Learn how to curb your sleepless nights: A guide to getting more shut-eye

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We hear the same words over and over as the new school year starts: “get yourself into a routine.” 2013 could be the year that you resolve to get a better night’s sleep and we are here to offer tips to help!

Getting enough sleep consistently will give you more energy and allow you to function at your greatest potential, while getting insufficient amounts of sleep can make you irritable, unable to sleep, or forgetful.

Many people think that sleep is your brain’s time to shut off and rest, but this is not the case. While you are asleep, the brain goes through several stages of sleep on a one and a half to two hour cycle. Each stage has a unique purpose, from organizing all of the information you took in during the day to preparing you to be refreshed for tomorrow. If we miss the deepest, restorative level, we will wake feeling tired.

Getting the right amount of sleep will help you function at your best, which is critical for the start of a new semester! Although the average person needs eight hours each night, this can vary significantly between individuals (most students need seven to nine).

An easy way to test how much rest your body needs is to go to bed early and not set an alarm – you will wake up naturally and find you need less (or more) than you expected.

In addition to the length of time we are asleep, we must consider the quality of sleep that we’re getting. People whose sleep is frequently interrupted may not reach the final restorative stage. This not only affects our mood and performance the next day, but may affect our overall health.

If you are suffering from a poor night’s rest, you are not alone: one in four Canadians have a sleep-related problem. Here are some of the most common factors affecting sleep and practical ways to counter-act them:

Have a comfortable sleeping environment. Loud noises, bright lights, children and pets can all disrupt sleep. Try blocking out noise by putting a small fan next to your bed or wearing earplugs. Maintaining a comfortable temperature in your bedroom is also key. Don’t bring bills, homework or relationship issues into the bedroom because these are anxiety provoking; associate your bedroom with rest and relaxation only.

 Reduce bright light. Our bodies are primed to be awake when it is light out. If your bedroom is too bright, try adding blackout curtains or wearing an eye mask—if you are woken up, these will block any light so you can fall back to sleep more easily.

 Avoid watching TV or being on the computer right before bed, because the bright light from these devices will stimulate your brain to be awake, making it harder to fall asleep. If you fall asleep to the sound of the TV, set a sleep timer to shut the TV off in about an hour. This way, loud programs will not disrupt your sleep later in the night.

 Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day. Despite a student’s need/desire for these stimulants, consuming caffeinated beverages in the late afternoon or before bed can keep you from entering the deepest stages of sleep. In addition, smoking can reduce the quality of sleep, despite its initial calming effects. 

Avoid alcohol before bed. Yes, this seems like a bummer, but alcohol reduces the amount of time spent in restoring your body, leaving you feeling less rested in the morning. After the sedating effects of the alcohol wear off, you may wake up more frequently and require more trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Stick to a sleep schedule. Keeping a regular sleep/wake cycle can help to regulate your circadian rhythm (the brain’s clock), leading to a better night’s sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends. To adjust your sleeping patterns, go to bed a half-hour earlier each night while getting up at the same time- this will also help you determine the optimal amount of sleep for your body.

Avoid napping. Napping late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night. People who try to compensate for lost sleep by napping during the day may feel less refreshed when they wake up and may become dependent on napping. Limit naps if you really need one; 20-30 minutes is enough to boost brainpower.

Exercise. Exercising during the day, especially outside, will help you fall asleep; however, avoid exercising late in the evening because this will boost your energy.

Only go to bed when you are tired. If you struggle to fall asleep at night, going to bed may provoke anxiety. Instead of lying in bed waiting for sleep to come, get up and do an easy, repetitive task (meditation, reading, listen to relaxing music, even chores). Do something that will relax you, but avoid anything that will cause stress or make you energized.

Problems with sleep (too little or too much) can be an indication of anxiety or depression. Talk to your doctor if this is an ongoing problem for you or if you try these tips and are not successful in achieving a restful sleep.