– Words by Jane Zatlyny Photography by Lia Crowe
Sleep is such an essential component of our overall sense of well-being, affecting everything from our emotional and physical health to our productivity and mental acuity. But these days, sleep can be elusive, given stressors around uncertainties like the COVID-19 pandemic, global warming and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
“People are edgy,” says Jonathan Charest, director of athlete sleep services and a behavioural sleep medicine specialist at the Canadian Sleep Society. “And when you’re edgy, you’re not in a relaxed state of mind. Therefore, you will not sink into sleep.”
You may even be tempted—as I am at times—to scroll through Twitter in bed: just one more check of the news before sleep. But then sleep does not come.
“Most of the time we can’t sleep because we are thinking and/or feeling,” says Elizabeth Stone, a Victoria-based professional life coach. “Thoughts will create chemical changes in the body, which signal the brain to stay alert.”
A vicious circle ensues, she adds: “We lie awake unable to get out of the cycle of brain and body tension. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are stressed. We ‘just can’t sleep.’”
While some of us lose sleep as we ruminate about global events, other people choose to deprive themselves of rest, believing that to be successful, they need to sleep less and work more. Choosing this path can have lasting and sometimes devastating effects, as Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, discovered when she collapsed in 2007 from exhaustion due to chronic sleep deprivation.
Like many CEOs at the time, she slept a meagre three or four hours a night—not nearly long enough. Her experience led her to write The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time in 2016. The book explores the critical consequences lack of sleep can have on our health, relationships, job performance and happiness—and calls for nothing short of a “sleep revolution.”
As more people like me look for solutions to their sleepless nights, attitudes toward sleep do appear to be shifting.
“I think there’s been a slow recognition of our need to sleep more and our need to protect our sleep,” says Jonathan.
Reclaiming and protecting your sleep is possible—and it’s not as difficult as it may seem. “Human beings are very good at making simple things complicated. We see sleep as this almighty thing,”Jonathan says. “But you haven’t lost the ability to sleep. In fact, you don’t even cause yourself to sleep.”
Sleep is something that happens to you, he stresses: “Your only task is to relax, so your brain can do its actual task of sleeping.”
It sounds so obvious. And it is. We’ve just lost sight of the way our bodies need to prepare for sleep. And, surprise, surprise, those preparations do not include spending an hour in bed reading posts on Twitter or sleeping for three to four hours so you can squeeze more work into your day.
“Your brain is not a switch you can just turn off and on,” stresses Jonathan. “It needs an actual buffer zone to set a tone, so you can switch into relaxation mode, and then into a sleeping mode.”
When we were children, our parents emphasized the importance of sleep.
“You’ve got to get a good night’s sleep to do well at school,” I can hear my mother saying, as she turned off my light for a third time. Sleep was encouraged with routine: a hot bath, a bedtime snack, perhaps, or a story-time book. Similarly, adults also need a bedtime routine.
“Our brains love routine,” says Jonathan. “It balances our rhythm, and if we have the same routine every night, it is the best course of action.”
Aside from the routine of a regular bedtime, Jonathan recommends that his patients get in the habit of spending 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime doing a hobby or activity that they enjoy. “This choice should not be driven by productivity or efficiency,” he says. “Dig into your creativity bag: it could be working in the garage, listening to music, stretching, meditation, reading, or doing puzzles—whatever you like. It’s highly individualized.”
Once in bed, he insists, you will go to sleep.
“It’s just like when you go to your table to eat. You don’t go to your table to wait to be hungry; similarly, you don’t go to bed to wait to be sleepy.”
Since speaking with Jonathan, I’ve started to pay attention to creating my own buffer zone. I’m opting to read for an hour before going to bed, and I’m leaving my phone in another room for the night. It may seem obvious to me now, but it’s working—I’m falling asleep quickly and I’m staying asleep. Best of all, I’m feeling so much better during the day. “People are now looking at sleep as a powerful tool,” says Jonathan. “It really is the almighty weapon for productivity.”
Here are some tips to help you sleep better—no lullaby required.
Make sure you are getting enough sleep.While your need for sleep can change over time, the Canadian Sleep Society recommends people try to get between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. It’s also helpful to maintain set bed- and wake-times.
Set the stage for sleep. Prepare your bedroom for a healthy sleep by keeping the temperature cool and the environment comfortable and peaceful. Keeping your bedroom dark at night, for instance, with black-out curtains, is also very important for sleep, says Jonathan.
Create a consistent bedtimebuffer zone by adding a relaxing activity before bed. “What do you like to do that you wish you had more time to do?” asks Jonathan. “I can guarantee that you can find 30 to 60 minutes every evening.”
Re-enter the buffer zone if you can’t get back to sleep. While Jonathan says it’s perfectly normal to wake during the night, if you can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed, and restart the relaxation schedule until you are sleepy once again.
Turn off the devices, and leave them outside the bedroom. The Canadian Sleep Society reasons that when we avoid the news in our bedroom, this special place becomes less associated with stress. Try to keep your news consumption to daytime hours, it suggests. (I am now using an old-school alarm clock to avoid the temptation to “doom scroll” in the middle of the night.)
Get out of your headand into your body, suggests Elizabeth Stone. “Once you’ve interrupted the mind cycle by being in your body, you can’t help but calm down your system. There are many methods and meditations to help do this, including yoga nidra, which is focused attention on parts of the body, along with breathing.”
Seek out exterior lightduring the day to help your biological clock stay on time, advises the Canadian Sleep Society. Leave the curtains open during the day and when possible, go out on your balcony or into your garden to soak up some daylight rays.
But dim the lightsin the evening. Lower light helps stimulate melatonin production and will enhance your ability to fall asleep, says the Canadian Sleep Society.
Watch what you consumein the evening hours. Avoid caffeinated drinks, fatty or heavy foods, or excess alcohol, all of which can affect your ability to fall asleep, cause you to wake up during the night, and reduce the depth of your sleep, says the Canadian Sleep Society.
Get professional helpif necessary. If your sleep problems persist, see your family physician and/or a sleep specialist. Don’t try to go it alone with a sleep aid someone else recommended.
Sleep Rituals: 100 Practices for a Deep and Peaceful Sleep by Jennifer Williamson (Adams Media, 2019).
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington, paperback edition (Harmony/Rodale, 2017).
Sleep on It: An excellent resource from the Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network, the Canadian Sleep Society, Fondation Sommeil and Wake Up Narcolepsy Canada offering lively educational videos, podcasts and more about sleep and sleep disorders. sleeponitcanada.ca