Self-improvement in the new year? Developing better sleep habits may be your best choice

If you are hoping to feel better, look better and be more successful in 2022, you might want to think about improving something you do every day: sleep.

People who study sleep and its impact on health and aging say developing or improving sleep habits is a commitment that can have far-ranging benefits.

“When I have made the choice to shut down at the appropriate time and go to sleep, I actually am a lot more productive the next day and I feel better,” said Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a Canada Research Chair who studies healthy aging at UBC.

“It’s not just about productivity. My mood is better, as I don’t feel as stressed.”

‘Critical behaviour’

Studies show that not getting enough sleep can have short and long-term impacts, Liu-Ambrose says. The impacts range from poor decision making to reduced energy levels to being further at risk of having a stroke, developing diabetes or cognitive decline such as dementia later in life.

“Sleep, I would say over the past five years, has really come up as a critical behaviour for healthy aging,” said Liu-Ambrose.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that Canadians aged 18 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. It also says that one in three adults aged 34 to 64 do not get enough sleep.

Liu-Ambrose says there are several reasons people don’t get enough sleep, with many having to do with the demands and conditions of the modern world.

Those reasons include the amount of light people are exposed to from devices like smartphones, computers and screens but also demands from jobs or school that require working odd or extended hours.

Our bodies regulate sleep through circadian rhythms, which are a natural process that operates our sleep-wake cycles through the influence of light and dark. Too much light at a time of day when our bodies want to sleep could be sending a message for to stay awake.

“Our world really has evolved where technology is everywhere and access to information is everywhere,” said Liu-Ambrose. “We all have iPhones, computers, TVs, that are perhaps contributing to that societal level of having poor sleep.”

Sleep experts advise getting exposure to sunlight early in the morning to help your body’s natural rhythms, limiting screen time in the evening close to bedtime, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, and getting regular exercise.

Shhh, busy brain

Even if you do these things right, many people still struggle to fall asleep because their brains are so busy and engaged at a time of day when they don’t want them to be.

For decades, our busy brains and how they get in the way of sleep with their disruptive thoughts have fascinated Luc Beaudoin, a cognitive scientist at Simon Fraser University. 

“People tend to stress out about sleep and if you can flip it into curiosity, that in itself is a good move,” he said.

SFU professor Luc Beaudoin has received considerable international attention for the technique he devised to help put your mind into sleep mode. (SFU)

As part of his work, Beaudoin wondered if he could come up with something that would help influence the body’s mechanism for falling asleep.

He developed a kind of mind game called a “cognitive shuffle.” It helps redirect a person’s focus away from stressful thoughts that could otherwise keep them awake.

“The big idea of the theory basically is to put the mind in a state that is similar to natural sleep onset,” he said. “But it’s also a distraction technique so while you’re playing this little game you’re not thinking things that might stress you out. Or if you do, they won’t be as active.”

To do the shuffle, people first come up with a random word as they’re lying in bed. If it’s “bird,” then you imagine a bird for a few seconds before thinking of a new word that starts with “b” and then imagine an image of that word. Then you move onto “i”, then “r” then “d.”

The technique is still being studied for its efficacy, but most people who use it report drifting off to sleep eventually.

“Concrete thinking is actually more helpful than abstract thinking. Abstract thinking can stress us out,” said Beaudoin.

Beaudoin has also developed an app called MySleepButton, which helps users through the cognitive shuffle by suggesting words.

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