It's 8:17 a.m. and you've made it into the car after countless pleas to your children to "Grab your backpacks and please stop kissing the cat goodbye." You set off on the school-to-office run, bleary-eyed and sniffling (is that a cold coming on?). As you round the corner, you realize you've left the kids' lunch boxes on the counter. You catch a quick look in the car mirror, and it's not pretty: dark circles, sallow complexion and bloodshot eyes. What have you done to deserve this? Well, it's actually what you haven't done – sleep.
The science of sleep
Busy schedules, stress, illness, commuting, family needs and work all stand in the way of getting a good night's sleep. According to a recent study on sleep from Statistics Canada, almost half of us say we cut back on our sleep when we need more time for life's demands. Yet a new study out of the University of Warwick in England (and published in the journal Sleep) says that those of us who get less than six hours of shut-eye a night are – get this – 12 per cent more likely to die early.
"The amount of sleep that you get is critical," says Dr. Charles H. Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Calgary. "There may be negative consequences for your health and performance when you restrict your sleep to less than six or seven hours a night."
This is because your body becomes a beehive of healing activity while you sleep. You go through a series of stages, each with specific repair duties. So when you get less sleep, you miss out on complete recovery and repair – of your body and mind.
When we first fall asleep, we enter non–rapid eye movement sleep. "It's here during the first two to four hours of 'core sleep' that metabolic, immune, neurological and tissue recovery occur," says Samuels. "This is followed by REM [rapid eye movement] sleep, where the skills you learned during the day become embedded in our brains, making this stage of sleep critical for learning and memory."
Overall, experts say we need to take a lack of sleep seriously. "In severe cases, difficulty sleeping can be a sign of potential heart disease, arthritic disease, depression and angina," says Samuels. He adds that Parkinson's disease can also first appear as a sleep disorder.
But don't lose any sleep over your lack of shut-eye – we have all the expert advice on how to hit the pillow in peace.
Page 1 of 4 – Discover which foods have been proven to help lull you to sleep on page 2.Get great sleep
Surprisingly simple things can sabotage your efforts to head off to the land of Nod. Use the following tips as a checklist to see where you might be unwittingly setting yourself up for a lack of sleep.
• Foods to stay clear of. Eating high-sodium foods such as chips and other prepackaged foods, especially before bedtime, dehydrates your body and may cause you to wake up in the night. Spicy foods stimulate your digestive system so your body can't relax, and may cause heartburn or stomach upset. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it will impair your REM sleep, stress your liver and dehydrate your body, and may cause you to wake up during the night.
• Foods that help you sleep. "Calcium and magnesium relax your body and central nervous system – and are most effective [when consumed] together," says Samara Felesky-Hunt, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Calgary. Yogurt, almonds, figs and whole grain foods are perfect to eat at dinner or a couple of hours before bedtime.
"Tryptophan is an amino acid that has a relaxing effect on your brain by becoming serotonin, a neurotransmitter that slows down nerve traffic and helps your body manufacture the sleep hormone melatonin," adds Felesky-Hunt. Besides in turkey, you can find tryptophan in milk, bananas, figs, dates, oats, eggs, chickpeas, potatoes and peanuts. You can include these foods in your dinner menu or enjoy them as a small evening snack.
Your list of bedtime beverages may include a relaxing cup of warm milk, or chamomile or passion flower tea. (Try to keep your liquids to a minimum, though, to lessen those nighttime trips to the bathroom.)
• Say no to nicotine and caffeine. These are both stimulants that affect the quality of your sleep and may cause you to wake because of withdrawal. Felesky-Hunt calls caffeine a "sleep stopper" because it blocks the action of adenosine, a natural sleep inducer that your body creates in your brain. Avoid caffeine up to six hours prior to turning in, and if you're still not sleeping well, cut it out of your diet altogether.
• Avoid eating a big meal before bed. While you may fall asleep faster, all the intestinal work required to digest it is likely to cause you to wake up frequently. Avoid eating a big meal any later than three hours before bedtime.
• Fight fatigue food traps. "Research shows that as you decrease the amount of sleep you get, your appetite increases," says Samuels. "You tend to crave dense, high-calorie foods, such as muffins, cookies, brownies and bagels, which, in turn, can cause weight gain." Focus on protein-rich foods that are high in tyrosine, a brain-stimulating amino acid. Getting some protein in the morning is good for alertness and metabolism. Try a snack of apples and peanut butter or a glass of soy milk before your 2 p.m. energy drop or when the 4 p.m. slump hits you.
• Exercise. "People of all ages who exercise tend to sleep better," says Rachel Colley, a certified exercise physiologist and member of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology in Ottawa. Besides burning calories and reducing stress (two proven sleep enhancers), exercise increases body temperature, and this increase makes the natural drop in temperature that occurs in your body at bedtime more dramatic, leading to improved sleep."
Research also shows that aerobic exercise, as long as it is done well before bedtime, is the best sleep promoter. Colley advises doing something that makes you sweat, such as jogging, walking briskly or aerobics, at least three times a week.
Page 2 of 4 – Do you know the ideal temperature to promote sleep? Find out what to set the thermostat to before bed on page 3.
• Check your medication. "Certain medications can disturb your sleep, but some are necessary to keep taking, such as those for asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or depression, so you need to discuss this with your doctor," says Samuels. He doesn't recommend over-thecounter sleep medications because they contain antihistamines, which can cause a hangover effect during the day and don't help your body learn how to fall asleep naturally.
Dr. Joseph De Koninck, the director of sleep research at the University of Ottawa, adds that "while prescription sleeping pills can be an effective solution in certain situations, there's a risk of developing a resistance and dependency if they are used over time." Talk to your doctor about the role medications may be playing in your sleep. In the bedroom.
• Create a routine. A regular bedtime and waking time – even on weekends – will steady your inner sleep clock, or circadian rhythm, and help you sleep better.
• Make sure your mattress and pillow work for you. The Canadian Chiropractic Association says choose a mattress that's flexible enough to adapt to your shape, while still giving firm support to your spine. Your pillow should keep your head and neck aligned with your spine.
• Set the temperature. "Sleep is promoted by the lowering of your core body temperature, which typically happens 10 to 15 minutes before you feel like going to sleep," says De Koninck. Because your bedroom temperature affects your body temperature, De Koninck recommends keeping your room between 20 and 23°C. Comfortable sheets and pyjamas, and proper air circulation in your room will also help you settle into a good slumber.
• Turn the lights out. When it's dark, the pineal gland in your brain boosts melatonin secretion, which makes you sleepy. That's why using blackout blinds or an eye mask can be helpful. "Exposure to light can keep you up and keep you thinking or worrying," says De Koninck. If you happen to wake up during the night, try to keep your lights out, even if it means navigating your way to the bathroom in the dark. Better still, keep a dim night-light on in the hall or a flashlight on your night table.
• Unplug yourself. "Your bedroom is for sleep and sex," says Samuels: Keep TVs and other electronics out. Studies show that computers, BlackBerrys or any device that "physically comes with you to bed" can hinder your ability to get a good night's sleep. On the other hand, a bedtime ritual of light reading can distract and relax your mind.
• Address the question of noise. Earplugs are a simple way to block out unwanted noise. But some people find silence itself distracting and need "white noise" from a fan, humidifier or white-noise machine playing soothing sounds of waves or rain. Find out what works for you.
Page 3 of 4 – To nap or not to nap? Find out on page 4.
• Relax before you hit the pillow. We know it's easier said than done, but calming your body and mind does help you get to sleep. Serene New Age music, spa-style sounds or lullabies with simple, repetitive sounds encourage sleep. Relaxation and meditation CDs that guide you through a series of images can also be effective. Colley says you can also try doing some relaxing yoga poses or stretches before you hit the hay.
• Put the problem to rest. If something is bothering you, write it down and deal with it in the morning, says De Koninck. "With a fully rejuvenated brain, solutions will come more easily."
• To nap or not to nap? "Napping is natural and corresponds to a direct need in our circadian system," says De Koninck. "Research shows that accidents occur more often in the middle of the day, signalling that we need to rest here." He adds that a 20-minute nap can have a positive impact on your cardiovascular system, memory and the way you function for the rest of the day. That said, if you suffer from insomnia, skip the nap because it may make it more difficult to sleep at night.
Is it time to talk to your doctor?
Many of us have the occasional bout of sleeplessness, but if you're experiencing memory loss, daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating or moodiness, you could have a sleep disorder, says Dr. Joseph De Koninck, the director of sleep research at the University of Ottawa.
• Help your doctor identify your sleep problem. Bring a sleep diary to your appointment and include sleep and nap times and notes on your bedtime routine.
• Ask your doctor if she thinks you have a sleep disorder, or if your symptoms are a sign of another illness. It's not uncommon for women who are in certain life stages, such as perimenopause, to have trouble sleeping.
• There are three main categories of disorders: insomnia (an inability to fall, and stay, asleep); narcolepsy (uncontrollable sleep); and disturbed sleep, which includes restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep).
• Once your doctor has diagnosed your condition, ask about what options are available.
• The Canadian Sleep Society has an Ask a Sleep Expert section on its website, and lists doctors across Canada and their area of expertise, such as sleep apnea or infant sleep problems. You'll find it on their website, www.css.to, just click on "education and information."
Page 4 of 4