Upcoming Brock-led national fundraising walk to focus on healthy sleep awareness

For those of us who drag through the day bleary-eyed and flat-tailed, Brock University sleep expert Kimberly Cote asks two key questions: Do you know how much sleep you need? and, Are you taking the time to get that sleep?

“We could have a long list of tips on how we can advise people to have healthy sleep,” says Cote, Professor of Psychology at Brock and president of the Canadian Sleep Society (CSS).

“If people would just make the time to get the amount of sleep they need, that would really improve sleep. For the most part, we’re the cause of unhealthy sleep: we don’t get the sleep we need, we’re burning the candle at both ends.”

That amount of slumber needed ranges from 12 to 16 hours for infants, nine to 14 hours for children, eight to 10 hours for adolescents, and six to nine hours for adults, says Cote.

Sleep time recommendations graphic

Exact times will vary depending on one’s age and genetic makeup.

“Your sleep time is kind-of like a fingerprint; it’s yours. It’s a hardwired trait thing that won’t change. There’s variability between people – we don’t quite understand why that is.”

Cote and the CSS are launching a campaign about healthy sleep: what it is, why it’s important, and how to get enough. They have put together “The Great Canadian Sleepwalk: The Road to Good Nights,” a five-kilometre walk in four Canadian cities Saturday, Aug. 20, to raise funds for sleep research, activities and resources, as well as educating the public about healthy sleep. One of the sleepwalk’s four locations is at Brock University.

A good night’s sleep is vital for brain and body functioning, says Cote. For instance, sleep strengthens the connections between the brain’s frontal regions, which are responsible for rational thinking, with another part of the brain called the ‘amygdala,’ which regulates emotions.

Cote’s recent research shows that people restricted to four hours of sleep on a single night have difficulty identifying emotional information in picture scenes and facial expressions.

Other areas affected by lack of sleep include motor response time, attention, memory recall and immune system regulation.

People intuitively think that sleep is a time for rest, lights out, everything is shut down and goes slower, but that’s actually not the case.

“People intuitively think that sleep is a time for rest, lights out, everything is shut down and goes slower, but that’s actually not the case,” explains Cote, a researcher with the Psychology Department and Brock’s Centre for Lifespan Development Research. “There are many bodily and brain functions that are actually more active when you’re asleep than when you’re awake. It’s an indispensable time; no one can go without sleep.”

It takes approximately 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, says Cote; sooner than that may signal sleep deprivation, and longer than 20 minutes could be a sign of insomnia.

Healthy sleep occurs in five stages. Stage 1 is very light sleep at the beginning of the process, with the sleeper having clear, rational thoughts. Stage 2 takes up about half of the night or longer; one can easily be awakened and have some thoughts and even report dreams.

Stages 3 and 4, which takes up about 20 per cent of the night, is the deep sleep during which brain and body functions are thought to be restored. Stage 5, which also consists of about 20 per cent of the night, is the so-called REM, or ‘Rapid Eye Movement,’ phase characterized by vivid, often-negative dreams; this takes place every 90 minutes of sleep and is longest in the early morning, just before awakening. REM sleep is thought to play more of a role in learning and memory, emotion regulation and creativity.

Cotes says stress, anxiety and eating foods that cause indigestion close to bedtime can disrupt some or all of these phases. She notes that 40 per cent of Canadians have sleep disorders. One in four Canadians report experiencing insomnia, or the inability to fall, or stay, asleep; the situation is chronic in about 10 per cent of these cases. There are over 100 sleep disorders.

To get healthy sleep, people need to pay attention to ‘sleep hygiene,’ which refers to behaviours that encourage sleep. These include: sticking to a regular bedtime schedule seven nights a week; following a bedtime routine such as brushing teeth; not consuming caffeine and other stimulants; refraining from napping more than 20 minutes during the day; and avoiding cellphone, computer and TV screens just before bedtime.

If you find yourself being wide awake at 3 a.m. and unable to fall back asleep, get out of bed, preferably out of the bedroom, and do something relaxing but not too demanding, such as knitting, folding towels or reading a light, non-electronic book.

If you stay in bed night after night tossing and turning for more than a half-hour, says Cote, your brain eventually starts to associate your bed and bedtime routines with wakefulness, enabling insomnia “to take on a life of its own.”

To break out of insomnia, some people take sleeping pills or undergo Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy that focusses on helping people develop skills and strategies to become, and remain, a healthy sleeper.

“Part of the therapy, whether it’s sleeping pills or CBT for insomnia, is that you’re re-training your brain to sleep, so by getting that sleep, it’s getting you back on track and you’re no longer associating the sleep environment with wakefulness.”

But Cote cautions that sleeping pills are meant to be a short-term intervention only, not a long-term solution. Part of the reason is because sleeping pills bring on mostly Stage 2 sleep, reduce in effectiveness over time, and dependency is possible.

These and other aspects of healthy sleep will be highlighted during the “The Great Canadian Sleepwalk: The Road to Good Nights” at Brock and in Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal.

At Brock, there will be two routes: one through the Bruce Trail; and the other a flatter, more accessible course. The walk costs $10 to enter; children 12 years and under can walk for free. Please register ahead of time. Participants are encouraged to come in their pajamas or dress as their favourite ‘dream character.’ The Dairy Farmers of Canada will be distributing free milk. Register at: www.CanadianSleepwalk.ca

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