We know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, especially considering lack of sleep has been linked to a host of health issues including heart disease, decreased cognitive function and depression. But no matter how much you intellectualize it, if you can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.
Although some people, so-called “short sleepers,” do well on as little as four hours of sleep per night, the average adult requires seven to nine hours of shut-eye in order to function properly the next day.
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“Some people think they can function on only five or six hours of sleep, but sleep is kind of like alcohol consumption,” says Alanna McGinn, family sleep consultant and founder of Goodnight Sleep Site. “Just as the more you drink, the more your body builds a tolerance to alcohol, the less you sleep, the less you think you need it simply because you’re able to get through your day. But your body and brain require good quality sleep to work properly.”
Experts say establishing “good sleep hygiene” is key to helping you fall asleep faster — and staying asleep through the night. Here’s how to do that.
Establishing a routine means sticking to it, even on weekends when you might be tempted to stay up late.
“Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, helps to sync your circadian rhythm,” McGinn says.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine for yourself to help get you in the sleep mood. McGinn says this can be as simple as changing into your pajamas, washing your face and reading a book (but avoid reading things that will make you anxious, like emails or distressing news events). Doing similar activities every night before bed will train your brain to release the melatonin hormone, which will trigger sleep.
Give yourself a tech curfew
This doesn’t just apply to kids. Turn off any and all tech devices at least 60 minutes (preferably 90 minutes) before bed, McGinn says.
“The bright screen essentially tells your brain to turn off the sleep switch and tricks it into thinking you need to be awake. This, in turn, suppresses melatonin production and increases cortisol and adrenaline,” she says.
The other problem with tech is that it often cuts into bedtime. Even if you go to bed at 10 p.m., if you have your phone, laptop or tablet with you, it can be easy to get caught up reading emails or falling down an Instagram hole, and before you know it, it’s past midnight.
McGinn also says to remove all technology from the bedroom, including your phone. And while many people use their phone as an alarm clock, she advocates for the return of the old-fashioned clock.
Have a snack
It could be a good idea to fix yourself a bedtime snack, especially if you struggle with staying asleep through the night.
“When we have a drop in blood sugar, it could cause us to wake up. And if you’re eating dinner at 6 p.m., and not eating again until 7 a.m. the next morning, your levels will drop.”
She suggests opting for a healthy protein-rich, grain-filled snack like yogurt with granola, pumpkin seeds or a fibre-rich cereal with milk.
But avoid caffeine and alcohol.
“If you’re struggling with sleep, you want to refrain from consuming caffeine after 2 p.m.,” she says. “This includes dark chocolate and pop.”
Many people consider alcohol a sleep aid, but this is one of the greatest misconceptions.
“Alcohol is a class of drugs that we call ‘the sedatives,'” Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep, said to Business Insider. “What you’re doing is just knocking your brain out. You’re not putting it into natural sleep. We also know that alcohol will fragment your sleep. So you’ll wake up many more times throughout the night. And alcohol is also a very potent chemical for blocking your dream sleep or your rapid eye movement sleep.”
Create a conducive sleep environment
Darkness is very important to falling asleep (which is another argument against having a television in the bedroom), because it helps release melatonin. You also want to have a quiet space, so invest in a white noise machine or earplugs if you get a lot of ambient noise or you have loud neighbours.
“Clear the clutter from your bedroom,” McGinn says. “Our bedrooms have become our offices and entertainment centres and kids’ playrooms, but you need to get all those things out. You have to create a sanctuary that’s only for sleep and sex.”
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It’s also important to turn down the thermostat for a good night’s sleep. You might keep the rest of your home at a cozy 21 C, but Walker says your room should be around 18.5 C.
“The reason is that your brain and your body need to drop their core temperature by about two or three degrees Fahrenheit to initiate good sleep,” he says. “And that’s the reason why you’ll always find it easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold than too hot.”
Can’t sleep? Get out
It may go against everything you believe to be true about sleeping, but if you’re awake in the middle of the night, don’t stay in bed.
“You want to work on the association between sleep and your bed,” McGinn says. “We should be sleeping 85 per cent of the time we’re in bed, but if you wake up and you’re clock-watching, it’s only going to increase your anxiety and break that association.”
She suggests getting out of bed and engaging in a relaxing activity, like reading a chapter of a book, doing a puzzle or drawing — and flip your alarm clock around so you can’t see the time. Whatever you do, don’t get in front of a tech device and don’t turn up the lights because they’ll stimulate you and wake you further.
“You might have to get out of bed five or 10 times, but every time you do it and get back in, it’ll be easier to fall back asleep.”
If you don’t want to get out of bed because you’re afraid of waking your partner or you’re warm and cozy, try practicing mindful breathing or meditation. These will help you be present in thought and prevent you from getting agitated by worries or anxiety.
As a preemptive step, McGinn suggests writing in a journal before bed.
“Do a brain dump by keeping a journal. Write down all your stresses and worries, or your to-do lists for the next day, so that they’re not jumbled in your brain and likely to keep you from falling asleep.”