Canadian doctor shares her tips for falling asleep and staying asleep

When we sleep, our brains get rid of gunk that builds up while we’re awake, suggests a study that may provide new clues to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. Adam Taylor/Getty Images

TORONTO – It’s 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday night. You spent the weekend sleeping in, you’ve got a meeting the next morning and you have a list of looming deadlines at work.

This may sound familiar to most Canadians juggling busy work schedules, hobbies, social lives and families. Getting to sleep – and staying asleep – turns into a difficult task on its own.

It’s an important part of your daily routine – new research out of the Netherlands this week suggests that a good night’s rest may be as important as quitting smoking or maintaining a healthy weight in keeping heart disease at bay.

It’s about as valuable as a healthy diet, drinking less and exercising more, the researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Making sure you get a solid night’s rest is a day-long effort that begins when you wake up, Ryerson University professor Dr. Colleen Carney tells Global News.

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With the onset of smart phones, constant emails and around the clock work days, she says it’s becoming more challenging for Canadians to get restful sleep.

“It’s very difficult for us to turn off our minds if we stay engaged 24 hours a day.”

Canadians also shouldn’t turn to alcohol or sleeping pills, whether prescribed or over the counter, to help them get to sleep, according to Carney.

Carney has been studying sleep for more than 15 years and runs a sleep lab at Ryerson. With this expertise in mind, she co-authored a new book, Goodnight Mind, to help readers navigate the road to falling asleep and staying asleep.

She offered Global News readers these five tips:

Create a drive for deep sleep

There’s a key difference between sleep and deep sleep, Carney said. A deep sleep is less likely to wake you in the middle of the night, disturbing your rest.

Spending time in bed taking on other tasks halts your path to a good night’s rest.

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Years ago, a study in the United States found that Americans were bringing their phones to bed, only to be stirred awake by notifications from their apps.

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“I remember thinking that I can’t believe people are bringing these into their bedrooms, and now people use (these devices) to wake up, so it’s even more prevalent,” Carney said.

“In order to answer that email, you need a level of alertness that as we get closer and closer to bedtime, we actually want to start deactivating,” she said.

Create a buffer between the day’s activities and sleep

Each person needs to have a buffer zone between their workday and the rest of their schedule, Carney suggests.

During this time, work emails are set aside, phones are stashed out of sight and the priority is relaxation. The buffer zone could be only an hour long between shutting down for the day and going to sleep.

It can even be used to watch TV or talk to your family. She compares this to Mr. Rogers, a popular children’s program, in which the host would return home from work, hang his coat in the closet, change into a cardigan and sneakers and sing songs or play with arts and crafts.

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What’s key is the transition from changing out of your suit and tie and into your separate life at home.

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“This should be about deactivating,” Carney said.

Find and set a proper sleep schedule

Carney asks readers to compare our adult habits to kids – if parents decided to feed their kids at 10 p.m., they’d be hungry, irritable and they’d break down. Their sleeping schedule and the rest of the next day would be thrown off, too.

It’s the same story for adults, Carney said.

“I’m not sure why people think we outgrow that but we don’t. If you vary the time that you eat, the time you go to bed, the time you get up, it creates a social jetlag, which is fatigue, insomnia and mood problems, so you need to have a regular schedule,” she advises.

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Even an hour disparity is enough to incite the same symptoms of jetlag, so think twice before you decide to stay up all night and sleep in until noon the next morning.

Train your mind to be quiet in bed

Sometimes, your brain needs a time out. If you’re in bed thinking about booking appointments or what to make for dinner the following night, Carney suggests leaving the bedroom and making these decisions in another part of your home.

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“If your mind decides that this is the time to solve problems or go over lists, you need to avoid going over this in bed. You’ll associate the bed with that wakeful activity,” she said.

Wean yourself off this habit and you can help ensure the bed is only for sleep.

If it keeps occurring, your mind isn’t getting enough time during the day to process what has happened and what needs to happen next in your busy life. If you have a busy day ahead of you, purposely set aside time to plan ahead and prepare so you can relax later on.

Manage fatigue during the day

Most patients of Carney’s don’t complain about sleeping. They’re more focused on how they feel in the day because of how they’ve slept the night before. While in bed, they worry about how they’ll get things done on just a few hours of rest.

Carney wants readers to know that the relationship between sleep and fatigue is small. There are plenty more factors at play in determining how you function during the day, not just sleep.

“When we treat people with insomnia, we don’t make sleep the scapegoat for all that they feel in the day,” she explained.

Dehydration, improper nutrition or not giving your body enough rest could be other reasons.

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If you’re sitting in front of your computer screen and your eyes are strained, it may be because you need to step away from your workspace and take a walk, she suggests.

Try not to over-schedule your days – a good pace of workflow and rest could help you relax in time for bed, Carney said.

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