The state of sleep in Canada: Battling insomnia and getting a proper sleep diet
Nearly one in four Canadians experience insomnia at least once a week, while 10 per cent suffer from chronic insomnia, says the Canadian Sleep Society.
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Blessing Gana estimates she gets maybe an hour of sleep at a time. The 30-year-old Toronto lawyer began suffering insomnia while in law school. The sheer volume of work and stress of keeping up with her daily readings meant she often pulled all-nighters.
Two months into her studies at Scotland’s University of Leicester, it had become a habit, and she stopped sleeping for a full eight hours at a time. And, six years later, she manages by catching naps whenever she can.
While Gana has considered seeing a sleep therapist, she admits to stubbornly wanting to solve her own problem on her own. Melatonin and chamomile tea are her sleep aids of choice, and, since she runs her own firm, as are the occasional afternoon power-naps.
In Calgary, Ashleigh Hislop just assumed she wasn’t a very energetic person. The 32-year-old planner at the City of Calgary never woke up feeling rested, would nap during the day, and would often feel grouchy. Six years ago, because of a lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating, her work began to suffer.
After attending a lunch-time seminar on sleep habits, she realized she might have a sleep disorder. She was diagnosed with non-restive insomnia, which meant that while she would fall asleep, her body never fell into a deep enough state of relaxation that she actually benefited from shut eye. It affected her concentration, her mood and her cognitive abilities.
Upwards of one in four Canadians experience insomnia – the inability to fall or stay asleep – at least once a week, while 10 per cent suffer from chronic insomnia, like Gana and Hislop. But even those who aren’t insomniacs are likely to be missing out on some crucial shut eye, says Kimberly Cote, professor at Brock University and former president of the Canadian Sleep Society.
While the average Canadian reported sleeping slightly more than eight hours in a wide-ranging 2005 Statistics Canada study on sleep, people who work full-time jobs, make more than $60,000 per year and have long commutes are most likely to sacrifice shut eye. On average, they lose the equivalent of five days of sleep per year, compared to those with short commutes, work part time or make less than $20,000.
And while adults should get between six and nine hours of sleep each night, Cote says, each person has a different requirement to feel rested the next morning.
“It’s absolutely a myth that eight hours is the goal you must reach,” she says.
There’s no formula for determining that magic number, she says. (Researchers at Western University are currently recruiting for a 100,000-person wide sleep study to help better understand how much sleep adults require). But overall, Canadians aren’t feeling rested.
In 2016, the Diary Farmers’ of Canada funded Canadian Sleep Review found that 70 per cent of adults wished they could get a better night’s sleep, with 74 per cent reporting they get less than seven hours of shut eye. A 2015 study from insurance firm Aviva found that Canada ranks third among 13 countries for a good night’s sleep, with 30 per cent of respondents saying they don’t get enough.
This sleep debt can have long-lasting health risks. One European study of insomniacs saw their brains shrink more in terms of volume than people who reported regularly getting good night’s sleep, while another found men who reported not sleeping well were one-and-a-half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. But it’s more than just our brains. Cote adds that long-term poor sleep habits can lead to weight gain, depression as well as increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
Hislop says after her diagnosis, she was put on a strict sleep diet with common sense rules to follow, such as maintain a consistent bed and wake-up time, keep the bed for sleeping only or get out of the bedroom if you struggle with sleep. The results are night and day, she says. While she still struggles with a good night’s rest once in a while, she’s got more energy than she’s had in years. “It’s been amazing.”
“The biggest thing Canadians need to do is make sleep a priority,” Cote says. “It’s like losing weight – you need to change your habits.”
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