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When I was 17, I willed myself to stay awake for 60 hours. Three full days was my intended goal, but with only 12 hours to go the seductive whispers that kept telling me to close my eyes (“Just for a few minutes, come on … you know you want to”) proved impossible to resist. I remember giving in. And then I remember waking up the next day.
This particular episode is the perfect representation of the antagonistic attitude I’ve held toward sleep for nearly my entire life. As a young child my brother and I shared a room; it was rare the nights we’d fall asleep before 10 p.m. Eventually we got our own rooms, but then a new roommate moved in: television.
Is it any wonder that my entire adult life has been plagued by sporadic bouts of insomnia and, whenever I do manage to sleep, physically violent night terrors? Over the course of 15 years I’ve consulted doctors, tried various over-the-counter aides, participated in sleep studies, talked to therapists, and read so many, many books and articles on how to sleep, all to little avail.
Nothing changed for me until I performed an honest appraisal of my lifestyle and habits – what experts in the field often refer to as “sleep hygiene.” Once confronted with these facts, it became clear that, when it comes to sleeping, I’d been doing everything wrong for an awfully long time. So while I’m far from an authority on the subject, I’ve learned a lot about sleep over the years, information gleaned from hours of amateur research and self-experimentation. If you often find yourself staring at your bedroom ceiling, looking for some sheep to count, pay attention.
Set the stage
Sleep is serious business. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of your healthy eating and exercise is next to worthless if you’re burning the candle at both ends. Just as those who see the greatest results from their diets and training follow meticulous programs that cater to their specific needs, getting some solid sack time requires planning and preparation.
Turning your bedroom into a sleep-positive sanctuary takes some effort, but the payoff is huge. If your mattress is more than 10 years old, chances are it’s time for an upgrade. Thankfully we’re living in a golden age of mattress technology. We bought our bed from Endy, a Canadian company that delivers directly to your door. And don’t forget about your pillow. Experts recommend getting a new one every 12 to 18 months.
Next, make sure your room is the right temperature. Anywhere from 15 to 24 degrees Celsius will suffice. I find it helpful to keep our ceiling fan running on low at night, not only for the cooling effect but also because the hum of the motor washes out any distracting background noise. Finally, if you’re sensitive to light consider investing in blackout shades or a quality sleep mask.
Clear the (mental) clutter
It’s no coincidence that as our world becomes more connected, sleep habits are suffering. Most of us are “input machines” – we constantly consume information, most of it in bite-sized digital formats. It’s a good idea to unplug at least one hour before bed. It’s an even better idea to keep all digital screens out of the bedroom, period. At the very least, keep your phone on the other side of the room, away from your bed, that way you’ll be less likely to doomscroll your dreams away.
The problem is that blue light emitted from your gadgets. Checking your e-mail in bed may not seem like such a big deal, but the light from your smartphone stimulates the brain and reduces the release of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleeping cycle. Without the proper amount of melatonin to set it straight, your brain can be tricked into thinking it’s daytime.
Rather than reach for your phone at night, reacquaint yourself with analogue entertainment. Read a book. Write in a journal. Spend 20 minutes stretching or meditating or practising deep belly breathing. Any one of these activities will help make for a good night’s sleep. Combine them all and it’ll be lights out in no time.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.