Goodnight, and Good Luck: Tips for Sleeping and Feeling Better

sleep problemsAs human beings, we spend between a quarter to a third of our lives sleeping. Given all this practice, one might think that we would be great at it; and yet, many people struggle with getting a good night’s rest.

With so many distractions and stressors in our waking life, it can be difficult to pay enough attention to how well we’re sleeping. However, our sleep quality is extremely important to how we feel when we’re awake, and poor sleep quality has significant implications for both our physical and mental well-being.

How does sleeping poorly affect me?

Poor sleep quality can manifest in many ways. Daytime sleepiness and lethargy, feeling unrested and irritable, and difficulty getting up in the morning and falling asleep at night can indicate that there’s a problem. If you experience this on a daily basis, you could be suffering from chronic sleep difficulties.

There are lots of reasons someone might not be sleeping well. Sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, are conditions that should be treated through a physician. Mental health difficulties such as excessive stress, depression, and anxiety can also greatly impact your sleep. For others, the problem can lie in lifestyle choices and bad habits.

Chronic sleep problems can increase the risk of certain health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Poor sleep quality can also affect how we think and perform on a daily basis. For example, being awake for 24 hours straight can affect our cognitive psychomotor abilities (like hand-eye coordination and reaction time) the same way that having a .10% blood alcohol content (BAC) does; as a point of reference, the legal driving limit is .08% BAC. In fact, it appears that over time, fewer than 8 hours of sleep a night can affect our cognitive and psychomotor abilities the same way as having a BAC between .05% and .10% (see Dawson & Reid, 1997; Durmer & Dinges, 2005). Furthermore, despite these effects, individuals who have been awake for 24 hours actually rate their cognitive abilities higher than their non sleep-deprived counterparts (Pilcher & Walters, 1997), indicating the sleep deprivation can lead to a distorted perception of your own abilities. When you consider the implications of these effects at work, at home, and everywhere in-between, the importance of sleep cannot be overstated.

Quality vs. Quantity

For some people, it’s not getting enough sleep that’s the problem; it’s getting enough good quality sleep. While getting approximately 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night is important (although this varies with age and individual preference), it is also the quality of that sleep that allows us to feel rested. This has to do with the distribution of time we spend in each of the four (formerly five) stages of sleep. A full sleep cycle comprises four stages, and the further along in the cycle we get, the deeper sleep we are in (although the fourth stage, rapid eye movement or REM sleep, is unique, and even paradoxical; our minds are active, but our bodies are paralyzed). When we complete a full sleep cycle, which takes approximately an hour and a half, we start over.

The later stages of sleep are the most restorative, both physically and mentally. REM sleep is particularly important for cognitive benefits, and there is evidence that the more time we spend in REM sleep, the better our creativity, memory, and problem-solving abilities. REM sleep is also when the most vivid dreaming occurs. (Cai et al., 2009; Nishida, Pearsall, Buckner, & Walker, 2008; Walker, Liston, Hobson, & Stickgold, 2002).

Our Circadian Rhythm (CR) is also important when it comes to sleep quality. The CR functions as our internal biological clock. Most people’s CR cycle is approximately 24 hours long (although it can vary slightly from person to person), and this is because our CR is designed to follow the light-dark cycle of day and night. When there is sunlight in the morning, our body knows it’s time to get up and start the day; when the sunlight disappears, our body knows it’s time for bed. A problem arises when your CR clock doesn’t match the actual sunrise and sunset – this is what jet lag is! However, you don’t need to have travelled across time zones to feel the effects of an out of synch CR; going to sleep too late at night and sleeping in too late in the morning can also affect this cycle.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in the numerous apps and programs that claim to track and measure your sleep cycle and quality. Reviews on these apps are mixed; consumers tend to sing their praises, but sleep experts are critical of their accuracy. Nonetheless, if you are interested in looking into your sleep patterns, without a trip to a sleep laboratory, exploring the functions and capabilities of the various app options may be worthwhile to learn more about how you sleep (see a more in-depth analysis from a sleep researcher here).

How do I improve my sleep?

With all of this in mind, you may be wondering how to work on getting a better night’s rest. Like most lifestyle changes, it requires some planning and adjusting your habits. Remember, learning to sleep better is a skill, and you will likely need some practice!

1) Use light exposure to your advantage:

Sleep and Cell PhonesAs mentioned previously, our bodies are meant to fall asleep at night when it is dark, and wake up in the morning when there is daylight. However, with the pervasiveness of technology (especially TVs, computers, and cell phones), many people are spending more time being exposed to artificial light much later in the evening; this will affect your CR, and ultimately your sleep quality.

If you are having trouble falling asleep at night (meaning tossing and turning for upwards of 20 minutes) try to limit artificial light, including screen time, in the evening. If you’re having trouble getting up in the morning, expose yourself to light (sun or artificial) first thing when you get up. If you get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, try to avoid turning on the overhead lights (but use a nightlight or a flashlight so you don’t hurt yourself!).

Other adjustments you can make include: using 40 watt bulbs or dimmers in the evening, and avoiding blue light, such as the light emitted from electronics (which is particularly bad at inducing sleepiness). In fact, you can even install an app on your device such as f.lux, which uses your geographic location to determine the amount and type of light that you should be exposed to at any given point in the day, and adjusts the light being emitted from your screen to reflect that.

2) Prepare your bedroom for sleep:

We sleep best in environments that are quiet, dark, and a little bit on the colder side. If you have a hard time making your room quiet enough, using earplugs, a white noise machine, or even a fan (it is important to have white noise, meaning constant, meaningless noise, as opposed to TV or music – these may be distracting). If your room is too bright, blinds or curtains can make a huge difference. Even digital clocks can emit a significant amount of light, so putting it in a place that is out of sight, or switching clocks altogether, may be worthwhile.

Also, you want to make your bedding comfortable, as this is important to ensuring a good night’s sleep; make sure your sheets are washed regularly, and if necessary, replaced. Other good rules of thumb: pillows need replacing every one to three years, and mattresses need replacing every one to two decades.

3) Stick to a consistent schedule:

Sticking to a regular schedule is integral to getting consistent quality sleep. As you’re looking to improve your sleep schedule, make sure you are getting up and going to sleep at the same time every day (once you’re in a consistent schedule, you can have a couple of days a week of flexibility). Even if you are having trouble falling asleep one night and want to sleep in a couple of extra hours later to compensate, stick to your wake up time! You might be tired that day, but it will benefit your sleep in the long run.

This brings us to napping. Napping can be tempting, especially on those days we feel like we are dragging. However, naps during the day reduce your ability to sleep deeply at night, so they should be avoided. If you absolutely must nap, do so before 3:00 p.m. and try to keep it to less than 30 minutes. Also, delay your bedtime that night by the length of the nap you took earlier.

Furthermore, do your best to schedule your eating and drinking at the right times. Although we often hear that you shouldn’t eat before bed, going to bed hungry adversely affects your sleep quality. Ideally, try to have a light snack about an hour before bedtime. When snacking, try to avoid heavily sweetened foods. Foods with carbohydrates, such as crackers, bread, cereal, and fruit, can help prevent blood sugar drop during the night. Also, avoid caffeine and alcohol within six hours of bedtime, and avoid nicotine altogether. (Alcohol can be deceiving, because it helps us fall asleep; however, it leads to more fragmented sleep and less REM sleep.)

Another thing to consider is the timing of our exercise. In general, aerobic exercise allows us to sleep deeply. However, exercise directly before bed is not helpful, and this has to do with how exercising influences our core body temperature. When our body is preparing for sleep, our core body temperature goes down slightly. Since exercise increases your core body temperature for up to five hours, the best time to exercise (for sleep purposes) is about 5 hours before you want to go to bed.

4) Manage your stress:

Sometimes it seems like our minds choose to start worrying and stressing just as we want to fall asleep. Some people find that this affects their ability to fall asleep, and some find their stress wakes them up periodically throughout the night.

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It is important to allow your body and mind enough time to unwind from the day’s activities. Having a bedtime ritual is great for helping to get into sleep-mode. It doesn’t have to be long – it can be a short as 10 minutes! It should, however, be done every night, because the purpose is to signal to ourselves that it’s bedtime (i.e., time to go to sleep). Choose a relaxing thing you like to do, such as reading a favourite book, having a warm bath, or a few minutes of meditation (try to avoid TV or computers). Afterwards, go straight to bed – no more checking emails or social media! Otherwise, your bedtime ritual loses its effectiveness.

Sometimes it’s our excessive worry that can get in the way of good quality sleep. If you find that you’re constantly worrying about today, tomorrow, next week, and have a case of the “what if’s?”, it may be helpful to seek out help from a psychologist.

One strategy that can be useful, particularly for bedtime worrying, is designating some “worry time” for earlier on in the evening. This may seem counterintuitive; why would we want to spend time focusing on our worries? However, instead of having them float around your mind all night, it is helpful to dedicate a specific amount of time, (e.g. 20 minutes) to make a list of your stressors, along with a plan to deal with them. Once the 20 minutes is up, your worry time is over, and you can continue going about your evening. If your worries start to trouble you while you’re trying to fall asleep, remind yourself you have already dealt with them.

If you’re still having difficulty problem-solving or managing your worries, using a relaxation strategy can be very conducive for falling asleep. Deep breathing, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation are three of the most common approaches. Using the audio downloads from www.dartmouth.edu, or another website like this (or even listening to a YouTube video), can be a good introduction.

5) Pay attention to stimulus control:

Ideally, we would want to only use our beds for sleeping, and that’s it. In reality, our beds end up becoming a place to watch TV, read, scroll through our newsfeeds, study, and even eat!

Because of this, over time, the association between our bed and bedtime weakens. This is relevant when considering stimulus control, meaning when behaviours are triggered by the presence or absence of a stimulus. If you want your bed to elicit sleepiness, you want to strengthen the association between your bed and falling asleep; this means only using your bed for sleep (sexual activity is okay too). Also, only go to bed when you are sleepy, not just when it’s “time for bed”. You want to avoid spending time in bed awake, because that will also weaken the association between your bed and falling asleep.

If you are not asleep after 20 minutes of being in bed, get out of bed (and ideally out of your bedroom) and find something relaxing to do – but stay off the computer! Reading a book is a great option, and doing a puzzle can help slow down the “verbal” part of your brain and allow you to focus on images, which is conducive for sleeping. Once the sleepy wave hits you again (and it will!), then it’s time to go back to bed. If you get up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling asleep when you’re back in bed, do the same thing – get out of bed and do something else. Remember, the point is to strengthen the association between your bed and falling asleep.

References

Cai, D. J., Mednick, S. A., Harrison, E. M., Kanady, J. C., & Mednick, S. C. (2009). REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 25, 10130–10134.

Dawson, D., & Reid, K. (1997). Fatigue, Alcohol, and Performance Impairment. Nature, 388, 235.

Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2005). Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation. Seminars in Neurology, 25, 117-129.

Lichstein, K. L., & Riedel, B. W. (1994). Behavioral assessment and treatment of insomnia: A review with an emphasis on clinical application. Behavior Therapy, 25, 659-688.

Murtagh, D. R. R., & Greenwood, K. M. (1995) Identifying effective psychological treatments for insomnia: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63, 79-89.

Nishida, M., Pearsall, J., Buckner, R. L., & Walker, M. P. (2009). REM sleep, prefrontal theta, and the consolidation of human emotional memory. Cerebral Cortex, 5, 1158-1166.

Pilcher, J. J. & Walters, A. S. (1997). How sleep deprivation affects psychological variables related to college students’ cognitive performance. Journal of American College Health, 46, 121-126.

Walker, M. P., Liston C., Hobson J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2002). Cognitive flexibility across the sleep-wake cycle: REM-sleep enhancement of anagram problem solving. Brain research. Cognitive Brain Research, 3, 317–324.

Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson is a Halifax Psychologist (Cand. Reg.) at Cornerstone Psychological Services. She works with adults and young adults (18+) looking to overcome mental health obstacles, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and also works with couples who are having difficulties in their relationship. Katherine also has a particular research interest in how mental health can impact social, familial, and romantic relationships.
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