White Coat, Black Art·THE DOSE

5 sleep tips from 'veteran insomniac' Dr. Brian Goldman

From the bedroom of the host of The Dose, helpful advice for those frustrating nights when you just can’t seem to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Expert advice for those frustrating nights

Dr. Brian Goldman’s top five tips for overcoming insomnia

The Dose

4 months ago
11:09
Are you having trouble sleeping? So are one in five Canadians. Dr. Brian Goldman shares his top tips to fall asleep, stay asleep and feel refreshed the next day. 11:09

It's the end of a long, busy day, and you've been looking forward to the glorious moment when your head reunites with your pillow. You lay down, get comfortable — but find you're more awake than you've been all day. 

The minutes tick on as you make a mental to-do list for the next day. It seems as though the harder you try, the more your body resists. And instead of counting sheep, you're left counting the precious hours of rest you might still be able to squeeze in. 

But you were so tired earlier; what went wrong?

The stress of COVID-19 has left a lot of people lying awake at night. Before the pandemic, insomnia already affected a significant proportion of Canadians. Now the number of people suffering from lack of sleep has skyrocketed. But Célyne Bastien, a psychology professor specializing in insomnia at Laval University and president of the Canadian Sleep Society, says there are things we can do to help ourselves get the rest we so badly need. 24:25

Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The Dose — a weekly podcast that delivers practical health tips and explains topical health news — says that falling asleep (and staying asleep) can require more dedicated attention than we're accustomed to giving it.

Here are five tips Dr. Goldman, an emergency room physician and self-described "veteran insomniac," suggests to help you catch those much needed Zs. 

Tip 1: Prepare your bedroom

You may be in the habit of working, studying or doomscrolling in bed. But Dr. Goldman says those are habits we need to work on breaking. 

"[The bedroom] is certainly not for doing work, and it's not for bringing in screens like smartphones and tablets because they emit blue light, and that makes it harder for you to sleep."

Dr. Brian Goldman is a self-described "veteran insomniac" and he has several tricks for tiring himself out. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Temperature also plays a vital role in getting your bedroom ready for a restful night. 

"You may like it warm, but I gotta tell you that your body prefers a colder temperature, so turn the thermostat down a little bit," added Dr. Goldman. "It's easier to get under the covers and warm up than it is to take the covers off and try to cool down."

Dr. Goldman has struggled with insomnia for years. Along the way, he's learned that a dark sleep space is ideal. 

He personally uses blackout curtains, but, do your best with the resources you have. Nightshades, for instance, are also a great way to block out some of the light.

Tip 2: Cut out the noise

Does your furnace go bump in the night? Does the sound of traffic stir you awake? Or maybe your neighbours are just loud. Whatever your situation, there are a few things you can do to get some quiet. 

"The first thing that I do is I wear a set of comfortable foam earplugs — the kind you get on flights."

Dr. Goldman also uses a white-noise machine to mask the noises of the outside world. Apps also exist with the same purpose, but Dr. Goldman doesn't like that they're attached to a smartphone or tablet. (Remember: beware the blue light!)

"I wouldn't take those into your bedroom because they're too stimulating!"

Dr. Brian Goldman prefers white noise machines to smart phone apps that emit the same noise because the latter also emit disruptive blue light. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Tip 3: Reset your body clock

A regular bedtime isn't just for kids. Routine helps adults get the rest they need, too.

"If you have trouble falling asleep at night, it means each and every day you should try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time each morning," Dr. Goldman said.

That goes for weekends, too. 

"If you sleep in on the weekends, it's going to make it that much harder to fall asleep at the time you want to fall asleep on Sunday night." 

Napping during the day could also be throwing off your body clock.

"You're going to zap your sleep deprivation that you're going to need to help you fall asleep."

Tip 4: Know when to quit

Sometimes you've done all that you can to get to sleep. If you've exhausted all of your options, give yourself a break. After all, frustration isn't a great sleep-aid. 

"Most normal people — when they try to fall asleep — it usually takes them anywhere from 15 to 20 to 25 minutes," Dr. Goldman said.

After that cut-off, it can be easy to fall into a spiral where you're left worrying if you're ever going to get to sleep at all.

"A lot of people who have trouble falling asleep let it turn into 30 minutes, 35 minutes, 40 minutes, and they're getting more and more worried because they're starting to think 'What the heck's going to happen to me tomorrow morning if don't get a good night's sleep?'"

Dr. Goldman recommends setting a time limit for yourself. 

"At the 20-minute mark, if I'm not feeling it, I'm not going to sleep. I get up, and I leave the room. So basically I'm saying 'Forget trying to fall asleep right now.'"

Dr. Goldman recommends taking some time for non-stimulating activities. That can be re-reading a chapter of a book, mindful breathing or anything that will distract you without motivating you to stay awake.

Dr. Brian Goldman re-reads a chapter of a book he's read before, which is more likely to make him sleepy than a new title. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"I think a lot of us who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep tend to worry. So we tend to either live in the regretful past where we're thinking about a conversation we wish had gone better, or are disappointed about something, or we live in the worrying future."

Dr. Goldman says he combats anxious thoughts whirling around in his mind by writing them down. After that, he takes a moment to write down one thing he can do to alleviate that anxiety.

After all of that, you can try again. 

"Only when I feel tired again will I go back up to bed and try to fall asleep. And that's a gift you have to give yourself," Dr. Goldman said.

Tip 5: When all else fails, make lemonade

If you're at the point when sleep seems impossible, and you've tried all of the tips above, it's time to try and let go of the frustration. Start by accepting that you're awake, and that's okay. 

Dr. Goldman explains that this doesn't always have to be a negative experience. 

"What I'll do in those instances, I'll suit up in my jogging gear, and I'll go for a long run."

"It's my go-to exercise for burning out stress and it leaves you with that kind of glow, that kind of endorphin rush at the end of it all. I'll bring my earphones and listen to a podcast or an audiobook or something like that.There's nothing like vigorous exercise to burn off that energy that may be getting in the way of you falling asleep."

If you can't seem to rest in bed, sometimes the solution is to tire yourself out far away from where you sleep, says Dr. Brian Goldman. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)
 

And if exercise isn't an option, this can be an excellent time to get caught up on some extra work or self-care.

"Sometimes, when it comes to insomnia, you have to turn lemons into lemonade," he said, adding that while he doesn't seriously recommend insomnia, he's been amazed at how this bad time can actually become good.

"I've got to tell you if you've never experienced the calm of twilight — the time when nobody is awake, nobody is walking outside, it's just you and your thoughts, your deep thoughts — you should try it sometime."

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The Dose with Dr. Brian Goldman comes out weekly on Thursdays. (CBC)

 

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