March 17 is World Sleep Day, a global celebration of sleep and call to action on important related issues, but for Lorraine McCallum, a fundraising associate for the Alzheimer’s Society living in Peterborough, Ont., a solid night's sleep is all but a distant memory. Since childhood she has suffered from insomnia – a sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep or both. "I've been a bad sleeper all my life," says McCallum, a 48-year-old mother of three. "I can't remember ever waking up feeling refreshed."

In the course of her desperate search for the holy grail of sufficient and restful shuteye, she came across a book called Sink Into Sleep by Dr. Judith Davidson, a Kingston, Ont.-based sleep researcher and clinical psychologist. The workbook explores a no-medication treatment called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, which works with the biological rhythms of sleep and wakefulness to improve sleep over the long term.

By using her bed only for sleep, waking up at the same time each morning and logging her sleep patterns, McCallum has improved to the point that she is able to drift off within 15 to 20 minutes after hitting her pillow. But staying asleep remains a battle.

Despite the social, emotional and physical effects of her lack of sleep, McCallum says she’s still able to function rather well. "I have a theory that if I actually got sleep, I would be a genius," she says.

McCallum has plenty of company. Poor sleeping habits and burnout are all too common in today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking society. According to a study conducted by Université Laval, 40% of adult Canadians have problems going to sleep or staying asleep.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by drug use, pain, hormone changes, psychological problems, a traumatic event, sleep hygiene problems or other medical conditions. Almost anyone can suffer from an occasional bout of insomnia but, statistically speaking, women, the elderly and people suffering from depression are the most likely sufferers.

Davidson, who’s been studying sleep for over 30 years, notes that people sleep more poorly if they're watching TV, reading or using electronic devices in the bedroom. In addition to mental stimulation, the light from the screens can delay sleep onset. She stresses that allowing ourselves an appropriate amount of time for sleep "should be a priority for health, the way nutrition and exercise are."

Another major sleep thief is work. "Research from around the world shows that long work hours are associated with shorter sleep," Davidson says.

We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, so it makes sense that sufficient and restful sleep is a vital ingredient in feeling well. It enhances our mood and motivation, keeps our appetite hormones in check and may reduce the risk of chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

If left untreated, insomnia can cause further disturbances – it may reduce the effectiveness of the immune system, and increase the risk of substance abuse, motor vehicle accidents, headaches, depression and anxiety – and ultimately take years off your life.

What you can do to improve your sleep

Tackle your sleepless nights by making changes to your physical environment, your eating habits and exercise routines – and even your sun exposure:

  • Exercise regularly. Working out regularly increases the time your body spends in deep sleep, the stage during which it repairs its cells and refreshes the immune system. But exercising less than three hours before you hit the hay can leave you too charged up to sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and heavy meals in the evening. Ciara Foy, a Toronto-based certified nutritionist and weight loss expert, says the sugar and caffeine roller coaster that most people jump on first thing in the morning is the number-one nutritional factor behind insomnia. "Cutting out sugar and caffeine and ensuring meals are properly balanced will go a long way to prevent lying awake for hours on end," says Foy. Although alcohol does allow people to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply for a while, Foy says it reduces critical rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. She also cautions against eating a heavy meal late in the evening, particularly red meat or pork, which can cause discomfort from indigestion. Best to finish eating at least two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Re-design your sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark and noise-free. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, white noise machines, humidifiers or fans. Leave electronic devices in another room, and always cover your alarm clock’s display.
  • Stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day (even on weekends) gives your body the cues it needs to doze off.
  • Cut back on screen time at least 60 minutes before you want to be asleep. If you like to read or watch TV before bed, do so in the living room. Turn off your cellphone or silence it. Try doing something relaxing instead – meditate, take a bath or play with a pet.
  • Leave the room. If you’re still awake after 20 minutes, even after trying relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, get out of bed and don’t return until you're sleepy. Lying awake in bed can become a sleep-stealing habit.
  • Spend time in the light to regulate your circadian rhythms. Getting regular exposure to bright light in the morning, sunlight throughout the day and relative dimness before bed will help to stabilize your circadian rhythms, including your sleep-wake rhythm and boost the sleep-aiding hormone, melatonin.
  • Download the latest soothing mobile app. If you can't resist curling up in bed with your phone, try downloading a mobile app with soothing music and nature sounds. Some apps offer brainwave frequencies that are supposed to help you concentrate better and fall asleep faster.
  • Seek holistic treatment. If conventional medicine is not for you, consider holistic treatment, which may combine nutrition, lifestyle counselling, botanicals, traditional Chinese medicine and more.

If you’re experiencing insomnia, your doctor can help you understand your unique symptoms and explore safe, effective treatments to help get you closer to a good night's sleep.