Pythons sleep for 18 hours a day, dolphins sleep for 10, the average house cat sleeps for just over 12 and most of us humans aim for a healthy eight. Sleep is the holy grail of the animal kingdom. We need it to do everything from balancing our hormones to rebuilding our blood vessels — and we lament every hour we lose. “A restless night here and there is normal,” says Dr. Colleen Carney, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto. “What’s not normal is if you routinely have trouble falling — or staying — asleep.” Three or more restless nights a week? That’s insomnia.
It may help to know that insomnia is one of the most common sleep issues out there, one you share with 3.3 million other Canadians. And, yes, it’s bad for you. Chronic insomnia (six years or more) is linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, dementia and depression, and researchers at the University of Arizona recently concluded, after 40 years of study, that it increases your risk of death by 58 percent.
Fortunately, it’s a sleep problem with a solution. We have a biologically determined — but environmentally sensitive — internal clock that decides when it’s time for sleep, Carney says. “This clock requires a steady, daily input of cues as to what time it is in order to run properly.” Send the wrong cues, you get less shut-eye; send the right ones and hello, sandman. Here are three signs you have insomnia — and what you can do to reset your sleep clock.
1. Your day begins with the snooze button. Several things can mess with sleep cues and knock you off schedule, making it harder to get up in the morning. One of the biggest is bright lights before bedtime (Instagram on your iPhone, True Detective on TV), which send a message to your body that it’s not night. A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed ebook readers have a harder time falling asleep than those who read printed books before bed. Another factor is when you set your alarm. If you get up at 7 a.m. during the week but sleep until 10 a.m. on Saturday, Carney says you feel the same jet lag as when you travel across three time zones. “Getting out of bed at the same time seven days a week is the best way to have a healthy sleep clock.”
2. Caffeine cravings kick in around 10 a.m. To fight feelings of sluggishness, many insomniacs shuffle into the nearest Starbucks line, but caffeine blocks the chemical needed for sleep drive. Sleep drive is also affected by how busy you are. When you’re tired, you’re not as physically active, which makes you less ready for bed when you finally put on your PJs. “You need to build enough drive for sleep by being awake, out of bed and active for 16 to 18 hours,” Carney says. Sneak in extra activity — walks, a trip to the gym, even random jumping jacks — whenever you can.
3. You’re tired. You lie down. You’re wide awake. Sounds like you’ve got a case of conditioned arousal. “As people develop a sleeping problem, most respond by trying harder to sleep and increasing the time they spend in bed,” Carney says. “But if your bed is repeatedly paired with wakefulness, just getting into it increases alertness.” Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that insomniacs have more activity in the part of the brain that controls movement, and this heightened information processing may interfere with sleep. The solution is to shut down slowly. “Protect an hour before bed from emails and any goal-directed activities,” Carney says. If your brain continues to buzz, get up until you feel tired again. “If you’re awake all night, don’t worry. As long as you get up at your regular time, you’ll have a greater drive for deep sleep the next night.” Carney also recommends not going to bed with unfinished business. “Process your day in a journal, make lists and try meditation,” she says. A new Harvard study shows just six sessions of mindfulness meditation can help relieve insomnia, general fatigue and depression.