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Wake-up call
Sleepless nights can take a toll on your health
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By Diana McMillan
May/June 2019

You've managed to make it through another stressful day at the office, thanks in no small part to several cups of coffee and a couple of sugary treats from the vending machine.

Now, you're supposed to be heading off to the gym to reinvigorate yourself with a little exercise. But instead you end up eating dinner in front of the TV, followed by an alcoholic beverage or two to relax.

You're tired but wired.

And so, you stay up late, messaging on your cell phone in bed, finally turning off the light only to toss and turn, negative thoughts and worries racing through your mind.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you are not alone.

More Canadians than ever are not getting the sleep they need, and it is starting to take a heavy toll on their health and well-being.

Consider the numbers.

The National Sleep Foundation says that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years of age should get seven to nine hours sleep every night, while those over the age of 65 should get between seven and eight hours sleep every night.

Yet, data from the 2014/15 Canadian Health Measures Survey found that one in four adults aged 18 to 34, one in three adults aged 35 to 64, and one in four adults aged 65 to 79 are not meeting these sleep quantity targets.

And then there is the issue of sleep quality. A good sleep should be uninterrupted, leaving you refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of the day.

But recent data indicates that one in two adults have difficulty falling or staying asleep, one in five do not find their sleep refreshing, and one in three adults struggle to stay awake during waking hours.

This is a problem because lack of quality sleep has been linked to numerous issues, including impairments in learning, creativity, problem solving, vigilance, attention span, and memory.

Chronic sleep loss has also been associated with various mental health issues, including irritability, increased anxiety, and higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. On the physical side, it has been linked to increased risk of infections, impaired growth and tissue repair, heightened pain experience, increased risk for heart attack and stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Some people troubled by sleep issues turn to medication for help. But there are effective medication-free ways to help you get a good night's sleep. The first priority is adopting healthy sleep habits. Here are several strategies that you can try to improve your sleep health

  • Keep to a regular sleep and wake schedule, weekdays and weekends.
  • Try to get bright morning sunshine, and avoid bright lights in the evening and at night.
  • Avoid or limit naps to 30 minutes and do not nap in the afternoon or early evening.
  • Get daily exercise, preferably at a moderate and vigorous intensity level.
  • Avoid stimulants and large evening meals. Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine disturb sleep, while large or spicy meals before bedtime can keep you awake with indigestion. If hungry near bedtime, try a small snack, such as a half a banana or cheese and crackers.
  • Develop a relaxing bedtime routine, free from exciting or stressful activity. Try a warm shower or bath one to two hours before bed and read a book or magazine to help make the transition to a calm and relaxed state.
  • Avoid electronic devices near bedtime or in the night-time as using electronic devices can stimulate your brain and the blue light shuts down melatonin secretion, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Assess your sleep environment. Mattress and pillows should be comfortable, supportive and allergen-free. Bedrooms should be slightly cool, dark, quiet and calming. Electronic devices should be removed or silenced. Dark curtains, ear plugs, and "white noise" can help. Pets may need to sleep elsewhere.
  • Restrict time in bed. If unable to fall asleep, get up, go to another room and do something restful until you feel tired.
  • Small steps and practice can lead to big benefits. Keeping a sleep diary, such as the one found at the National Sleep Foundation website can help:  https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/inline-files/SleepDiaryv6.pdf

Following these tips should help ease your sleeping issues. But if you are still having sleep problems, see your doctor or nurse practitioner. They may also refer you to a sleep professional for advanced sleep assessment and treatment.

Diana McMillan is a sleep researcher, an associate professor in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences College of Nursing at the University of Manitoba and an associate professor of clinical practice at the Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg.