The Hamilton Spectator

Can’t sleep? Doctors share seven simple tips for a quality night’s rest


For an activity that most of us spend a third of our lives practising, sleep can sometimes feel impossible — especially when we desperatel­y crave it.

If you’re lying awake in bed with racing thoughts night after night, know you’re not alone. Sleep specialist­s are reporting a surge in anxiety-induced insomnia, likely a result of the more stressful times we’re living in.

“I am seeing more patients complainin­g about being unable to initiate sleep because of racing thoughts in their head, which is often because of underlying anxiety,” Dr. Sunil Bhalla, medical director of the North Toronto Sleep Centre, told the Star.

“I think that’s just a result of life in general being more stressful than it used to be, because of financial (stressors), especially in the GTA, with the cost of living, all the changes in the world and our knowledge from social media. There’s so many things that can impact stress today.”

Unfortunat­ely, sleep isn’t a state we can will ourselves into and trying to do so can often make insomnia worse. Take a closer look at the factors keeping us up at night and the simple habits doctors recommend for a restful night’s sleep.

What’s keeping us up at night?

According to Bhalla, insomnia “for many people” is rooted in anxiety, depression or other mood disorders — and “there’s obviously a higher burden of that with the way the world is at the moment,” he said.

People living with anxiety disorders have more than doubled in the last decade, according to Statistics Canada. From 2012 to 2022, reports of generalize­d anxiety disorder rose from 2.6 per cent to 5.2 per cent, while those experienci­ng social phobia multiplied from 3.0 to 7.1 per cent.

These underlying issues must be addressed before sleep issues are resolved, with medication or nonpharmac­eutical treatments like cognitive behavioura­l therapy, Bhalla said. If anxiety is disrupting your daily life, consider seeing a family doctor or walk-in clinic.

Other disorders can mess up our rest too; sleep apnea, a relatively common condition, can repeatedly start and stop our breathing, disrupting our rest and leading to potentiall­y serious medical conditions if untreated, Bhalla said. Other triggers, like restless leg syndrome or muscle cramps, can also serve to jolt us awake.

These can have serious health implicatio­ns. If you feel fatigued during the day despite getting what felt like a full night’s rest, Bhalla recommends you see a doctor: “It can have a massive impact on your longevity.”

Daily habits messing up our sleep

Sleep disorders aside, many day-today factors can disrupt our sleepwake cycle, or circadian rhythm, said Azadeh Yadollahi, a senior scientist with the University Health Network’s KITE rehabilita­tion institute.

This cycle relies on daylight to inform the body whether it’s time to rest or be active.

But given our modern addiction to screens, many of us are staring directly at bright lights up until the moment we close our eyes, priming our bodies for activity when we should be winding down.

“Part of (our sleep-wake cycle) comes from external factors like daylight. But part of that also comes from routine,” she said. By going to bed and waking up at different times day to day, we’re preventing our bodies from settling into a groove and confusing our circadian rhythms.

Diet also plays a role; studies show eating a meal high in fat and protein right before bed can impact sleep quality. Meanwhile, eating salt-heavy foods before bed can lead to swelling in the neck, pressing down on the airways and disrupting sleep in a way similar to sleep apnea, Yadollahi said.

Meanwhile, caffeine or alcohol intake before bed can similarly harm your sleep quality; while the latter might make it easier to fall asleep, studies show it worsens the overall quality.

Our partners can also be a major source of nightly strife, said Eva Libman, a sleep specialist based out of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. Difference­s in bed times, temperatur­e preference­s, nighttime movements or snoring can impact not only your rest, but your relationsh­ip.

“If difference­s between bed partners are intense enough that one of them is importantl­y sleep deprived, there needs to be a discussion about separate sleep space, even separate bedrooms, something that couples are very hesitant to reveal,” she said.

Seven tips for sleeping better

If you’re struggling to sleep, the following advice could help. But if you suspect your insomnia is linked to deeper issues like anxiety or sleep apnea, the experts recommend you speak with a medical profession­al first.

Set regular times for waking and sleeping Sticking with a daily routine, even on weekends and holidays, helps to strengthen our circadian rhythms and inform our bodies when it’s time to rest, Bhalla said.

Limit exposure to light in the evenings Similarly, because our bodies know when to be active by the amount of light detected, try to limit your exposure in the evenings. If you like e-reading or watching videos before bed, dim your screen’s light settings or wear sunglasses (or blue-light glasses), Libman said. Exercise during the day Not getting enough exercise can interfere with our sleep, but so can working out too close to bedtime. Yadollahi recommends daily exercise, like walking, and to avoid high-intensity exercise an hour before bed.

Take an hour to wind down Libman recommends avoiding all “alerting activities” an hour and a half before bed, like working, communicat­ing with people or even “looking things up with great enthusiasm on the internet.” These can kick your brain back into high gear when it should be relaxing.

Raise your body temperatur­e before bed According to Bhalla, higher body temperatur­es promote natural melatonin release. There’s truth in the adage of a glass of warm milk before bed; a warm shower can also do the trick.

Read or listen to music in bed Libman “very much recommends” reading or listening to music or a podcast before bed. These serve as a way to collect our racing thoughts, while placing them aside to focus on a story. If you feel yourself overcome with anxiety during the night, try reading in bed until you feel calm and drowsy again, she said. Practise breathing exercises In a similar vein, if you’re feeling bedtime anxiety, Libman recommends a simple breathing exercise, which can help bring calm and the effects of meditation “without the bells and whistles.” Give the following a try: breathe in through the nose for four seconds. Hold the breath for four counts. Exhale through the mouth for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Repeat for at least five minutes.

Bhalla reiterates that there’s no harm in getting your sleep issues checked out and that improper sleep can lead to serious health issues potentiall­y costing years of your life.

“From treating people with sleep apnea, the result is that people are actually living longer,” he said. “The worst case scenario is you’ve wasted a night’s sleep in a sleep clinic.”

 ?? SUSAN KAO TORONTO STAR ?? If you're lying awake in bed with racing thoughts night after night, know you're not alone. Sleep specialist­s are reporting a surge in anxietyind­uced insomnia, likely a result of the more stressful times we're living in.
SUSAN KAO TORONTO STAR If you're lying awake in bed with racing thoughts night after night, know you're not alone. Sleep specialist­s are reporting a surge in anxietyind­uced insomnia, likely a result of the more stressful times we're living in.

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