The Ultimate Guide to Your Best Sleep Ever

Get ready for the best sleep ever with our ultimate guide. Here's the latest expert advice and tips for a good night's rest.

The bad news first: Canadians are sleeping less than they should. One in three of us don’t get enough rest, and, according to a 2018 Statistics Canada report, our nighttime insomnia symptoms jumped by 42 per cent over eight years. Chronic stress and a more sedentary lifestyle—both of which increased during the pandemic—are two reasons for that.

If you don’t get enough sleep, the negative effects on your health can be profound. Once you reach your 50s, if you’re sleeping less than the recommended seven hours a night, your risk of developing dementia jumps by 30 per cent. That is, if you make it to that point. Inadequate sleep also increases the risks of heart attack, stroke, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and other health issues.

On the flip side, a restorative sleep is good medicine, a natural elixir that far exceeds the benefits of any pill. And getting enough keeps you mentally sharp during the day, better able to deal with life’s stresses and conflicts.

The good news? We spoke to the experts and did the research to help you rest easier, starting tonight.

Learn How to Get Rest When Stressed

Worries about work, health and finances, as well as stressful life events, such as job loss, divorce, major illness or the death of a loved one, are all common causes of insomnia. In fact, more than 36 per cent of Canadians who don’t get enough sleep report suffering chronic stress, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. This happens because, even if your body is ready for rest, stress causes your brain to go on high alert. That, in turn, triggers the release of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol and increases your blood pressure and heart rate.

“It doesn’t matter how tired you are,” says Dr. Ram Randhawa of UBC Hospital’s Leon Judah Blackmore Centre for Sleep Disorders. “If you are in a room with a tiger, you won’t fall asleep.”

Thankfully, the physiology of how stress disrupts sleep points to effective, non-pharmaceutical antidotes. For one, you can try writing down a list of pressing problems and worries before going to bed. Give yourself time to reflect, process and work out next steps or solutions. Then let those worries go so you don’t ruminate into the night.

Once you’ve thought things through, to bring down your blood pressure and heart rate, Dr. Andrew Lim, a neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, recommends trying a variety of relaxation techniques and rituals. Meditation, yoga, abdominal breathing, soft music or taking a hot bath can all help calm your nervous system and switch off the body’s “fight or flight” response.

If those strategies aren’t working, cognitive behavioural therapy can help with insomnia caused by stress. For this treatment, a therapist will help you recognize negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are contributing to insomnia, and, in six to eight sessions, you’ll learn to reframe them in a way that is conducive to sleep.

Lastly, try not to add to your stress by worrying about a lack of sleep. “Paradoxically, sleep isn’t something you can achieve with effort. The harder you try to sleep, the more elusive it becomes,” says Randhawa. “The best advice is to improve your stress management and let your sleep improve naturally.”

Get on the Right Sleep Schedule

The time that we fall asleep and wake up is regulated by something called a circadian rhythm, or internal clock, that’s mainly set by visual cues of light and darkness. Circadian rhythms also affect other biological processes, such as body temperature, metabolism, appetite and hormone release—all of which adjust so that our bodies move into sleep.

The best sleep schedule is a consistent one. If your natural sleep-wake rhythm gets thrown off by shift work, jet lag or bedtimes that are all over the map, this can seriously disrupt sleep and affect your overall health. A 2019 Harvard University study found that irregular bedtimes and wake-up times, and fluctuating amounts of sleep, increased the risks of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, among other health problems. For each hour of sleep variability, these health risks rose by up to 27 per cent.

It also helps to know whether you’re naturally an early bird or a night owl—tendencies called chronotypes. Because chronotypes are genetically influenced, it can be hard for some people to purposefully change them. About five to 10 per cent of people are true early birds, and 15 per cent are true night owls, with most people falling into the intermediate range of sleeping from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Naps can be either helpful or detrimental to sleep, depending on the individual, duration and specific sleep issue. If you don’t generally struggle with sleep, a short nap of less than 30 minutes, not too late in the day, can restore alertness without compromising nighttime sleep.

“For people with insomnia, our advice is usually not to nap,” says Dr. Najib Ayas, a physician at the Leon Judah Blackmore Centre for Sleep Disorders, explaining that it’ll reduce the healthy pressure to sleep that builds up throughout the day.

Next, check out expert tips on how to fix the most common sleep problems.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada