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Secrets for Good Sleep

Last week’s post about couples who sleep in different beds generated lots of chatter around here about sleep, and tips for better sleep is one of the most common requests I get at the office. Today I thought I’d share a few for you!

Most physicians use the term “sleep hygiene” to talk about good habits around sleep. The best thing you can do to improve your chances of a restful night is to maintain good sleep hygiene as consistently as possible.

Step one of sleep hygiene is to set your body’s clock. A common misconception is that this starts from when you fall asleep. In practice, though, your body tends to set its clock based on when you wake up. On average, you will start to feel sleepy 14 to 16 hours after you get up in the morning. Waking up at the same time every day (yes, even weekends and holidays!) will help you feel tired around the same time at night, which really helps to prevent laying in bed and staring at the ceiling from 10 PM to 2 AM.

Step two is to teach your body when it’s time to sleep. Have you ever started to feel hungry because you smelled something good cooking? That’s a response that your body has learned. Having a similar routine that you follow every night will help remind your body that it’s time to sleep. Generally I suggest things like heading to your bedroom, putting away devices or work, and following a routine for getting ready for bed.

Switching off devices is important because we think that the blue light emitted from screens can be stimulating to your brain, which causes wakefulness. In general I try to get my patients to be away from all screens for 30 minutes before bed. If you, like me (guilty!), tend to pick up your phone in bed, try keeping a pen and paper on your nightstand. I find having a place to jot down thoughts and reminders so helpful! (I use this tiny notebook).

You also want to make sure that your sleeping area is as comfortable as possible. The best setup for sleep is in a cool, dark room. Your body should feel warm, while your head (and the surrounding air) is a little cooler– probably why flipping to the cool side of the pillow feels so good! Ideally, you are also away from loud noises that might wake you up, although if you live in a city sometimes this is hard to put into practice. I don’t really suggest using earplugs unless you are desperate!

We aren’t optimized to digest food while we sleep, so I usually suggest trying to finish eating at least 2 hours before bedtime– 1 in a pinch. Avoiding caffeine or other stimulants in the second half of the day will also prevent feeling wide awake late in the evening. Taking a supplement like melatonin or magnesium 20-30 minutes before bed can also help!

Of course, it wouldn’t be my list if I didn’t add exercise. It seems that morning exercise is actually the most helpful for sleep. I always ask people to try to aim for Canada’s recommended amount of exercise: 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week (1 hour per day for kids!). Exercising later at night (like after dinner) might actually cause you to feel more awake.

Finally, remember that this is a list of generic tips that helps most people, and it’s always worth getting personalized medical advice. Your doctor might consider additional factors, such as your age (menopause wreaks havoc on sleep!), other medical problems and medications, and biochemical factors. If you’ve optimized everything listed and you’re still having trouble with sleep, ask your doctor!

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