What’s the one change that can make you happier and healthier this year? Getting better sleep—the foundation for your body working well. “Good sleep is important for our cardiovascular system, it’s good for our immune system, and it’s good for glucose metabolism,” says Judith Davidson, psychologist, sleep scientist and adjunct professor in the department of psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. But the most significant effects, she says, are actually on mental health: the ability to focus, think clearly, remember things and be happy. Short-term sleep loss makes us irritable, whereas long-term sleep deprivation is linked to more serious detriments like depression.
But what if you’re trying your best to prioritize sleep and just can’t? Many people find they’re tossing and turning instead of getting those restorative zzzs—after all, there’s a reason why #sleeptok tips have over 18 million views. Unfortunately, some online tricks, like the viral hack of taping your mouth shut to force yourself to breathe through your nose, aren’t backed by science and may even be dangerous. Here’s what to try instead.
Everyone has an internal clock that controls when you feel tired and when you have energy, releasing hormones and even changing your body temperature. Keeping that clock finely tuned is critical to fixing sleep problems, and the best way to do it is to wake up at a consistent time, seven days a week. “Rise time has a very big effect on the circadian rhythm,” says Davidson. “If we get up at the same time every day, that keeps that rhythm nice and strong, and if we do that, we naturally get sleepy every night.” If you’re travelling and jet-lagged, taking a melatonin supplement, like Evn’s new Strawberry Melatonin Gummies, shortly before you’re supposed to fall asleep might help you reset your circadian rhythm.
Want to sleep better tonight? Get some exercise. According to the U.S. Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, if you work out for 30 minutes, you’ll sleep better that same day. There isn’t conclusive evidence on using exercise as a treatment for long-term insomnia, but people who just aren't sleeping well report falling asleep quicker and sleeping more deeply when following a regular exercise routine. Aim for 2.5 hours a week to see the best benefits.
The caffeine in coffee, tea and cola can make falling asleep harder, even hours after you consume it. It also affects the quality of your sleep, limiting the amount of time you spend in a deep, restorative REM cycle. Try cutting off caffeine six hours before bedtime—one study found that people who drank caffeine even that long before bedtime got one hour less sleep than those who refrained.
Alcohol is another sleep saboteur. While having a drink or two at bedtime might help you fall asleep faster, it also negatively affects how much time you spend in the deep stages of sleep, making you more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. Studies have found that even having less than one drink lowers your sleep quality by nine percent, while having more than one reduces it by 40 percent.
The light and stimulation from electronics can mimic daytime, suppressing melatonin and making it harder to fall asleep at the right time. To help avoid this, spend the last hour of your day doing something analogue and calming, like reading a book, having a bath or doing a puzzle. “That gives the brain a chance to get into a state that’s conducive to sleep,” says Davidson. Buy an old-fashioned alarm, and try to keep TVs, cellphones and iPads out of the bedroom, so your brain isn’t associating your bed with anything other than sleep.
If you’re trying sleep tip after sleep tip but still having trouble sleeping, it might be time to dig a bit deeper to see if there’s a root cause. Anxiety, depression and chronic pain can all affect your sleep, as can some medications. If you’re sleeping long stretches but still feeling exhausted, or snoring loudly, ask your doctor if you could have sleep apnea—where you stop breathing multiple times a night. It can cause heart problems but is treatable with a CPAP machine or other oral appliances.
People with long-term insomnia without an underlying reason should consider a treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia, or CBTi. “It’s recommended as a first-line treatment above any medication,” says Davidson. “A lot of people with long-term insomnia feel that there’s nothing that will help them, but this is very effective and available.”
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