If counting sheep isn’t making your nightly journey to dreamland any easier, you have plenty of wide-eyed company: According to Statistics Canada, 43% of men and 55% of women aged 18 to 64 say they have trouble falling or staying asleep at least some of the time. This is a serious concern, considering research has shown poor sleep not only contributes to a host of physical psychological ills, but can also lead to more errors and worse performance on the job.
Dr. Henry Olders, an assistant professor at the McGill University Department of Psychiatry who specializes in sleep and its relationship to affective disorders such as depression, shares some practical ways to improve our collective slumber:
1. Pick a wake-up time – and stick to it
Rising at the same time every day – including your days off – is vital, says Olders, because our wake-up time helps synchronize our “internal clock” or circadian rhythm, which in turn helps our sleep. In fact, developing this one morning habit can prove more meaningful than changing the hour you go to bed or trying to lengthen your sleep duration. “Even if you haven’t slept all night, get up anyway,” says Olders. “If you feel sleepy during the day, try to take one or more 10-to-15-minute naps – not longer. That will refresh you and is less likely to affect your sleep the next night.”
2. Rethink your bedroom
Next, focus on making your bedroom as sleep-friendly as possible, beginning with how you perceive it.
“You need to train your brain to associate being in your bedroom and being in bed with being asleep,” says Olders. “That means not doing anything in your bedroom other than sleeping, so no TV, computer and no exercise.”
3. Keep it cool (within reason)
If you’re the type of person who throws open a window in midwinter and cocoons under a pile of blankets, you might be putting your repose at risk.
“Cold air is very dry, and you may experience respiratory difficulties because it dries out your nasal membranes,” says Olders.
Instead, the assistant professor recommends keeping your bedroom around 20°C and using fewer blankets: “During the night, if you have stable circadian rhythms, your body temperature hits its lowest value around an hour before you wake up,” he says. “Paradoxically, as your body temperature goes down, you feel warmer.
“We know this because when we have a fever and it breaks, we sweat,” he adds. “This happens on a smaller scale when we sleep. So if you wake up [in the night], try losing some blankets.”
4. Monitor your screen time
Besides not wanting to stimulate your brain, there’s another reason to put down your electronic devices after sunset: They emit blue light.
“Blue light, particularly, suppresses melatonin, and melatonin influences our circadian rhythm,” says Olders. “Also, high levels of melatonin suppress insulin, and high levels of insulin suppress melatonin. The two interact.
“If we’re exposed to bright light, particularly light containing blue light, in the evening, our melatonin secretion will be suppressed, meaning we may have more insulin around,” he continues. “Insulin is required to put on weight, and there’s a connection between short sleep and obesity.”
Something else to try: Newer Apple and Android devices have blue-light filters you can turn on manually or set to activate automatically after sunset.
5. Don’t use alcohol as a sleep solution
Finally, some people find that a bit of alcohol helps them doze off, but there’s a cost.
“Higher quantities may induce withdrawal symptoms during the same night,” says Olders. “For people who use alcohol regularly, the withdrawal tends to occur 4 to 6 hours after the last dose.”
The result? As the level of alcohol in your bloodstream falls, you could find yourself tossing and turning in the wee hours.
Regardless of your source of restlessness, these tactics can help you set yourself up for a more successful tomorrow.