A good night’s sleep is something we all cherish, but in our 24/7 plugged-in world, slumber can be as elusive as winning the lottery.
Millions of Canadians who settle into bed have a tough time staying in dreamland bliss.
If we were thinking outside the box spring, perhaps the remedy to staying asleep is doing what Phoebe Smith does. She’s a travel writer and self-described “extreme sleep adventurer.”
“I sleep much better when I’m in the wilds, more than in my own bed,” says Smith, who has slept inside a glacier, suspended in a hammock in a tree, and on mountaintops.
Her stories of sleeping in exotic places, such as on the Trans-Siberian Railway train, so captivated Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of the sleep app calm.com, that he asked her to be the app’s Sleep Storyteller in Residence. The 17-and-counting stories she has written are read by the soothing voices of such celebrities as author Stephen Fry and have been listened to millions of times. Other stories found on the app are read by famous names such as actor Matthew McConaughey and British singer-songwriter Leona Lewis.
Smith, like all of us, has moments of insomnia when she’s not on the road.
“When you’re back in your bed, you’re worried about paying bills … that phone call, those emails … for work. But in the wilds, everything is put in perspective.”
Sleeping in nature untethered to tech is not something most Canadians can do on a regular basis. Clinically significant insomnia, a disorder requiring medical help, affects about six to 10 per cent of Canadians, says Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance in Calgary.
But a larger proportion of the Canadian population — around 30 per cent — struggle to either fall sleep or stay asleep. One of the causes, says Samuels, is our addiction to technology, a significant issue for teenagers.
He predicts the problem will persist.
“It’s going to keep me in business until I’m dead,” says Samuels. “This is a serious thing that people don’t really acknowledge as serious.”
Samuels and his team see teenagers daily with severe anxiety causing insomnia. “That is exacerbated by their attachment to technology. The fascinating thing is that when you confront them, they sort of say ‘What’s the big deal?’ ”
Many have “terrible behaviours,” like sleeping with phones under their pillow, alerts buzzing all night long. Phones expose them to light, but it is the constant interaction that is more “devastating,” in his view.
Samuels has done years of sleep research for several organizations, including law enforcement and elite athletes. Educating people about the negative impact of technology can be a big learning curve, he says.
Insomniacs often go to bed earlier and earlier because of fatigue. But that only makes them more anxious because they just lay there, fueling the insomnia. To change the behaviour, Samuels says, people actually need to go to bed later and later.
“Once they do it, within seven days they improve. It’s counterintuitive. It’s about improving sleep efficiency.”
Although technology is a cause of sleeplessness, it also has a role in treatment. Many people use trackers which claim to determine the amount of REM sleep achieved. Although Samuels’ clinic uses evidence-based trackers customized to each patient, he’s a skeptic of commercial models.
“These trackers are based on technology that uses movement to articulate sleep stage, but it has not been validated.”
They can be counterproductive. If a tracker indicates you only got four hours of sleep, it can cause more sleep anxiety. Other trackers feed information into an application and offer advice about how to improve sleep.
“If it’s helping a person, (then) fantastic,” Samuels says. “If not, (then) they really need to be seen by a sleep physician to be evaluated or their primary care doctor.”
He says Sleep IO and Shut-Eye are two commercial brands that have been studied and proven to be equally, if not more, effective than one-on-one treatments.
Bear in mind, he says, the foundation of treating insomnia is through behavioural therapy. It addresses the hyper-arousal afflicting people with insomnia — the inability to unwind, which some people are genetically predisposed to.
But what about sleep apps with dreamy stories, meditations and music, like calm.com or Headspace? Samuels says if it works for you, “Hallelujah, off you go.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s a pill for your insomnia. It just means you can relax and maybe that will improve your sleep. If you’re relaxing and still adopting poor sleep behaviours, it’s not going to work.”
The process of mindfulness — the practise of being in the present moment through meditation — is also gaining proponents among doctors, used to help insomnia and other illnesses.
Dr. Nikhil Joshi, a physician, author and speaker, has developed an app called Medical Meditation, a guided series for a variety of conditions, including insomnia. It will be available in April.
Mindfulness is the idea that the brain is very active and always producing rational thoughts. “We have to slow down the part of the mind that is creating active thought. We need to evoke a change in our brainwaves to get a more restful sleep,” says Joshi, a Calgary-based doctor.
“Meditation is about preparing your mind for a deeper rest, activating a different part of the brain that is usually active in our day to day life.”
The irony that we’re using technology to treat insomnia isn’t lost on Joshi. “We … have to recognize that the improper use of technology can lead to emotional issues. But proper use of technology can help solve those issues. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Samuels says bedtime rituals are also important.
“The idea people have in their heads is, ‘I should just be able to fall asleep.’ No. That’s not the way the brain works.”
Obviously, it also means getting off tech.
“I tell people to put it away at 5 o’clock,” he says. “Of course, people are appalled.”