How to get better sleep
By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manager
Can I ask you a personal question? How did you sleep last night? Did you wake up this morning feeling refreshed and fully charged? Were your dreams mildly entertaining, but also subdued enough to not be distracting?
Or did you have trouble sleeping? Tossing and turning for what felt like hours. Maybe your neighbours were being loud, or perhaps you went to a concert and didn’t get home until late?
Sleep doesn’t look or feel like it should be complicated. Seriously, just get a person to lay still-ish for a few hours, and they wake up feeling more rested than before. But the act of sleeping (what happens when we close our eyes) is actually a lot more complicated—and it’s surprisingly easy to mess up.
What happens when you fall asleep?
Before diving too far into what affects your sleep, we need to talk about sleeping actually is.
Our bodies—along with other animals, plants, and even fungi—are dictated by a series of subtle systems known as circadian rhythms, which operate on roughly 24-hour schedules. Our circadian rhythm is responsible for things like producing melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, the darker it gets outside. We also associate increasing daylight outside as a sign to wake up, which you can also thank your circadian rhythm for.
When we doze off, our bodies and brains are undergoing a lot more activity than it appears. Our brain experiences two kinds of sleep: rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.
During the non-REM cycle, we experience light sleep: our breathing slows, and our body temperatures drop. Next, our brain cycles into REM sleep. Our eyes move rapidly behind closed lids, and our brain activity actually spikes to levels similar to that of waking brains. This is when our dreaming occurs, and our legs and arms are temporarily paralyzed to prevent us from physically reacting to said dreams.
The REM cycle then leads back into a period of non-REM, and the process repeats itself multiple times throughout a night.
Why do we need sleep?
The average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, and on a consistent basis. If you’re older than 64, you might require less sleep, while teenagers require slightly more than nine hours a night. This number will vary between individuals, but chances are your happy number is somewhere in there.
If someone gets fewer than the hours they personally need, this is known as “sleep debt,” which is a surprisingly polarizing topic in the sleep field. Some experts argue there’s no way to properly recover sleep debt; others say a solid weekend sleep-in can help a person return to their baseline.
Humans need these seven to nine hours for multiple reasons. For starters, while we’re asleep our bodies grow muscle and repair tissues that may have been injured throughout the day. We also produce and release proteins called cytokines, which contribute to our overall immune system. (One reason why it’s important to get lots of sleep while you’re sick.)
Sleep is also when our brain takes information from the previous day, considered short-term or working memory, and helps transform it into long-term memories. And while a proper sleep schedule comes with all these benefits, disrupting that sleep can have just as many consequences.
After a night or two of poor sleep, a person can experience reduced alertness or a hazy memory. Long-term sleep deprivation is associated with higher risks of a heart attack or stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
The reduced alertness can also lead to safety concerns. In fact, a 2010 report from the Canadian Council of Motor Transpiration Administrators cited “driver fatigue” as the cause of nearly 20 percent of fatal car crashes.
The Centers for Disease Control also reported that those who slept less than seven hours a night “were more likely to report being obese, physically inactive, and current smokers” as opposed to their better-slept counterparts.
And yet, when our schedules pick up or become unbalanced, sleep is often the first thing to suffer.
How to improve your sleep
So now that you know more about sleep, let’s get into how to improve yours. One of the most consistently referred to ways of improving sleep: establishing a nighttime routine and sticking to it.
Your circadian rhythm already dictates a natural wakeup/bedtime window, but hone in on the specifics. If you don’t set an alarm on the weekend, what time do you naturally wake up around? Take this time, rewind by 8 to 9 hours, and this should be your go-to bedtime. To help establish this as a true routine, try to stick to the same bed and wakeup times regardless of work or other schedules.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that your body produces the sleep-inducing melatonin in response to darkness outside? Ensure you’re not counterbalancing this by using bright lights inside. Keep rooms relatively dark while you’re winding down for the evening.
Melatonin is also cited as a reason to avoid electronics and screens before going to bed. The light given off by electronics can interfere with melatonin production, while they also provide a lot of mental stimulation. It’s recommended avoiding electronics or any screens that give off light up to an hour before bedtime.
Speaking of things to avoid, any stimulants such as booze or caffeine are a no go, if you want to ensure a good night’s sleep. What’s a good alternative if you’re winding down and want something to sip on? The internet’s full of recommendations, such as warm milk, chamomile tea, or even cherry juice—but approach with caution: I couldn’t find a single, scientifically-supported list of bedtime beverages, but rather countless articles boasting miracle side effects. In general, if it’s free from caffeine and sugar, it’s a suitable drink for before bed.
Another bit of useful info comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or “CBT-I.” You’ve probably heard a lot of the theory and practices associated with CBT-I, even if the name’s unfamiliar.
One element of CBT-I is “stimulus control instructions,” which looks at reducing any actions potentially affecting someone’s sleep. A common example is avoiding your bedroom until it’s time to sleep. This apparently helps your brain to associate bed only with sleeping. It also suggests keeping your bedroom a calmer space, free from too much artwork or anything else that could be considered overly stimulating.
If you keep your bedroom a calm, neutral space, and avoid it except for sleeping, CBT-I says you’ll have better, more regular sleeping patterns.
My final tip for optimizing sleep is to have your bedroom slightly cooler. A study from 2012 titled “Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm” explored the relationship between temperatures and the various sleep stages and found that heat exposures increased wakefulness and decreased the non-REM and REM cycles, while cold exposure “does not affect sleep stages.” Having a slightly cooler bedroom will help avoid the negative impacts that warmer bedrooms might have.
And if that doesn’t work…
Look, it doesn’t matter how many dozens of chamomile teas you’ve glugged, or if you’ve avoided screens all day. Sometimes it’s just hard falling asleep.
As someone who loves to overthink things once I’m in bed, I’ve encountered more than a few approaches to help folks fall asleep. One strategy comes from cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin, who suggests a “cognitive shuffling” or word game. To start, think of a random word without a lot of meaning to it, such as spoon. Then, think of another object that starts with S, and visualize it in your mind for 10 to 15 seconds. Next, pick a different object that starts with S, and repeat the process. The idea here is it gives enough of a task to focus on without being too engrossing.
Another strategy is from Dr. Andrew Weil and is known as the “4-7-8” method. This one claims to increase the levels of oxygen in your body, which can help your body relax. Put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right above your front teeth. Exhale through your mouth, then close your mouth and breathe until four through your nose. Hold your breath until seven, then breathe out your mouth for an eight count. Repeat this cycle for three more times, though hopefully you’ll need less.
The last strategy I have for you is the one I’ve used nightly for the past two years. Focus in on your toes, and then take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, feel your toes relax. Next, focus on a spot a bit higher than your toes, such as the start of your foot, and take another deep breath in, and as you exhale, feel that part of your foot relaxing. Slowly make your way up your body, feeling each part relax as you exhale. I originally thought this method was the one often cited as being used in the military but turns out they’re very different. (Search Relax and Win: Championship Performance for that one.)
Getting crappy sleep is terrible, so hopefully you’ve learned a few things to help you get a good night’s sleep tonight. If not, Venmo me $5 and I can come over and read you detail-orientated notes from my D&D campaign to lull you to sleep.
SIDEBAR: There’s a podcast for that
Like any other topic in 2020, there are dozens of podcasts rooted on helping you get to sleep. Some focus on deep breathing and meditation, while others construct dull stories meant to bore you to sleep. Here are a few recommendations to help listen your way to slumberland.
Sleep with Me: host Drew Ackerman tells boring, meandering stories in a monotone voice, intentionally designed to have listeners nod off. Sounds a lot like some of my first-year professors at Douglas.
Deep Energy 2.0: Compilations of soothing soundscapes meant to relax you. Deep Energy 2.0 benefits from a longer runtime, though the volume on their ads can be a bit jarring.
Game of Drones: Sleep with Me host Ackerman returns with his signature monotone, except this time he’s recapping the fantasy show Game of Thrones. (Ever heard of it?)
Sleepy: the secret weapon here is host Otis Gray’s low baritone voice, which he uses to read classic tales, ranging from Greek myths to Oliver Twist.
Nothing Much Happens: “Let’s get sleepy,” boasts the Nothing Much Happens webpage. Part of the meandering storytime club, Kathryn Nicolai employs her background as a meditation and yoga teacher to tell soft, calming stories, and even repeats the story a second time in a slower voice.