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Anyone who has struggled with insomnia is all too familiar with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep leaves us feeling exhausted and irritable, zaps our motivation to exercise and make healthy choices, increases our cravings (especially for carbs and sugar), affects our memory, concentration and the list goes on!

Disruptions in our sleep can be caused by a number of factors. Stress, anxiety, and more screen time late at night are common exacerbating factors during this pandemic. Improving sleep habits is foundational to helping you get into a deeper, more restorative sleep. Good sleep is a lifestyle habit, which means that you need to make it a priority with your choices throughout the day and not just at bedtime. It may take a few weeks or months for your body to adjust, but it is possible to sleep well again!

Establish a regular sleep schedule and stick with it. This means waking and going to bed at roughly the same time every day, preferably waking by about 7 am and getting to bed between 10 and 11 pm.

Reset your circadian rhythm with exposure to natural light in the morning. This can look like a morning walk outside or sitting by a window with the curtains open, even on a cloudy day. Daytime exposure to bright light has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. It also reduces the time it takes to fall asleep at night.

Avoiding caffeinated beverages after lunch, or if you’re really sensitive, 12 hours from when you want to be in bed. The effects of caffeine vary from person to person, but its stimulatory effects can linger up to 18 hours in the body. Some research shows a hormonal link to how you process caffeine. For example, women taking birth control pills and women between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation can take twice as long to process caffeine. If you notice your sleep troubles worsen during the second half of your cycle, be more mindful on the amount and timing of your caffeine consumption during this phase.

Exercise regularly for 30 minutes daily. Research has demonstrated that regular exercise in the morning or afternoon helps you fall asleep more quickly and increases the amount of time spent in the most restorative phase of your sleep cycle. These positive effects are experienced after just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as walking, lifting weights, and cycling. The good news is that improvements in sleep quality are often noticed that same night.

Avoid naps during the day (and falling asleep on the couch while watching TV). Daytime naps can result in difficulties falling asleep and fragmented sleep patterns. If a daytime nap is required, limit its duration to a maximum of 20 minutes. 

Eat dinner at least 3 hours before bed to avoid going to sleep feeling overly full. If you do end up indulging in a large meal close to bedtime, try a 20-minute walk to aid your digestion and relieve some of the discomfort that may keep you up at night. At the same time, don’t go to bed hungry. If you need a snack, keep it light and easy to digest such as a handful of nuts, plain yogurt, or a banana with almond butter. 

Avoid alcohol, especially near bedtime. Alcohol is often a common trigger for insomnia. While it might initially make you feel sleepy, it disrupts your ability to get into the deep, restorative phase of your sleep cycle. Almost all of my patients notice improvements in their sleep, especially their ability to stay asleep, with this one habit change.

Decompress a couple hours before going to bed. Many of us live in a constant state of doing and are plugged into computers, phones, emails, etc. that our brain and body never really has a chance to unwind and relax. If you have a hard time relaxing, set a cut off time for yourself from all work and household chores and engage in restorative practices leading up to bed. For example, 20 minutes of light stretching or yoga followed by a bath with lavender bath salts, drawing and/or colouring, writing in a journal, meditation, and/or reading.

Create a sleep-promoting environment that is cool, dark, and quiet. The optimal sleep temperature for adults is between 16-19C. Fans or “white noise” machines, earplugs, and blackout curtains are all techniques that can create a more comfortable and relaxing environment conducive to sleep.

Herbs and Supplements.

Common herbs and supplements that have been researched to help treat insomnia include melatonin, passionflower, chamomile, valerian, lemon balm, GABA, l-theanine and magnesium. I find a combination of these supplements generally work well with the above lifestyle habits to help my patients have a deeper, more restorative sleep. Consult with your naturopathic doctor to determine the combination best for you.

Note: if your sleep troubles have been an ongoing issue and/or you are concerned about the impact it may be having on your health, please contact your health care provider. Identifying and treating any underlying causes can help you get the better sleep you deserve.