the morning will probably not affect your sleep, nor will a small amount in the early afternoon. However, coffee/caffeine in the late afternoon or after dinner may make it hard to fall asleep later in the evening.

No Alcohol Before Sleep

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it’s logical to think that it may help sleep, but the opposite is true. Alcohol can make you drowsy and help you fall asleep more easily, but it also interferes with and interrupts your natural sleep cycle. The more alcohol you drink, the worse the effect.

No Big Meals Late at Night

If it’s late and you haven’t had dinner, have a full dinner. But if you had dinner at a normal time and get hungry later on, don’t eat another full meal: it can make falling asleep hard, and interrupt your sleep cycles. If you need a midnight snack, keep it small and keep it healthy.

Create a Wind-Down Routine

It’s a great idea to do something relaxing before bed. Yoga, meditation, reading, listening to music – if it’s relaxing to you, then do it. The idea is to help transition from the hustle and bustle of the day to an easy, no stress bedtime. Some people like to take a short walk, which is fine, but avoid vigorous activity. Keep it easy, keep it relaxing, and remember: the idea is to help yourself relax and fall asleep.

Turn off the Screens

The blue light from computers, tablets, televisions, and smartphones can keep you awake. Therefore, it’s best to turn off all electronic devices an hour or half an hour before bed. That means you can turn them off right before you start your wind-down routine, which we suggest above.

The Sleep Room

The best conditions for sleeping are a room that’s quiet, as dark as possible, and cool: around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and not over 70. Also, think of the bedroom and bed as a place for sleep only. Do your TV watching, smartphone scrolling, and work catch-up on your laptop anywhere but in bed or in your bedroom.

Don’t Lay There Getting Frustrated

If you don’t fall asleep in a typical amount of time, which is different for everyone, but should be somewhere between 15-30 minutes, then avoid tossing and turning and hoping for sleep to arrive. Get up, do something relaxing like reading, yoga, or meditation, then try again when you start to feel sleepy.

One Night at a Time

It might be too much to change all your recovery sleep habits all at once – and that’s okay. Start with things you know you can do, like avoiding caffeine later in the day, creating a good wind-down routine, and limiting screen time before bed. If you start with those, you’re well on your way. Another thing: experts stress the importance of getting outside in the sunshine for a minimum of fifteen minutes a day. If the sun isn’t shining, we promise it’s still there. You get the benefits of being outdoors, even on cloudy days.

With sleep hygiene, build your habits slowly, over time. And remember, this is about self-care, so be kind to yourself, and rest easy.

Sweet dreams!

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.