Being tired all the time is no way to live.
Here is the blueprint to better sleep.
Sleep is a hot topic right now. With books such as Why We Sleep, The Sleep Solution, The Circadian Code and countless others, there is a plethora of information out there for anyone who struggles with sleep. Despite this wealth of information, Canadians remain plagued with sleep disorders, and mental health concerns are by no coincidence at an all-time high. The truth is, science has a much greater understanding for why we need adequate sleep than it did 30 years ago, but advances in technology have also made us better at negatively influencing- and ultimately resisting- a good night’s sleep.
The irony is that regardless of how much we know, we always seem hell-bent on finding the “minimum acceptable dose” so that we can shirk health and fit more tasks into our days. Sleep hygiene, much like dental hygiene, is habit-based and when done consistently will prepare both the brain and body for better sleep. Seeking better sleep isn’t about shortcuts or fancy hacks- it’s about making it a true priority- and doing so allows you to operate efficiently in the other areas of your life.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is dismissively bravado and an excellent way to live life feeling more dead than alive. The book Why We Sleep terms this “Self-euthanasia”; If that’s your jam, you can stop reading now and get back to it. For those of you fed up with restless nights and exhausting days, here are the 5 most important habits for better sleep:
1) Move frequently throughout daily life
There is no question that we are hardwired for movement, or that daily movement improves both sleep quality and quantity. The more you move your body, the better it will be prepared to sleep from both a mental-readiness and hormonal perspective.
Inactivity leads to greater brain fatigue which is ironically paired with an inability to achieve deep sleep despite an overall sense of tiredness. Put simply, when bodies have not had sufficient output, they are not prepared to rest.
Sleep debt may increase obesity risk in youth by displacing physical activity that would otherwise take place naturally in a well-rested child. - Int. J. Obs
Stress may seem like a catch-all for many issues in society but it is nonetheless strongly linked to insomnia for people of all ages. Movement remains one of the best outlets to help process stress; small 20 minute doses of cardiovascular activity throughout the day is the number one strategy for improving mental and physical health. Better still, if this time for movement is taken outside, it will additionally serve to recharge executive function and resilience, as well as down-tune the nervous system into a calmer state.
Sufficient movement and sleep are a chicken and egg scenario: Movement contributes to better quality sleep, and better sleep begets better recovery, decision making, mood, hormonal balance, and life overall. Less movement creates a gradual decline in sleep quality paired with a reduced desire to move. We would be remiss not to mention however that it is possible to get too much of a good thing: overtraining can result in a decline in both performance and sleep.
Everyone requires a different dose of movement to counterbalance their lives and optimize sleep but if at the end of the day you've only done brain-based work, it's time to start incorporating more body work into your day.
2) No food within 2 hours of bed time
Body weight considerations aside, people often eat before bed because they’re bored, stressed, thirsty, or exhausted and looking for a quick dopamine rush. If you’re not giving your body enough of what it needs at night (sleep) then your brain will trigger you to satisfy that need elsewhere during the day (food).
Food signals your body one of two things:
- You’re fuelling up for an activity
- You’re providing it with fuel to recover from activity
Either way, you’re communicating with your digestive system that it’s time to go to work and are subsequently demanding more from a system that’s trying to down-regulate after a full day. Eating close to bedtime is giving your system another task, along with mixed signals on what’s coming up next. Beyond the mechanical impact of digestion, food also affects hormones within your circadian clock: If you eat too close to bed, you delay/disrupt melatonin production (the hormone that makes you able to fall asleep) along with several other key hormones necessary for achieving quality sleep.
This is why it's important to stop eating at least 2 hours before bed consistently throughout the week: Allow your digestive system time to settle and encourage the proper cascade of hormones to support restorative sleep overnight.
3) Turn off ALL Information Drips
The most currently discussed recommendation for sleep is to turn off technology 30-60 minutes before bed. The rationale is that this will limit the white/blue spectrum that disrupts our circadian rhythm. Studies looking at everything from obesity to depression support the correlation between blue/white light and impaired sleep quality.
As a result of this research, companies have created workarounds to block out light with glasses or screen filters, because everyone loves a quick fix. While these are relevant and effective solutions for the light exposure issue, it’s not just light that impacts sleep late in the day: What you spend your time looking at before bed matters just as much (just another lesson that correlation does not equal causation).
A thrilling or mentally engaging show/movie will ramp up the nervous system. Reading the news will cause worry and anxiety. Texting a friend about relationship problems (yours or theirs), will raise stress hormones.
“But TV/IG/FB/News helps me wind down and sleep”
Many of us are habituated to screens, but none of us are adapted to screens: We are not genetically-coded for this behaviour. Scrolling or watching something may be a relaxing signal to you that you’ve ended your day, but to your brain (& nervous system) it’s another excitatory stimulus. If you are in the habit of switching things off right before bed (or worse, in bed), your quality of sleep is being compromised every single night, in spite of the hours you spend there.
Trying to sleep immediately after prolonged exposure to technology gives your nervous system zero warning that it’s time to shut down. Think of taking away a toddler’s toys without warning and popping them directly into bed: Any parent knows that this is a recipe for an epic tantrum. For adults who don’t manage their sleep hygiene, the tantrum will be quiet and come in the form of the slow degradation of overall health and social engagement.
Set an alarm to remind you that screen time is over and don’t allow yourself a “Plan B”. The best and most effective solution is to allow active electronics in the bedroom: Unless you’re a Doc on-call, put any phone alarm on airplane mode or buy a separate alarm clock without bright lights; yes, they still sell those ;).
Note: If you are someone who suffers from frequent insomnia, do everything in your capacity to avoid screens at all costs during your wakeful hours. Move gently, read a book, write, and do whatever you can to avoid bright lights and screens.
4) Set your environment: Dark, cool and quiet.
All the research on sleep is very clear about the optimal sleep environment. Here are the main areas of focus to make your bedroom as conducive to better sleep as possible:
- Set the temperature low. The key range is between 60-67 degrees F ( or approximately 16-19 degrees C).
- Temperature is arguably more important than light for sleep, as body temperature must drop to initiate slumber.
- Slightly raise your body temperature. This may seem counter-intuitive, but being warm before heading into a cool sleeping space encourages body temperature to drop as needed. To achieve this, there are two good strategies:
- Move gently. You don’t want to have a gruelling workout, but stretching and doing some body care is helpful.
- Fool around with your partner.
- Take a hot bath.
- Sleep with a heavy blanket: there are many breathable options available that won’t cause overheating.
- There is ongoing research into the effectiveness of using weighted blankets to help relieve anxiety, stress, and various sensory processing disorders to create a sense of calm and safety for the nervous system.
- Make the room as dark as possible. You can achieve this by:
- Turning off all lights outside the bedroom to make sure no light comes in around/under the bedroom door.
- Removing all (read: ALL) electronics from the room. Even LEDs can be a distraction. As mentioned, if you use a phone alarm, set it to airplane mode.
- Getting dark and thick blinds that block out all outdoor light. Blackout blinds are made specifically for this purpose.
- Wearing an eye-mask or Nite Hood: The latter of the two doesn't create pressure points that are problematic for many trying eye masks.
- Make the room as quiet as possible. Living in an urban area can make this difficult, so white noise machines/apps or a bedside fan can help block out louder and more abrasive outside noises.
- Use your room only for sleep: Avoid any work or technology-related activities in this space. Train your brain by association to know that this environment is built expressly to wind down.
5) Be Consistent with Habits, not hacks
Employing the four habits above is the blueprint to better sleep, but the glue holding everything together is being consistent with a sleep hygiene routine. While food can directly impact your hormonal profile & circadian rhythm, all the other habits play a key role in contributing to the state of "readiness" of your nervous system to wind down and stay asleep. Success isn't found in short streaks of better sleep habits: If you've been gradually working against good sleep for years on end, it will take time to reset your system but the practice is worth it.
Qualities of a sleep routine include:
- Keeping your sleep and wake times consistent every day.
- This doesn’t mean you have to go to bed at exactly 10pm and wake up exactly at 6am every single day to achieve health, but the more consistent you are with your hours, the better your body will function. Staying up and sleeping in several hours later on weekends is like giving yourself mini-jet lag.
- Dimming the lights after dinner (your last food intake)
- Eliminate screen-time for at least 30-60 minutes before bed (2 hours is even better).
- During the 30-60mins prior, lightly raise your body temperature through 5-15 minutes of light movement or with a hot bath
- Read light fiction or journal your thoughts (brain dumps and gratitude are helpful)
- Fall asleep in your cool, dark, quiet bedroom.
You cannot control the process of sleep itself, but you have full control over your daily actions leading up to it. If your sleep is a struggle, remove the focus from the act itself and work back through your day to determine if your actions are causing the problem:
Are you sitting most of the day?
Are your meal times inconsistent and do you find yourself eating most calories towards the end of the day?
Are you on-the-go or working until right before bed?
Is your bedroom environment warm, noisy or affected by light?
Are your pre-bed behaviours inconsistent day-to-day?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, inconsistent sleep quality isn’t a mystery. Start working on the habits listed here and you'll be on your way to better sleep.