When I was a teenager my father nicknamed me “mattress back”. It was his subtle way of letting me know that I slept too much.
Being a teenager I didn’t bat an eye at his sarcasm (sarcasm kinda runs in the family), and nor did I fully appreciate my ability to fall asleep and STAY asleep.
Flash forward 30+ years later and oh how I crave to have a bit more of that mattress back teen in me again.
The Science of Sleep & Insomnia
Sleep provides amazing benefits to the body.
It lowers stress and improves mood. It helps maintain and promote a healthy body weight, it improves our athletic performance and coordination, and it increases our ability to pay attention and remember new information (1).
In 2011 researchers from the Université Laval (2) released their data that revealed that 40% of Canadians suffer from a sleep disorder.
Our brothers and sisters south of us aren’t doing any better either. The National Sleep Foundation (along with two government agencies) estimated in 2012 that 40 billion Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder (3).
That’s a lot of sleepy, cranky people gripping their Grande cups fairly tightly.
3 Tips to Sleep Better
1/ Get out of bed. A couple of years ago I went to the UBC Sleep Disorder Clinic because my sleep is so bad. It was both educational and entertaining.
Educational, because I learned some techniques that have helped me, and entertaining because loving husband fell asleep while in the waiting room when I was getting my assessment done.
He, apparently, has no problems with sleep.
After a 90-minute examination and assessment my doctor (who looked liked he was suffering from his own specialty himself) diagnosed me with insomnia.
To this I thought “no shit”.
He then further identified that I had “poor sleep hygiene”. Right away I got defensive because I thought he was telling me that I wasn’t bathing properly.
But, apparently sleep hygiene is “all the behavioural and environmental factors that precede sleep and may interfere with sleep” (thank-you Wikipedia), and well, my hygiene sucked.
My first sleep hygiene sin was that I lie in bed until I eventually fell asleep (this sometimes taking up to 2-3 hours), and then when I woke up in the middle of the night I lie there again and wait for sleep to take me.
It’s not like I was mulling on my problems while lying there though. I thought I was doing the right thing by practicing deep breathing and meditation.
I wasn’t. Experts do not recommend this.
Instead, they recommend if we can’t fall asleep after 15-20 minutes to get out of bed and go read or watch television, and stay out of bed until we are sleepy again.
The same goes if we wake up in the middle of the night. Get out of bed, do something that is not mentally stimulating and when you are tired go back to bed.
Lying there and trying to fall sleep (willing yourself to fall asleep), is counterproductive and the harder you try the more elusive sleep will become (4).
2/ Decrease your sleep window. Another technique the UBC Sleep Clinic taught me is to decrease my sleep window, or how long I am in bed.
I was of the opinion that if I went to bed early I would get a good night’s sleep. My sleep journal suggested otherwise.
Going to bed when we’re not sleepy sends the wrong signal to our brain. It messes with our circadian rhythm (our internal timer that let’s us know when we should be awake and asleep), and this in turn makes it harder for us to fall asleep.
While I thought I was sleepy what I really was was fatigued, tired and exhausted. Not sleepy though.
So, my thinking of going to bed early was actually diminishing my ability to fall asleep.
Being awake longer will actually lead to a quicker, deeper and more solid sleep. Don’t worry, though. What you aren’t doing is decreasing your time actually sleeping. Instead, you are decreasing the amount of time awake in bed.
Of all the tricks I learned from UBC and other sleep experts that I have interviewed through the years this has by far helped me the most.
3/ Go to bed and get up, same time, everyday. No matter what day it is keep your same sleep cycle. I now go to bed between 11-11:30pm every night and wake up around 6:30am every morning.
When I don’t follow this regime I suffer sleeplessness in the evening. You need to keep your biological clock set and maintain that time – even on the weekends and when on holidays.
In addition you cannot store sleep up. Example, sleep longer on the weekend to make up for missed shut-eye during the week. Experts all say that this horse-shit (well, they don’t actually say that word, but I know they are thinking that).
And, finally, contrary to popular belief you don’t need 8 hours of sleep. It differs for everyone. Some need more, some need less. Only a sleep diary will shed the light on how much you need.
Find out how your sleep pattern is with a sleep diary. The Sleep Foundation has this 7-day Sleep Diary PDF online. Click here to access it and try it – it might offer some valuable information to you.
(5) Behavioural treatment for insomnia, Rocky Garrison, PhD, CBSM