How to Stop Committing Sleep Sabotage

Not sleeping well? You might be sabotaging yourself.

We got Mark Boulos, a neurologist and sleep health expert at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, to share six changes you can make to set yourself up for some easy Zzzs tonight.

Keep it moving

Making sure you’re getting some exercise during the day will help you catch more Zs. Not only can this improve your sleep health, it plays an important role in preventing heart attacks and stroke, mood stability and even preventing cancer. “We recommend exercising in the morning rather than in the evening because it has an energizing effect,” says Boulos. You should also avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime and limit yourself to two cups of coffee per day. Boulos recommends avoiding fluids right before bed so you’re not waking up to pee.

No blue light in the bedroom

Scrolling your phone or streaming a show or two in the evening hours is OK, but avoiding it for at least an hour before bed is a critical part of having good sleep hygiene (these are general rules of thumb for improving sleep quality). Light and sound exposure will make it harder to fall asleep and can worsen sleep quality, so there should never be any television, laptops or phones in the bedroom. (And yes, if you use your phone as an alarm clock, switch to an old-school one.) “Your bedroom should only be for sleep and intimacy,” he says.

Seek out some sun

A lack of natural light can impact our ability to feel energetic during the day, which is why it’s not uncommon to struggle more, or less, depending on the time of year. Getting more light exposure during the day—and using blackout curtains and some good earplugs at night—can help strengthen your circadian rhythm, says Boulos. For some, prescription medication can contribute to healthy sleep routines during those trickier times of the year, but for others, it can cause issues. Boulos suggests always working with your physician.

Stamp out revenge bedtime procrastination

Are you staying up late bingeing murder documentaries on Netflix—which is bad, both because of blue light and the hours of sleep lost—or reading a book into the wee hours, because you’re enjoying the silence you’ve been craving all day? This is known as revenge bedtime procrastination, and it occurs when you’re so busy and connected to other people during the day, you seek alone time at night, often resulting in a delayed bedtime and even more exhaustion the next morning. So what do you do when you’re dead tired but need that “me time” for your mental health?

“It’s tough! As a parent or caregiver, you make so many sacrifices and feel like you don’t get any time for yourself,” Boulos says. “I would suggest trying to optimize your time to yourself and your sleep.” This may involve re-jigging your schedule to build in some solo moments during the day instead. Make a firm bedtime and set an alarm or reminder on your phone. If you’ve got the willpower to treat bedtime like an appointment you can’t miss, this will create a boundary that preserves your sleep and prioritizes your health.

Try and try again

And if that deep rest continues to elude you? After 20 or 30 minutes, get up, do something boring (no screens!) and then try again, Boulos recommends. Make a grocery list, do a puzzle, fold laundry or read something calming. Then, get back in bed. “You don’t want to associate the bedroom with stress—or you’ll spend the whole night tossing and turning.”

See a pro

If you have persistent insomnia, you may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps train your brain to recognize your bed as a place for sleeping or sex. CBT strategies can also help you deal with racing thoughts or other distractions. You don’t need a doctor’s referral to see a therapist (and it may be covered by your group benefits).

Next: I Get Enough Sleep—So Why Am I So Tired?

Originally Published in Best Health Canada