Sweet Dreams: Easy Ways to a Better Sleep This Year

Sleep tips

With stress from a second wave of the pandemic keeping us up at night, we take a look at some expert tips and tech to help you sleep better. Photo: C.J. Burton/Getty images

Easy ways to a better quality of shut-eye – plus the latest
science on getting your zzzs


As the pandemic rolls on, our new normal is one of ever-changing rules and near-constant risk assessment. Once enjoyable activities – or even benign errands – can now feel like stress-filled trials. If you’re tired of it all, you’re not alone. Decision Partners, a Mississauga, Ont.-based behavioural research firm, reports that “tired” was most often cited by Canadians when asked to sum up in one word how they were feeling over a nine-week COVID-19 Coping Survey. But if you’re like me, all that fatigue doesn’t always add up to a good night’s rest.

The problem is hyperarousal, or being on continual high alert, and it can make getting to sleep and staying asleep difficult. “In the past, [this] fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism allowing us to react to the sabre-toothed tiger – or to fires or floods. But any situation that we perceive as threatening can set it off. So, it can be something like a pandemic – or even a traffic jam or family stress,” says Katherine Rasmussen, director of the behavioural sleep medicine program at Calgary’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance.

Rasmussen suggests focusing on these ways to help break the cycle: stick with your wake/sleep routine to reduce stress; get exposure to bright light when you wake, but dim the lights and avoid electronics before bed; get daily exercise to help maintain deep, or slow-wave, sleep; eat vitamin C-rich foods to help the adrenal glands produce hormones like cortisol to regulate stress; if you must take a nap, ensure it’s no more than 30 minutes at least eight hours before bedtime; and try a calming ritual, like yoga, deep breathing or meditation to relax before bed.

And practise gratitude because, as Rasmussen points out, “When we are in a state of gratitude, it’s hard to be in a negative state.”


Innovations in Sleep


Mattresses 2.0

We’ve all seen the ad where someone tosses a bowling ball on a bed and, yet, there’s little or no bounce where the ball lands. Although the ad made its debut in 1995, this “high-tech” innovation, Pocketed Coil springs by Simmons BeautyRest, was actually introduced nearly 100 years ago. It’s still a leader, being constantly updated and imitated – everything from pressure-point relief coils to non-flip options to innerspring coils that give an extra boost when getting out of bed – but like cars, mattresses have also become “hybrids.” Combinations of motion-reducing coil springs, gel infusions for temperature control and weight-distributing memory foam can sometimes be found all in one mattress.

A mattress should support your spine while maintaining its natural curve; when lying on your back, it should meet the curve of your lower back and when on your side, the mattress should support your body so that your hip and shoulder don’t feel the pressure. If you feel pain at your heaviest points, the mattress may be too firm, while aches, numbness or tingling may mean that it’s too soft.

Yet with the myriad of choices, from bed-in-a-box to firmness-by-numbers styles, it seems science isn’t done with this sleep staple yet. On the horizon are sensors in beds that can be tethered to apps on your phone to monitor your sleep, heart rate, body temperature and more, as well as illuminated bedding that can help light your way to the loo if you wake at night. Other innovations give a nod to nature: copper is being employed – it’s a natural antimicrobial – as well as natural fabrics, such as organic and breathable wool being used in the covers.

Fortunately, most companies offer a trial period. Just don’t try the bowling ball trick at home.  —Vivian Vassos


Move Over Melatonin

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-intoxicating compound found in marijuana and, although it may play second fiddle to the psychoactive power of THC, it’s shown promise as an effective sleep aid. A 2019 study of 100 adults in Colorado, aged 18 to 72, showed that 65 per cent of participants experienced improved sleep within one month of using CBD, and 79 per cent also saw an improvement in anxiety. Although you no longer need a prescription to legally indulge in any pot product, consult your doctor first for possible drug interactions – CBD can have the same effect grapefruit juice does at increasing medication potency, for instance – and about a laundry list of possible side-effects: liver damage, diarrhea, irritability and dry mouth.  —Tara Losinski


Synchronized Sleeping

A study this past summer showed that couples who sleep together sleep
better. Researchers at the Center for Integrative Psychiatry in Germany
observed 24 pairs sleeping over four nights – in a sterile lab, no less – and found that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep increased and was less disrupted. Why is that important? REM sleep, the kind we do when we’re dreaming, is not only critical for us to feel rested and refreshed each morning, it’s also been linked to emotion regulation – rather helpful during stressful times like, say, a pandemic. Couples who had synchronized their sleep patterns also reported having better relationships. And if it’s your partner’s “Jimmy legs” you’re worried about, don’t. The researchers noted that leg movement in fact increased when couples co-slept and yet, they still clocked less disrupted REM and more of it as compared to when they slept solo.  —TL


An App for Apnea

According to estimates by The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, a billion people – more than 10 per cent of the population – suffer from sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by breathing pauses and periodic snoring. Wondering if you’re one? Computer science students in Finland have developed SnoreTracker (for Android devices), which monitors a user’s snoring through a microphone on their smartphone, and sleeping position using the sensors of a smartphone or smartwatch. If breathing pauses occur while on their back, the application alerts the sleeper to change position. (Mild and moderate sleep apnea occurs mainly when sleeping on the back.) The app also tracks snoring and breathing pauses over time so you can review results with your doctor. Untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and dementia.  —TL

Photo: Courtesy of Fitbit


Measured Approach

Steps, sleep and now stress: you can measure it all with the Fitbit Sense. The latest smartwatch model uses electrodermal activity response (EDA) to track not just activity and zzzs, but also stress level. A biosensor in the underside of the watch monitors physiological changes – everything from heart rate to temperature to sleep – to flag signs of stress and rate how well the wearer responds to them. Ranked 1-100, a low score is accompanied with recommendations to better manage stress, including breathing exercises and mindfulness tools such as popular meditation apps.  —TL

A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue with the headline “Sweet Dreams,” p. 100.