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Strategies for Improving Sleep

Sleep is a time when our bodies and minds get to rest and focus on tasks like healing, fine-tuning bodily functions, forming long-term memories, and forgetting unnecessary information. Sleep also helps us re-energize, and repair the wear & tear that happens to our bodies during the day. When people don’t get quality sleep, healing processes can happen more slowly, memory, concentration, mood, and decision making can be impaired, and the risk of developing several chronic health conditions can increase.

 

Many people struggle to sleep well at night, and unfortunately, it can be difficult to know where to turn for advice. There aren’t a lot of options for comprehensive sleep assessment and treatment, and people often seem to receive suggestions that aren’t in line with scientific evidence.


Woman sleeping on a train

Sleep is controlled by two main drivers: circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. Understanding a little bit about these can be helpful for improving sleep. Sleep pressure is the body’s natural desire to sleep after being awake for a long time. Sleep pressure increases steadily while we are awake, due to the buildup of a chemical called adenosine in the brain. When we do things like take a nap in the middle of the day, or drink caffeine (which interferes with the buildup of adenosine in the brain), we reduce our sleep pressure, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime.

 

Circadian rhythm is like an internal clock that tells our bodies when it’s time to do things. The clock is coordinated with the light-dark cycles of the earth. It causes us to have the easiest time sleeping when it’s dark out, and the easiest time waking up when it becomes light in the morning. When we do things like go to bed and wake up at inconsistent times, expose ourselves to bright lights at night, or remain physically inactive during the day, it can make it difficult for our internal clock to know when sleep is supposed to happen, and launch the internal processes that make us feel sleepy. (It can also make it difficult for the clock to know when it should make us feel alert and energetic).

 

Another factor that influences sleep is the strength of the brain’s association between the bed/bedroom and sleep. When people use their bed (even better, their whole bedroom) only for sleep, their brains develop a clear association between their beds/bedrooms and sleep, and begin to make them sleepy when they enter (because the brain figures that if the person is entering their bed/bedroom, it must be time to put them to sleep). When people spend time awake in bed (reading, studying, watching TV, worrying, or using a phone or tablet, for example), their brains no longer realize that bed is a place where they’re supposed to sleep, and don’t launch their sleepytime processes as efficiently at bedtime. Along these same lines, many people find it helpful to get out of bed and go somewhere else if they’ve been lying awake in bed for more than 20 minutes. When people who find themselves lying awake at night leave their room and do a quiet, boring and/or calming activity somewhere else – such as reading a boring book (this is not the time to read a page-turner!), meditating or praying, doing a puzzle, knitting, or whittling – and return to bed when they begin to feel sleepy, it can help the brain re-learn a strong association between bed and sleep, and remind it to activate its sleep processes when they’re in their room.

 

Finally, for all the worries out there, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the #1 thing keeping people awake at night is unhelpful thoughts (about things they are worried or distressed about, for example). It may surprise you to read that people can learn to stop these thoughts in their tracks so they don’t keep them awake at night. Many people find it helpful to see a counsellor, or try strategies such as journaling, breathing exercises, meditation, or other mindfulness practices to tackle thoughts that make it difficult for them to sleep.

 

I’ve uploaded a free resource containing more in-depth information about sleep and sleep strategies to my website. Feel free to visit for more info: www.livewellphysiotherapy.com/resources

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