Who hasn’t had a few sleepless nights? A job interview, a dental appointment, a neighbour with a new viola – there are lots of reasons to lie awake, staring at the ceiling. But wouldn’t the morning dawn brighter if you had a restful night? We asked sleep experts for their top tips on getting good shut-eye. Here’s what they told us. So snuggle up and read on. Just don’t go drifting off – yet!
Brigitte L’Heureux, registered aromatherapist and owner of Amphoria Aromatherapy in Victoria, works with time-tested remedies to help clients wind down. The most common essential oil sleep aid is lavender, which helps most people. Put a drop or two on a small hanky or makeup pad and take 18 to 20 deep inhalations. Then place the pad on your pillow as you drift off. But don’t get too zealous: too much of it makes you restless. If you can’t sleep because you’re angry, L’Heureux (from personal experience) suggests essential oil of bergamot. And if you wake up in the middle of the night from gnashing your teeth over a recent grievance or fretting over tomorrow’s big meeting, L’Heureux recommends the calming effects of frankincense. Use these the same way you would lavender – a drop on a hanky. Make sure when you buy your essential oils, you go for the pure stuff. Oils containing synthetics could leave you with a headache.
Judith Down, director at the Alberta Centre for Active Living, has looked at the research on the connection between sleep and physical activity and says there’s evidence that if you’re physically active during the day – at a moderate level – you’ll have a better chance of getting a sound sleep. So what’s moderate? More than ambling around the block or poking in the garden. Down explains that you’ll need to work hard enough to break a sweat for 30 to 60 minutes a day. Canada’s Physical Activity Guide suggests walking briskly, biking, raking leaves, swimming or dancing. And if your sleep is disrupted because of anxiety or depression, physical activity may boost your mood, too.
Your mind, not your body, is what usually keeps you up, says Maureen Dwight, a registered physiotherapist and director of Toronto’s Orthopaedic Therapy Clinic. If you can’t turn off your thoughts, redirect your focus by doing a relaxation exercise. Try squeezing your fist tight and then releasing it, then go through your whole body – feet, calves and thighs – doing the same thing. With any luck, you’ll have drifted off by the time you’re about half done.
Eileen McGill, sleep concierge at the Benjamin Hotel in New York, helps weary guests get a refreshing rest by helping them choose from the hotel’s 10-item pillow menu. She says that a good down pillow works for most people – or one made from a hypoallergenic spun fibre or memory foam. Where you position the pillow is important, too. She explains that if you sleep on your back, you need support under your neck – the pillow or neckroll should fill the space between the bed and your neck. If you sleep on your side, try a five-foot body pillow – it gives your skeleton something to lean against, and it takes pressure off of your hips.
Certified feng shui consultant Grace McKnight of Mahone Bay, N.S., helps clients turn their bedrooms into serene spaces – simply walking into the room should start the relaxation process. She urges people to include colours and objects they love in the room – and to lose the office equipment and exercise bikes (guilt hangs around work and workout-related gear). Furniture arrangement can help create a supportive environment for sleep – put the head of the bed, with a solid headboard, against a wall and position it so you can see the doorway. This gives a sense of containment in the bed and a feeling of protection from behind. And when you’re moving furniture around, shift the mirror. If you catch your own reflection in bed, the brain sends a warning message alerting it of activity. A part of your consciousness will stay awake and aware – and this may prevent a deep sleep (or you could have dreams that rouse you through the night).
Toronto chiropractor Jason Twardowski stresses that since you spend eight hours a night in bed, your body should be in a safe and comfortable position. It’s important that your posture maintain the natural curve of the spine for those hours. The best position for sleep is on your back or side. Sleeping on your stomach can strain the neck and back. To stop sleeping on your stomach, try this: put a golf ball in a front shirt pocket – when you roll onto your stomach, it will wake you up. And if you sleep on your back, keep your arms at your sides and put a pillow under your knees to ease any strain on your back.
Clients often ask registered dietitian Shalene Wray of Equilibrium Nutrition in Vancouver how food affects sleep. Many think they should avoid eating before bed because it causes weight gain (that’s a myth – unless you constantly binge before bed). In fact, a snack may help you drift off. A low-protein, high-carbohydrate snack or meal allows tryptophan levels to increase in the brain and in turn raise serotonin levels – this causes you to relax. Try a bowl of cereal with milk, or toast and jam.
Dr. Adam Blackman, medical director of the Toronto Sleep Institute, points out that alcohol, smoking and sleeping on your back make snoring worse. Although snoring seems like a minor noise issue, if it goes along with sleepiness or reports of not breathing, see your doctor. And sleeping in – as delicious as it feels in the moment – can actually make it harder for you to get to sleep and stay that way the next night. That’s because it’s difficult to make yourself go to sleep when you don’t feel tired. Dr. Blackman explains that your rise time sets your internal body clock, so it’s important to get up at the same time seven days a week – even on weekends! When you sleep in, you disrupt that clock. The same thing can happen if you have a long nap on a weekend afternoon – it seems like a solution, but it could make insomnia worse.
Sleep disruption sends many of us to the doctor, says Dr. Cheryl Levitt, president of the Ontario College of Family Physicians. Your doctor might prescribe medication for insomnia (for just a few days) if you’re dealing with grief or extreme anxiety before a stressful event. But it should be a last resort, she stresses. All medications that are available for insomnia have been designed to deal with acute anxiety – a short-term fix. If you take them for a long period there could be side effects, you could become dependent on them – and they stop working.