Tools to help you get a good night’s sleep
From social isolation, to lack of routine as many people work from home and cope with remote learning, many people are seeking out solutions for a better night’s sleep.
“Everyone wants a quick fix,” says Jonathan Charest, a behavioural sleep medicine specialist and representative for the Canadian Sleep Society running a campaign called Sleep on It Canada promoting the importance of sleep. “You need to put in some effort to make sleep happen. It’s all about routine, it’s an investment in your next day’s energy. It’s important to invest in your sleep.”
How much sleep do we need? Seven to nine hours, says Charest, who recommends people allow themselves a range of 30 minutes on either side of their bedtime. “You need a routine, but that doesn’t mean you need to go to bed at exactly the same time every day. People should go to bed when they’re sleepy. If you wake up in the morning and you’re refreshed and feeling good, your sleep was good quality.”
Setting up daily routines and habits that encourage rest at the end of the day is the cornerstone of getting good sleep. Sleep experts call this sleep hygiene and it all begins with how you start your day.
Start your day with natural light
Sunlight doesn’t just brighten our mood; it also impacts our sleep. Winter days spent indoors, working from home and a lack of natural light can negatively impact our circadian rhythm, which regulates our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, affecting our sleep. “Our brain craves light,” says Charest, who recommends making time every day to go outdoors for a dose of natural light and fresh air. “Getting enough light exposure during the morning and early afternoon, such as a daily lunch break walk, would be highly beneficial for our circadian rhythm. If you have a half-hour of light exposure before noon you will set the stage from a circadian perspective for a good night’s sleep.” Eating at different hours every day can also affect our circadian rhythm, says Charest, who suggests eating at regular times every day. “Having a routine regarding light exposure and food is important to maintain an adequate stability of our circadian rhythm.”
SAD (seasonal affective disorder) light lamps can help as long as the lamp is 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light. “Someone that needs to be up early for work (before sunrise) can benefit from bright light therapy. Exposure while getting ready in the morning helps our wakefulness system overpower the sleep system. The earlier you get light exposure, the better the next night should be — or at least you are increasing the likelihood for it,” says Charest.
Watch your caffeine intake
The general rule is that coffee should be stopped at noon, says Charest. “Depending on how sensitive you are to caffeine, it can affect how easily you get to sleep or whether you experience any difficulty maintaining sleep.” Try reducing your caffeine intake throughout the day, swap the cappuccino for an herbal tea such as Lavender and Peppermint loose leaf tea infused with lavender buds from Purple Hill Lavender Farm in Creemore, Ont.
Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary
A relaxing sleep environment — dark, cosy and quiet — is key. Weighted blankets can help calm the muscles, prevent restlessness in the legs and can help the body make more serotonin, says Nastasia Irons, a naturopathic doctor at Province Apothecary in Toronto. “Bed linen should be natural, breathable fabric to allow for your body to stay cool in the night,” says Irons. Invest in bedding made of natural materials such as cotton, linen or bamboo, which breathe easier. Turn the thermostat down at night or open the window a little to let in fresh air and, while natural light is important during the day, keeping the bedroom dark at night is important. “We release more of the sleep hormone melatonin when our eyes are not exposed to light,” says Irons, who says an eye mask that blocks out light can also help improve quality of sleep.
End the day with gentle yoga
Yoga can be a restorative way to wind down your day. A gentle yoga class that focuses on guided breathing and relaxation is accessible for everyone, says Tania Love, a Toronto artist and certified yoga instructor. The intention is to calm the nervous system with a gentle series of yoga asana (postures) and breathing techniques that promote the release of tension and balance the nervous system, says Love, who moved her yoga sessions, including “Yoga for Calm,” from her art studio online via Zoom due to the pandemic. “You don’t need a yoga background to participate; the technique itself is basically a way of focusing your attention and directing your mind through guided breathing and relaxation. Taking the time to create an even breath has an effect on calming the nervous system and that’s something everybody can do for themselves.”
Establish a relaxing evening routine
We know sleep routines are important for children, but they are also essential for adults. It’s important to establish a daily routine that allows you to wind down. “If your brain is not in sleep mode, it’s not going to happen,” says Charest. “Prior to sleep, engage in relaxation: meditation, reading, writing, music or whatever you like. Initiate your sleep when you are sleepy, repeat this every day: this is your sleep hygiene. If it’s routine, you shouldn’t have to think about it.”
Develop a routine that you like. “I do a lot of reading,” says Love. “My favourite thing is to turn on Radio-Canada, and listen to the classical music program in the evenings while reading a book and having my tea. I always have my candles lit, that’s how I wind down in the evenings.”
Calm the senses
Smelling lavender can promote a sense of calm and reduce anxiety, says Irons. “I’ve seen that lavender in an essential oil diffuser has helped a lot of my patients and there’s research on its calming effects when you stimulate the olfactory nerve through smelling.” Lavender essential oil, distilled from the plant Lavandula angustifolia, is widely used to promote relaxation and a deeper sleep through aromatherapy, and can be used in room diffusers, in the bath or a few drops on the bottom of your feet before bed. Try Purple Hill Lavender Farm’s Essential Oil or spritz the Lavender Pillow Spray on a pillow or yoga mat. Wind down with a relaxing bath or shower, but swap regular soap for a soothing lavender-infused body wash such as Weleda’s Relaxing Body Wash to soothe and calm your senses.
A gratitude journal can also help, says Charest. “Going to bed frustrated and anxious is never a good thing; focusing on the positive will definitely help you sink into sleep.” Irons suggests keeping a journal beside your bed so that if you have racing thoughts at night, you can quickly jot them down instead of ruminating through them during the night.
Put your phone far enough away from your bed that you cannot reach it easily. The blue light from screens can affect melatonin levels. While some suggest the optimal time to turn off your screen is two hours before bed, that can be a challenge. Blue light blocking glasses worn after 7 p.m., especially when looking at screens, can help with light exposure after the sun has set, says Irons, who also advises us to avoid going to bed hungry. “A handful of pumpkin seeds before bed helps reduce hunger overnight. It’s a seed high in tryptophan, which can help improve sleep quality and relaxation.”