WRITTEN BY Nancy Palermo Lietz, MD
It is 2 am and you have just completed your to-do list for the third time. Included on the list is the desire to sleep more and to sleep better. If you are like many Americans you are not alone. In fact, the CDC reports that 50–70 million Americans report some form of sleep disorder and over nine million use sleep aids on a regular basis. The pharmaceutical industry has seen a three-fold increase in prescriptions for sleep aids over the past 10 years. These medications were never designed to be used long-term and many have short and long-term health risks and potential dependence. Even over-the-counter sleep remedies are associated with side effects and eventual tolerance.
Researchers all agree, however, that sleep has significant health benefits, and we all need to make sleep one of our health priorities. We spend a third of our lives sleeping for a reason. In recent studies published in the Journal of Science, researchers have shown that during the sleep cycle our bodies are in a detox mode, cleaning out waste and toxins accumulated during the day. In mice studies, there was a 20 percent increase of activity in the brain and flow of cerebral spinal fluid. During awake times, this flow was only five percent of the sleep flow. This has led researchers to consider future studies on the human brain.
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Physicians know that sleep deprivation is associated with a number of health conditions including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Studies have shown those who sleep five hours a night or less were 73 percent more likely to gain weight. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way your immune system functions and may make you more susceptible to infections. Equally important, lack of sleep affects the way we function at work, in the car and on a personal level.
Some individuals have underlying medical issues which make sleep difficult. They make up the smallest percentage of those with sleep deprivation. Most of us need only to make sleep a priority by changing a few things in our life. Sleep aids and prescriptions are not long-term solutions and should not be considered a remedy to insomnia.
Here are a few suggestions to treat insomnia without prescription drugs:
|Keep your thermostat at 60–65 degrees for sleep.|
|Make sure your mattress, pillows and linens are of high quality and are comfortable.|
|Turn out all of the lights, including TVs. Consider using blackout shades or curtains to darken the room. Circadian rhythms are affected by light and can easily be disrupted.|
|Kick out Fido. This is a hard one, but pets can be very disruptive to sleep and increase waking cycles.|
|Don’t watch TV in bed and avoid exposure to computer, cell phone and TV screens for at least an hour before getting in bed. Use a reader with a dark background.|
|Keep cell phones and electronic devices out of the bedroom at night.|
|Avoid eating at least two hours prior to getting into bed.|
|Reduce alcohol intake. Though alcohol may help you fall asleep, it typically disrupts REM sleep and increases wakeful periods.|
|Limit caffeine intake after lunch.|
|Don’t smoke (there are so many reasons for this…) but if you do, avoid smoking three hours before bed.|
|Avoid napping during the day. Naps can feel great but when taken, especially in the afternoon, may disrupt your ability to sleep at night.|
|Don’t watch the late news or other disturbing shows prior to getting into bed. Our brains usually process the most recent events while we sleep. It is best to avoid stressful topics for this reason.|
|Concentrate on relaxation techniques the hour prior to getting into bed. A warm bath and aromatherapy with lavender have been shown to help individuals fall asleep. Yoga before bed can also improve sleep cycles. Check out Yoga Journal’s 15 Poses to Help You Sleep Better. Science has proven that yoga can have a transformative effect on the body. 18 Amazing Benefits of Yoga explores the many ways yoga can improve your life.|
If you do wake in the middle of the night, try some of the following techniques to help you fall back asleep:
PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION: Starting from your head and working down to your feet, progressively contract and relax muscles as you breathe in deeply and exhale completely.
DEEP BREATHING: Breathe in for a count of 5, hold your breath for a count of 3, then exhale completely for a count of 5. Repeat this technique until you feel more relaxed. Make sure you are concentrating on the breathing as you perform this exercise.
MEDITATION: This is a learned technique but can also be used prior to falling asleep. Check out Headspace for their 10-step guide to meditation. This is worth a look as meditation has been shown to provide many health benefits.
If you feel you need additional support, there are some natural remedies that may be helpful.
MELATONIN helps in promoting sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. It is most helpful after travel or when you are trying to re-establish sleep cycles following events. It does not make you sleepy and must be taken an hour before bedtime for up to two months. It should be started at doses of 2–5 mg. Side effects include headaches, dizziness and sleepiness. It can interact with some prescription drugs so check with your pharmacist.
VALERIAN ROOT has been shown to aid in sleep in some studies. It is a safe supplement and has very few side effects. It has no significant risks, but given it is a nervous system relaxant it is recommended that it be stopped two weeks prior to surgery. It is typically taken in doses of 400–900 mg and should not be used for more than 28 days.
L-THEANINE is found in green tea. It has natural calming benefits and has been helpful in the treatment of insomnia. It has no known side effects of risks. It is usually taken in doses of 200 mg.
MAGNESIUM is a natural smooth muscle relaxer and may reduce tension and aid sleep. Common side effects are usually seen with higher doses and include nausea, dizziness, weakness and diarrhea. In lower doses these effects are uncommon. It can be found in Natural Calm tea or can be taken in supplements of 150–400 mg 1–2 hours prior to bedtime.
If you continue to suffer from sleep disturbances it makes sense to consider seeing a sleep specialist for further work-up. They can look for underlying causes of the sleep issue and can often offer cognitive behavioral therapy to aid in treatment.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2015. As of January 2018, we’ve updated some info and added a link to the article 18 Amazing Benefits of Yoga.