Getting a good night’s rest: Advice you can sleep on

By Michael Badejo

You’re always drowsy. Your head nods when you try to focus. You can’t seem to remember the simplest details about the conversation you just had. Your diet isn’t working.

The problem might be the amount of sleep you’re getting. Which means learning how to get enough sleep is the solution.

That’s right—enough sleep might even help you lose those extra pounds your diet just can’t seem to knock off.

It’s hard to overstate the role sleep plays in ensuring the well-being of our mind, body and spirit. And it turns out most of us aren’t getting enough.

Drowsiness, one of the more benign effects of sleep deficiency, can impact your work life and your relationships. It makes you cranky, forgetful, less productive. It can be a real danger if you operate machinery. Over the long term, sleep deficiency has been linked with poor heart health, risky behaviour, diabetes, and more.

The purpose of sleep

As we sleep, our brains form new pathways to help us learn and remember information. Much like a computer, we need to let our brain rest once in a while to get the most out of it. Any new skill or information only begins to truly embed itself in our neural pathways during sleep. Thus, sleep helps us hone our problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities as well as creativity.

Sleep also boosts our immune system. It supports the fight against illness and infection, helping to ensure our body responds in the right way at the right time. Additionally, a good night’s rest repairs blood vessels, muscle, and more. This is why it’s so important to sleep well if you’re on diet.

What’s keeping you up at night?

People are notoriously bad at estimating how much sleep they get. To make matters worse, our sleep habits get worse as we age, even though our needs don’t change.

The proper amount of sleep for an adult is seven to nine hours per night. However, people on average get about six hours of sleep. What keeps the majority of us up? Here are a few common reasons:

  • Poor sleep habits. We’ve all guilty of not sleeping well during the week and then trying to catch up on the weekend. But sleeping in actually does more harm than good by disrupting the pattern of your body’s internal sleep cycle. There’s truth to the saying that we’re creatures of habit, so try your best to stick to a consistent sleep schedule, night-in and night-out.
  • Sleep apnea. This is a sleep disorder in which breathing is interrupted, or very shallow, during sleep. The most common form of apnea is linked with snoring, which also disrupts the sleep of any loved one sharing your sleeping space. On top of the dangers associated with fatigue, sleep apnea can contribute to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes. Sleep apnea can be fixed in a few ways, such as by changing your sleep position, losing weight, or avoiding certain foods, but it’s important to work with a healthcare professional to determine the cause and find out what solution will work best for you.
  • Unnatural lighting. Ah, the ever-present glare from your smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV screen. You’ve probably heard that none of these devices should be anywhere near your bed as you prepare to sleep. Time to take heed. For one thing, they’re major distractions (especially if you’re a workaholic). For another, the unnatural light has a draining effect on your sleep pattern, especially during the most restorative part of the sleep cycle.
  • STRESS! (Didn’t mean to startle you there.) Stress comes from all quarters, including the physiological stress your body feels because you didn’t eat well during the day, and the psychological stress of worrying about work, money, health, relationships, or whatever else your brain churns up the moment it hits the pillow.

These factors and more may contribute to your inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, also known as insomnia. At some point in their lives, most people will experience some insomnia. It’s often caused by a stressful event and subsides once the event has passed. For long-term or chronic insomnia, you may need a full diagnosis followed by treatment such as medication or behavioural therapy to start resting easy again.

How to sleep well

So you struggle with sleep—now what? There’s a few steps you can undertake to get the rest you need.

  • Create a routine. Nothing helps you sleep better than making it a regular habit. This means saying no to sleeping in and taking naps most of the time (with apologies to Dr. Kitchiner—see sidebar). Strive to wake up at the same time each and every day.
  • Eat fully but lightly. It’s all about timing and quantity. Don’t eat right before bed. Avoid fast food, caffeine, alcohol, energy drinks, pork, and cheese.
  • Exercise. In addition to all the obvious benefits of keeping fit, your body will need more sleep time for repair—in fact, it’ll insist on it by helping you get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Keep it cozy. Adjust temperature, lighting, and noise to make the bedroom comfy. If you have a pet that sleeps in the room with you, consider moving the pet to another room at night.
  • Worry not. If anxiety keeps you up at night, set aside a time during the day to get all your worries down on paper. They can wait for you until the morning.
  • Get help.If none of these solutions work, you might consider sleep therapy. Your family doctor can also refer you to treatment programs offered by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Visit wrha.mb.ca for more information.

Sweet dreams!


DID YOU KNOW

Some believe the phrase “forty winks”, meaning a short nap, can be traced back to Dr. Kitchiner’s 1821 self-help guide, The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life:

Sleep is a subject on which our author acknowledges his feelings are tremblingly alive; he is fond of a ‘forty-winks’ nap in an horizontal posture,’ as the best preparative for any extraordinary exertion, either of body or mind.

Unfortunately, Kitchiner fails to specify the exact length of a single wink, let alone forty.