We’ve all experienced it: awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, thoughts racing through your mind about work, bills you have to pay, or the long to-do list that you just don’t know how you’re going to tackle. Frustrated, you toss and turn, and start rationalizing with yourself: if I fall asleep in the next 10 minutes, I can still get 5 hours of sleep; then, 4 hours of sleep; then… before you know it, the sun is rising, birds are chirping, and you are at your wit’s end, wondering how many cups of coffee it’s going to take to get your through your day (which, let’s be honest: will only make matter worse).
Many factors can affect sleep, and it’s common place in our society to experience symptoms of insomnia or sleeplessness (check out my article Common Causes of Fatigue for more info). In fact, according to Stats Canada, depending on the definition used for insomnia (i.e. a diagnosed medical condition, insomnia symptoms, or dissatisfaction with sleep), the prevalence in Canadians ranges from 6 to 48%. Even more disturbing, nighttime insomnia symptoms have increased by 42% between 2007 and 2015 in Canadians aged 18 and older.
What can we do about this problem???
The root causes for insomnia and fatigue are many, but I think it’s safe to say that everyone can benefit from practicing sleep hygiene and establishing a solid sleep routine. In fact, good sleep hygiene should be a part of your lifestyle even if you don’t have sleep issues.
A note on sleep aids (whether prescription, over-the-counter, or natural remedies): these can be useful for someone suffering short-term sleep-related issues due to a short-term external stressor; however, on their own, they are not sufficient for establishing and maintaining a normal sleep cycle.
I already said it, but I’ll say it again: if you have sleep issues, practicing a regular sleep routine is essential for establishing a normal sleep cycle.
Let’s go over some of the key points of what it means to have a regular sleep routine:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Try to keep this schedule 5 out of 7 days per week: there is some flexibility here for non-work days but try to keep your sleep and wake times within an hour or two of your normal schedule.
- Reduce exposure to light before bed, especially blue LED light.
- It takes the body 30 minutes to recover from a blast of blue light (i.e. when you go into the bathroom to brush your teeth); use night lights, candles, or dim lighting in the evening.
- On that same note: avoid the use of electronics and blue light at least one hour before your scheduled bed time. Use a blue light filter or glasses that protect against blue-light.
- Create a comfortable sleep environment. This includes your mattress, sheets, room temperature, and minimizing external stimuli (i.e. light from street lamps, external noise, etc.). Get your room as dark as possible. If pitch black is not an option, get a sleep mask.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol intake before bed.
- For some, the effects of caffeine can last up to 10 hours so it’s best to avoid it after lunchtime/noon.
- It may help you fall asleep, but studies show alcohol disrupts your deep sleep cycle.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal within a few hours of going to bed to avoid symptoms of indigestion.
- Take measures to reduce stress or anxiety before bed. This might include a hot bath, reading a book, meditating, doing some light stretching, journaling (or writing out your to-do list so you’re not coming up with it in your head while trying to fall asleep) or having a hot cup of tea.
- On the same note: it’s best to avoid stress-invoking activities such as watching the nightly news or a suspenseful TV show.
- Get regular exercise during the day (but not within 3 hours of going to bed).
Remember that sleep is a complex function, and even science doesn’t have a complete understanding of it. If you continue to struggle with sleep after implementing a solid sleep routine, consider speaking with a health care professional to see if there might be other factors you aren’t considering.