Sleep better tonight!

No more bleary-eyed mornings or nights spent staring at the ceiling. Check out these 29 tips and get some satisfying shut-eye!

Once Ottawa’s Carrie Kristal-Schroder is snuggled in her bed sound asleep, not even a drummer in her hallway could wake her up. However, it’s getting to la-la land that’s the problem for the 42-year-old working mother of two. “I can’t shut my mind off,” she says, “and the more physically tired I am, the less able I am to fall asleep.” Relaxation techniques, crossword puzzles and a notepad beside the bed to jot down worries help her to drop off, but bedtime is often still a battle.

Kristal-Schroder’s got plenty of company. Stress keeps one-third of Canadians from nodding off at least once a week, according to a poll by Better Sleep Council Canada, a mattress-industry group. If you’ve spent nights staring at the ceiling yourself, or suffer from a sleep disorder (see When to get help), you know the next day’s a nightmare – you nod off during meetings, make frustrating mistakes and feel all-around miserable. Since quality sleep is as essential for good health as nutritious food and plenty of fluids are, when we don’t get enough, our bodies really feel it.

And stress isn’t the only thing keeping women awake – unfortunately, shut-eye thieves lurk everywhere. So, next time you find yourself sleepwalking through yet another day, perk up just enough to tackle these common sleep robbers and count your way down to a really good night’s sleep.

Sleep robber #1: Logging extra zzz’s

Prying yourself out from under your cosy duvet may be torture, but if you’ve been asleep for between seven and eight hours, it may be worth it. Log any more and you may wake up feeling drained and then tired all day, according to researchers at the University of California at San Diego.

What to do about it

· Run a test to find out how much sleep feels best for you. For a week, keep a sleep log and note how long you slept, what you felt like when your alarm went off and how alert you felt during the day.
· Establish a routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. And if it’s still agony leaving that toasty duvet behind, have fresh orange juice waiting for you in the fridge or put your coffee pot on a timer.
Sleep robber #2: Shift work

It’s not easy to climb straight into bed after work – especially in the morning, when everyone else is just starting the day. Shift work knocks your body’s natural 24-hour clock (or circadian rhythm) out of whack, so you’ve got to fool yourself into thinking daytime is the right time for eight hours’ sleep.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found there are three things you can do to adapt faster to shift work: get bright light during the shift (talk to your employer about improving light quality), wear dark sunglasses on the commute home and then go to sleep in a very dark room as soon as possible after you get home.

What to do about it

· Use tricks to fall asleep shortly after a night shift. Kristina Beric, a 29-year-old Toronto nurse, lowers the room temperature so she won’t overheat – 16 to 18 degrees Celsius is ideal – and darkens the room with shades. Also try putting on soothing CDs with the sound of rain or waves to help you nod off.
· Flip around the order of meals to mimic your normal eating routine. Eat breakfast when you wake up in the afternoon, lunch around midnight and then a light supper before you go to sleep after work.

Sleep robber #3: Sporadic exercise

Skip your regular afternoon power walk (or tennis match or swim) and the disruption won’t just affect your energy level, mood and overall health – it will also hurt your sleep. But so can too much exercise, especially late in the day, such as an afternoon of heavy gardening or a long hike. Scientists in Massachusetts and at the University of Toronto have found that if non-exercisers tackle intense aerobic or resistance activity out of the blue, they’re likely to toss and turn at night.

What to do about it

· Time your intense workouts at least five or six hours before bedtime to bring on sleep, says William Tharion, a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Massachusetts. Avoid heavy exercise within three hours of bedtime – it can keep you up.
· Do gentle yoga poses or take a light stroll around the block in the hour or two leading up to bedtime instead of working out. This will relax you mentally and physically because “your body’s all kinked up at the end of the day,” explains Beth Mansfield, an exercise specialist and a registered dietitian in Ottawa.
Sleep robber #4: Princess-and-the-pea syndrome

Whether you’ve got a lumpy mattress, a flat pillow or a bright street light shining through your window, a less-than-perfect sleep environment can result in a short and shallow night’s sleep. Aesthetics aside, a room that isn’t quiet, comfy and dark enough to keep you asleep for seven to eight hours isn’t doing its job. Your body needs to be supported physically – we move around about 40 times a night in order to keep our skin from breaking down – and psychologically, as well.

What to do about it

· Build a sleep cave around all of your senses For sight: invest in a set of heavy curtains or pick up a sleeping mask. For sound: keep earplugs handy or run a small fan in a corner for white noise. For smell: freshly launder cotton bedsheets to help you feel relaxed. For taste: remember to keep a glass of fresh water handy in case you wake up with a dry mouth. For touch: make sure your mattress is supportive, and be sure to rotate and flip it every few months to keep a groove from forming. And if your mattress is more than eight to 10 years old, consider replacing it.
· Get rid of sleep distractions Your bedroom should be used for sleeping and sex only, so consider evicting your TV or computer.
· Go pillow shopping After two or three years, even a high-end pillow can become too flat, failing to enhance sleep.

Sleep robber #5: Your bedmate

While you may be an awesome sleeper, if your partner isn’t, you’ll suffer. Earlier this year, a U.S. survey found one in four adults who share a bed say that their beloved’s snoring, insomnia or tossing and turning disrupts their sleep. For chronic health problems – snoring, insomnia, teeth grinding among them – see your doctor.

What to do about it

· Consider investing in a king-sized bed You can keep the intimacy you share by sleeping together, but still get some quality shut-eye.
· Negotiate a mutually agreeable sleep schedule with your partner Night owl Neeta Sharma, a 50-year-old Ottawa college professor, goes about her activities in another room to avoid disturbing her husband’s sleep. When she’s ready to nod off and he’s sound asleep, she’ll silently sneak into the bedroom.
Sleep robber #6: Stressed racing brain

Don’t top off a busy day with a stack of stimulating activities in the evening – your brain may not shut up when you turn down the covers. Dr. Paul Caldwell, a family physician in Coburg, Ont., and author of Sleep: The Complete Guide to Sleep Disorders and a Better Night’s Sleep (Key Porter), says overstimulation is a key cause of sleep troubles. Remember, going to sleep isn’t like flipping off a light switch. Nodding off is more like turning down the dimmer in the dining room – a slow gradual process that brings you into darkness.

What to do about it

· Create a routine to help you unwind So, if you’re a worrier, start by writing down a to-do list for the next day and set it aside. Take a warm bath – a raised body temperature promotes sleep. Slip into loose nightclothes and read a not-too-stimulating book.
· Try this relaxation technique several times a day, suggests Marion Harris, director of The Feldenkrais Centre in Toronto, which offers body movement therapy: sit and relax with your hands in your lap. Raise them in front of you, with your palms facing down. Wrap the fingers and thumb of your right hand around your left thumb. Then extend your right index finger and wrap the fingers of your left hand around it.

Pay attention to your breath, then inhale and gently squeeze your thumb. Exhale and release. Do this eight to 10 times, pause, then do the same with your index finger. Pause again, and go back and forth between the thumb and finger. If you practise this often, it should bring you to a calm state – a handy trick when you wake up at 4 a.m.

Sleep robber #7: Just being you

Women experience a host of unique sleep stealers, from PMS symptoms to pregnancy to menopause with its hot flashes – a notorious cause of wakefulness. But surprisingly, low estrogen levels may not be to blame. Researchers in Michigan found that women in their 40s (who are still menstruating) experience more sleep disturbances than women in their 20s. This suggests a woman’s age – and not her estrogen changes – may be causing sleep woes, explains Jane Lukacs, assistant research scientist at the School of Nursing at the University of Michigan. The downside? We may have to accept that getting enough sleep becomes more challenging with age.

What to do about it

· Skip the salt If swollen fingers and a puffy stomach are one of your PMS symptoms, be sure to avoid salty foods, which cause water retention. In her book, A Woman’s Guide to Sleep (Crown), co-author Joyce A. Walsleben writes that discomfort caused by bloating is a major sleep disruptor.
· Get more exercise If you’re experiencing hot flashes due to menopause, one hour of regular exercise daily can cut nighttime flashes in half, says Tracy Cook, a naturopathic doctor in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Sleep robber #8: Bad lights-out behaviour

You’re in bed, you’ve slipped into sleep and then, poof, your eyes pop open again. We all awaken several times a night for a few seconds – you won’t notice you’re awake; still, your senses will be checking your environment to make sure you’re not in any danger, says Dr. Caldwell. Plus, there is a whole host of sleep disturbances that can wake us, from anxiety to newborns to bathroom breaks. What’s important is how you react to these problems. Avoid alerting your brain too much by flipping on lights or making noise. The goal? To keep your mind lulled, calm and under-stimulated.

What to do about it

· Ignore the call to pee If the need to go to the bathroom always wakes you, it’s possible to train your bladder to put it off till morning, but your best bet is to avoid liquids before bed. If you do get up, avoid stimulating your mind with lights or noise.
· Count sheep It’s a cliché, but mechanical activities, such as counting back from 900 using multiples of four, can help relax the brain enough to bring on sleep again.