10 tips to help foster healthy sleep habits

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By Sarah Heynen

DCoE Public Affairs

Sleep is important for healthy brain function, emotional well-being and overall good physical health. But many service members and veterans are not getting the sleep they need. A study conducted by the Rand Corporation determined about 70 percent of deployable service members reported six hours or less of sleep per day, almost half said they sleep poorly, and one-third felt fatigued three to four times a week.

Psychological health concerns or a traumatic brain injury (TBI) may make sleep even more difficult. Sleep disturbances are common for those recovering from a brain injury, while nightmares are common for those who have experienced trauma. Making simple changes to your behavior and environment – sleep schedule, bedtime habits and daily lifestyle choices – can help you get a better night’s rest.

  1. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine prior to bedtime. Having these stimulants too close to bedtime may keep you awake at night. Avoid them within three hours of turning in.
  2. Keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Try to stick to this routine even on the weekends. Eventually, your body will get into a rhythm and expect to awake and sleep at certain times.
  3. Exercise early. Exercising regularly has a variety of health benefits, including promoting better quality sleep. Avoid vigorous exercise three hours before bed.
  4. Follow a relaxing bedtime routine. Do you have a bedtime ritual? You may find it easier to fall asleep if you make an effort to relax and unwind before bed. For example, take a warm bath or shower, practice relaxation exercises like meditation or yoga, listen to calming music or do some light reading.
  5. Make your bedroom a comfortable place to rest. Turn your bedroom into a sleep-inducing environment. Remove distractions, loud noise and bright lighting. Keep your room cool, and play soft music if that helps you to sleep. Also, if your mattress and pillows aren’t comfortable, it may be time to purchase new bedding.
  6. Use the bed to sleep, not work. Your bed may be a comfortable place to eat, watch TV and work, but try to find other areas outside your bedroom for these activities. By using your bed only for sleep, you’re strengthening the connection between your bed and sleeping.
  7. Go to bed only when you’re sleepy. You don’t want to stay in bed for long periods of time while awake. If you don’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired enough to sleep.
  8. Avoid naps. While napping is often a great way to recharge, afternoon napping may make it harder to fall asleep at night. If you’re tired during the day, go for a walk or do some gentle exercise. If you can’t help it, take a nap but keep it short.
  9. Change your electronic habits. Researchers found that levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, are affected by blue light. Turn off electronic devices at least two hours prior to bedtime.
  10. Follow doctor’s guidance on sleep medication. Take prescribed sleep medications as instructed and at the same time every night. Don’t take over-the-counter medications or supplements without first talking to your doctor.

It is always best to speak with your health care provider for effective treatment of sleep issues. Below are self-management tools you can access from home. The tools work best when used in conjunction with your provider:

  • Warfighter Sleep Kit: Provides information to service members on the impact of sleep on mission effectiveness and the importance of getting enough sleep after a concussion. The sleep kit helps with basic sleep hygiene; it includes a sleep mask, earplugs and educational materials.
  • Afterdeployment Sleep Module: This online tool offers information on good sleep hygiene, self-assessments, how to seek help, videos and more.
  • TBI Symptom Management: Healthy Sleep: This fact sheet offers healthy sleep tips for service members and veterans who experience sleep disturbances after a traumatic brain injury.
  • Mobile Apps: These apps are available to help warriors experiencing sleep issues. Dream EZ is designed to help a person “rewrite” nightmares to make them less intense and frequent. CBT-i Coach is for people engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) with a health care provider, or those who have experienced symptoms of insomnia and would like to improve their sleep habits.