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I hope your challenges for week one went smoothly and helped to lay a good foundation for a healthier you this spring. This week, we're sharpening our focus to improving your sleep. In week one, you were challenged to do a review of your sleep patterns looking at what time you go to bed and wake up, the quality of your sleep and your energy levels the next day. By having this information in mind, we can make some small and concrete changes that can improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep.

We all know what it feels like to have a poor night's sleep. You may struggle to get through the day, feel sluggish and have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. These short term effects of a sleepless night are clear, but we sometimes don't realize the potential impact of chronic sleep deprivation.

Sleep is our time for recuperating, healing and protecting our mental and physical functions. Quality sleep is essential for maintaining memory, mood, cardiovascular health and keeping our immune system strong. With these positive benefits in mind, let's use the start of spring as a wake-up call to put in place the proper steps to improve our sleep:

Challenge 1: Be consistent with your sleep

The first step in getting a proper sleep cycle is setting a regular sleep schedule of going to bed and waking at the same time every day. Having a consistent schedule will improve the quality of your sleep and help you feel more refreshed and energized. While it can be tempting to sleep in on weekends, changing the pattern can throw things off so keep it consistent.

Challenge 2: Avoid stimulants

Eating and drinking before bed requires your body to digest the food and fluid, which can stimulate your body and may keep you awake. Aim to have dinner early (about 2-4 hours before bedtime) and avoid heavy snacking prior to sleep. Avoid caffeinated beverages after lunch including sodas, tea and coffee. While alcohol may soothe you, it actually decreases sleep quality so try not to have that nightcap before bed.

Challenge 3: Power down

We all do it: we check our e-mail one last time; review Facebook messages or watch our favourite TV show in bed with the hope of calming down before bed. Instead of relaxing us though, it delays our ability to fall asleep. The light from devices such as phones, computers or television can suppress our body's natural sleep regulating hormone (melatonin). In addition to the light of these devices, the constant flow of information through e-mail or television can stimulate the mind and make it difficult to peacefully drift off to sleep. Power down at least one hour prior to your set bedtime to allow yourself a calming and dark space prior to sleep.

Challenge 4: Create a sleep oasis

Having a peaceful zone for sleep will help your body unwind and allow you to fall asleep more easily. Don't use your bed for reading, watching TV, or talking on the phone. Keep it simple this week and reserve the bedroom for sleep or intimacy. By reserving the space, your body will associate getting into bed with relaxation and you will be able to fall asleep more quickly as a result.

Other ways to create a calming space is to darken your room with low wattage bulbs, blackout curtains or invest in a eye mask to shut out light that can disrupt sleep. Finally, we sleep better in cooler temperatures (about 18 Celsius) so turn down the thermostat or ventilate the room by opening a window.

Challenge 5: Stop snoozing

Sleep experts have found that pressing the snooze button for the extra five to 10 minutes of sleep can worsen your energy and cause daytime impairment of memory and attention. Set your alarm clock for a consistent time in the morning and get up when it rings. One tip is to keep your alarm out of reach to avoid pressing the snooze button and help get you out of bed.

Try one or all five of these challenges for a month. If you are still struggling with your sleep despite completing these tasks, see your doctor to get checked out for possible sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Your doctor can also review any medications you may be taking or medical conditions that may affect your sleep.

Until then, best wishes for this week's challenge and sweet dreams.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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