Health

All The (New) Reasons You Aren’t Sleeping—And How To Fix Them

Your doomscrolling! Your pandemic dog! Your existential dread! No wonder you haven’t slept well since 2020. Here’s how to catch those precious Zs again

An illustration of a woman in bed, on her phone with a fan blowing at her and a dog at her feet, depicting the new reasons we aren't sleeping well.

(Illustration: Michael Byers)

Life has undeniably changed in the last few years—more stressors, less certainty—and our bodies are paying the price. Sleep is one area that’s been especially affected: Insomnia rates rose globally during the pandemic, and, at one point, 50 percent of Canadians complained of sleep issues.

Dr. Rébecca Robillard is an associate professor at University of Ottawa’s school of psychology and a scientist of clinical sleep research at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre’s Institute of Mental Health Research. When it comes to self-care, she says sleep should be at the top of your to-do list.

“We often think about staying healthy, exercising, eating well,” she says. “But sleep is the basis of so many physiological and mental and emotional functions. It has wide-spread repercussions, and it’s something we should really take care of.”

Here are some common sleep zappers in the year 2022—and what you can do to take back the night.

You’re drinking more coffee than ever

If you’re back at the office and trying to stay perky, downing java well into the afternoon isn’t doing you any favours come bedtime. Caffeine’s effects can last longer than you’d think and can negatively affect your sleep.

When it comes to how caffeine influences you, your individual history can make a huge difference. Lifelong coffee fiends, for instance, are better able to tolerate an afternoon cup than someone who drinks it more sparingly. But just because your barista knows you by name doesn’t mean coffee isn’t upsetting your REM cycles. “Studies have shown that even if you’re able to fall asleep after caffeine consumption, you’re sleeping lighter and with less quality,” says Robillard.

What you can do:
You probably don’t have to quit caffeine altogether, but if you’re finding you don’t wake up feeling rested, it might be time to examine your coffee break schedule. “Generally speaking, I would advise not to have coffee from mid- afternoon onward,” says Robillard. If you’re still craving a warm bevvy come 3:00 p.m., switching to less caffeinated tea is a good way to wean yourself off. But if all the peppermint tea in the world can’t help you get through the afternoon without yawning, consider a substance-free energizer, like a walk around the block, and check in with your body as you go.

You have hot flashes—at all hours

Around middle age, both men and women begin to experience more issues with sleeping. You might find it harder to fall asleep, wake up throughout the night or experience less deep sleep. Unfortunately, this period also often coincides with the onset of menopause.

“Because sleep is so important for physiological functioning, it’s also a strong ally [when going] through difficult phases like menopause,” says Robillard. Easier said than done, though, right?

Those in menopause often cite hot flashes as the culprit for their wakefulness, but studies suggest you might actually be waking up before the hot flash even occurs. “It’s a cascade of reactions happening that then trigger the hot flash as well as the awakening,” says Robillard.

If you don’t notice you’re waking up in the night but you’re still feeling sleepy in the daytime, Robillard suggests getting checked for sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops and starts throughout sleep. Post- menopausal people are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea than those who are premenopausal. If you’re a loud snorer or experience excessive daytime sleepiness, your doctor can refer you for a sleep apnea test.

What you can do:
Even if the hot flashes aren’t necessarily waking you up, they certainly don’t make it easy to fall back asleep. Programming your thermostat to automatically cool your space in the evenings can help.

But behavioural adjustments are your best bet. Cardiovascular exercise earlier in the day can facilitate better rest because “sleep is very sensitive to our level of exercise,” says Robillard. “Anything that makes your heart go faster will help you sleep better.” Creating a wind-down routine before bed—think soft lighting and soothing music—can also have a positive effect.

You got a pandemic puppy and she’s a bed hog

You can’t help it—Snowball is just so cute all curled up like that. But by 3 a.m., that sweet little fluff ball has somehow tripled in size, and with a paw in your face, she’s taking up more than half the bed.

Of course, your pet isn’t the only factor that affects your sleep environment: an uncomfortable mattress, a bright light outside your window or even the person in bed beside you can prevent you from catching premium Zs. “If you have sleep problems, take care that your sleeping environment is conducive and protective of your sleep,” says Robillard. “If your sleep is fragile, [safeguard] it as much as you can.”

What you can do:
First of all, get Snowball her own damn bed. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” says Robillard with a laugh. Then, take stock of any other obstacles that stand in your way to a good night’s rest, and try to find solutions that will optimize your sleep environment.

For starters, your bed and pillows should be comfortable and well-suited to your sleep style. If you wake up too early and have trouble falling back asleep, invest in a blackout curtain. And make sure your bedroom isn’t warmer than the ideal 18 degrees Celsius because “our core body temperature naturally needs to drop for us to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Robillard.

As for the fidgeting partner? You might want to think twice about that relationship. Kidding. But a few nights spent sleep- ing apart can help you evaluate the impact you have on each other’s rest.

“It sounds harsh, but something to consider if sleep is getting to be too sensitive is maybe trying a separate bedroom on occasion—or permanently,” says Robillard.

You can’t stop doomscrolling

We’ve all heard about the negative effects of too much screen time, and its impact on sleep is twofold. “There’s this biological clock within our brains sitting just on top of the optic nerves that link the eyeballs to the brain, and it’s super sensitive to the blue spectrum of light,” says Robillard. When the clock is triggered, it suppresses melatonin, the sleep hormone our bodies naturally produce, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

Screen time can also be incredibly stimulating. “It’s hard to predict what will happen in your scrolling session,” says Robillard. “You’re hopping from one thing to another, maybe ending up on a more difficult news story that influences your mind state before bedtime.” Intellectually and emotionally activating yourself like this does little to calm the mind.

What you can do:
It may seem impossible, but your body starts producing sleep-promoting melatonin about two hours before your usual bedtime, so phones and other screens should be put away before that marker. Using orange or red filters, like those on your devices’ night modes, to counteract the stimulating blue light can help, but nothing is a substitute for taking a real break, reading an old-fashioned paper book and letting your mind and body prepare for sleep.

“Of course, we want to stay connected to the world and stay informed, but it’s about timing,” says Robillard. “Go crazy with your screen in the morning—it sends a good wake signal to start the day.” Stopping the evening scroll can be hard, but it’s like breaking any habit—do your best to replace the activity with something else and cultivate a routine that relaxes and restores you after a long day of staring at pixels.

Your anxiety has never been worse

We’ve all experienced some degree of anxiety over the past few pandemic years—and it’s certainly disturbing our rest. “We know there’s a bidirectional relationship between how we feel and how we sleep,” says Robillard. “If you’re more anxious, you’re having poor sleep; and with poor sleep, it’s harder to cope with anxiety in the daytime.”

Anxiety and other mental health issues often push people to turn to alcohol or drugs to help them fall asleep. Substances, like wine or CBD, can help you close your eyes. But as anyone who’s had an evening glass of wine can attest, “your sleep gets more fragmented, and you achieve fewer of the deep stages of sleep you need for restoration,” says Robillard.

What you can do:
Substances won’t cure your anxiety, but sleep can work wonders. Yes, we know this sounds like a bit of a catch-22, but hear Robillard out: “If you do intervene on sleep, you’re much better equipped to deal with anxiety,” she says. “You should still address the anxiety symptoms, but if you just focus on sleep, you’re going to see anxiety levels much lower. Sleep is a really powerful tool to protect our mental health.” Combining treatment like therapy with solid sleep habits can have a compound effect on your stress levels.

Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) can be a great way to help re-frame your association with sleep as a time to rest, not to overthink. A significant part of treatment involves breaking any current negative associations you have with bed- time—such as lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in frustration.

And on those nights when your brain is obsessing over the latest COVID variant, remember that your rational brain (your frontal lobe) is off the clock, leaving your emotional brain (your amygdala) in charge. “That is the worst time to try to trouble- shoot,” says Robillard. “Your rational brain is not there; it’s not going to be efficacious. It’s normal that you’re more stressed out or emotional in the middle of the night. Put that problem on the bedside table [she suggests keeping a notebook and pen there] and know that, tomorrow, you’ll address it.”

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