The Science of Sleep

the science of sleep

Candace Fan | Mar 14, 2019 | minute read

If there is one thing most of us are short on in today’s society, its sleep, says Stephanie Kersta MSc, RP and Carolyn Plater MSW, RSW, Registered Psychotherapists, Sleep Specialists and co-founders of Hoame. When people ask you, “How’s it going?” or “How are you?”, you may frequently find yourself responding with, “I’m tired,” and it’s very likely that you are. According to a study by Aviva (2016) in the UK, Canada is the third most sleep-deprived country with 31% of Canadians feeling like they don’t get enough sleep.

We spend up to one-third of our lives asleep but many of us are not actually “great in bed”. You probably already know that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to your overall health and well-being and that most people require a solid eight hours per night to maintain good sleep health. Sleep promotes healthy brain function, emotional well-being, decreases risk of obesity and chronic diseases, and improves daytime performance and safety (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 2017).

However, many of us are actually experiencing what experts call “sleep debt” (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). Similar to paying off a mortgage or credit card, if we let those payments slip, interest accumulates making paying off the balance that much more difficult down the road. The more sleep you lose, the more difficult it becomes to catch up on that much needed shut eye.

The Science of Sleep

Accumulating sleep debt can feel very stressful. On the flip side, stress is also a contributor to losing sleep. If you’ve ever been under considerable stress, you may have found it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep, which consequently affects the overall quality of your time in bed. So what’s the connection? Why are sleep and stress so interconnected?

Stress changes the activity of the hormones in your body (e.g., cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline, etc.). Sleep is an important component of maintaining balance in these hormones and the systems of your body. However, chronic stress causes your body to enter “flight-or-fight” as a defence mechanism to try and get your body back to a more balanced state. Over time, these defences may weaken or fail which can lead to insomnia or issues with sleeping (Sun Han, Kim, & Shim, 2012). The system in your body responsible for the beginning and end of sleep, the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, is impacted when stress is present (Sun Han, Kim, & Shim, 2012). This may explain why falling asleep and staying asleep is so difficult when you’re feeling stressed.

Tips to Make You Great in Bed

Sleep is critical to ensuring balance in your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. To find the balance, we’ve compiled some tips you may consider in order to improve your “sleep hygiene”:

Create a Personalized Sleep Schedule and Stick to It! One of the best ways to start improving sleep hygiene is to create a sleep schedule. To try and get those eight hours of sleep per night, choose your bedtime and waking time and set alarms for both. On the weekends, you may feel like turning off those alarms but try not to. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule means that those long sleep-ins or naps on the weekend may no longer feel necessary. Over time, your body will get used to its new schedule which means waking up may even be possible without the alarm!

Introduce Bedtime Rituals. Incorporating ways to wind down after a long day is something that is often missing from the daily routine. However, it’s important to take on a slower pace and get yourself ready for sleep. Kersta recommends taking a hot bath, meditating, doing some light yoga poses, or reading a few pages of a book (not on an electronic device). Plater suggests applying some soothing essential oils to the bottoms of your feet, to set the tone for your night ahead. Plater and Kersta both recommend lavender, chamomile or neroli which have sedating properties.

Exercise Regularly. Engaging in physical activity every day, several hours before bedtime can actually help you fall asleep faster and promote a deeper sleep. However, don’t run 5km right before bedtime – exercise stimulates the secretion of cortisol which activates the alerting mechanism in the brain (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, n.d.). Try to exercise early in the day up to 3 hours before you fall asleep.

Limit Your Sleep Stealers. Alcohol and caffeine before bed can impact a good night’s rest. This is because they are both stimulants – caffeine can keep you awake while alcohol can increase the number of times you wake up in the night. Limit caffeine at least six hours before bed and avoid consuming alcohol within three hours of bedtime (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, n.d.).

Create a Sleep-Inducing Environment. Changing your bedroom is another way you promote good sleep hygiene. The first step is to limit your bedroom activities to sleep and sex only. Think about removing your computer, TV, work materials, and your phone out of the bedroom so that you can begin associating your bedroom with sleep only. You may also want to limit other distractions:

  • If you have a pet that wakes you up throughout the night, keep them out of your bedroom.
  • If there are distracting noises outside, consider earplugs, a white noise machine, or a fan.
  • Keep your room cool and dark with air conditioning, black out shades, or wear an eye mask.
  • Change your bedding or pillows to make your bed as comfortable as possible.

Hoame is a World Sleep Day 2019 Delegate, and on March 15, has a full day of sleep-themed programming and services. Don’t miss it!

Carolyn Plater & Stephanie Kersta

Carolyn Plater

Carolyn Plater graduated with an Honours BA. in Psychology from York University. She received her Addiction Education Diploma from McMaster University and her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Toronto, which included a joint collaborative program in Addiction Studies. As a compliment to her strong clinical education Carolyn has incorporated additional evidence based holistic certificates to further round out her training. Carolyn is a certified trauma-informed yoga instructor, and provides yoga training and yoga therapy in both private and group sessions. She holds a certificate from University of Toronto in Applied Mindfulness Meditation and also has a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University.

Stephanie Kersta

Stephanie Kersta holds an Honors Bachelor of Science with a specialty in Psychology, and a Masters of Science in Psychology. As a compliment to her strong clinical education, Stephanie has incorporated additional evidence-based holistic certificates to further round out her training. She is a certified in Applied Mindfulness Meditation, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Eating, and holds a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University. Stephanie holds teaching positions at both McMaster University and Durham College in their Addiction and Mental Health programs and is a consultant trainer for the Canadian Training Institute.

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