Achieve Better Sleep for Better Health

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

Sleep is one of the most important determinants of health.  Proper sleep helps to restore our minds and bodies so that we are able to effectively tackle another day.  However, it is estimated that 1 in 7 people suffer from sleep problems, and non-restorative sleep is a common complaint I hear from my clients. 

As an occupational therapist there are several strategies I utilize with my clients to help them improve sleep: 

Sleep Surfaces – a good mattress can ensure that your body is aligned when sleeping whether you sleep on your side, back or front.  Often when we work with people to replace a bad mattress, they are actually more uncomfortable for the first several days or weeks.  This is often the result of their body being required to re-align when sleeping, when previously it was resting in awkward positions.  If your mattress is too soft, or sagging, and you are not able to get another, consider using a board under the mattress to provide support.  A good pillow is also very helpful, but the purchase of this should be based on personal preference (not on a therapist or sales person telling you which one you should have).  I have a great Ergocentric Pillow, but previous to that enjoyed my Medi-Flow water-based pillow that allowed me to adjust the water volume for different amounts of support.

Sleep Habits – a consistent sleep routine is essential to teaching your mind and body how to effectively shut down at the end of the day.  Shift workers can have a terrible time with sleep because of the unpredictability of their sleep schedule.  If you consider that you need a certain amount of sleep per day (which can vary by individual), then you should try to get into a routine around those hours.  I read years ago that sleep cycles are 20 minutes so if you need to nap during the day, consider setting a timer for 20 minutes so your nap will be restorative, but not too long that it will impact your sleep at night.  If you are in a routine of napping for long periods during the day, and cannot fall asleep at a decent evening hour, then consider shortening your nap daily by small increments to achieve a better balance.

Mind Distractions – often it is the mind that won’t shut off and this prevents us from falling or staying asleep.  Counting sheep is not always effective.  Consider using a sleep CD (I recommend Eli Bay), or meditation, relaxation or mindfulness app on your phone to help your mind focus on a restful place.  Some natural remedies like certain decaffeinated teas can also help to make us feel groggy before bed.

Tracking Sleep – often when helping clients to develop a new routine, I will ask them to track their sleep cycles.  This can be done simply on paper.  Often, through this exercise, I find there is no routine and if we can develop and implement a sleep schedule, improvements in energy, mood, and cognitive function follow.  Personally, I use a Sleep Cycle app (.99 cents) to track my sleep habits.  This uses sensors in my cell, when placed above my pillow, to tell me how many hours I slept for, if I achieved deep sleep, and how my sleep ranks against other recent nights.  But what is even better about the Sleep Cycle app is that when you sent an alarm, it works to wake you up when it senses you are in a light sleep.  This reduces “snoozing” and awakens you when you are more likely to actually get up.  This app helped me develop a new schedule of getting up an hour earlier so that I could achieve my goal of getting my four legged beast his exercise bright and early!