Physical and chemical changes associated with injury and aging: The “internal clock” in the brain controls when people sleep and wake every day. For individuals who have a disability associated with a brain injury or ongoing nervous system lesions like multiple sclerosis, their brain may be less able to tell the body to fall asleep or wake up. Injuries to the brain can also affect the chemicals in our body that help us to sleep, and brain mechanisms for starting and stopping sleep.
Spicy foods. Can’t get enough sriracha? Save it for lunchtime. One International Journal of Psychophysiology study found that when people who consumed hot condiments (like Tabasco sauce or mustard) before bed took longer to fall asleep and achieved less restful sleep compared to when they skip the stuff. Researchers aren’t totally sure why spicy foods mess with your sleep, but it could be because they raise your body temperature.
Some small studies have suggested that magnesium can help with insomnia, but the research isn’t conclusive. One study found that while total sleep time didn’t change significantly for participants receiving magnesium supplements, there was improvement in the participants' Insomnia Severity Index score, which measures the nature, severity, and impact of insomnia in adults, as well as improvement in sleep onset latency (the length of time that it takes to fall asleep), sleep efficiency, early morning awakening, and more.
If pretending you’re tired sounds like too much work for you, you might want to look into hypnosis. Get that image of a creepy guy swinging his pocket watch back and forth until you bark like a dog out of your head. We’re talking about watching a five-minute hypnosis video while tucked in your bed. (YouTube is full of them; search “hypnosis for sleep.”) It might sound like a bit of hogwash, but researchers from the universities of Zurich and Fribourg beg to differ. Their 2014 study on the subject concluded that hypnosis can actually increase the quality of sleep. Huzzah.
And a comfortable mattress. If your mattress is more than seven years old, it could be worn out—and costing you a better night’s sleep. If your bed shows signs of wear (like deep impressions) or you consistently wake up sore in the morning, it might be time to think about investing in a new sleep surface. Shameless plug: take a look at our selection of mattresses if you’re in the market!
Even though sleep is pretty much the opposite of physical exertion, exercise conducted at the right time of day (i.e., not too close to bedtime) is one of the best things you can do to get a good night’s rest. Exercise helps regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which promotes sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, exercise can also improve insomnia by lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression, two conditions linked to sleep disruption. Daily physical activity also helps reduce cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone.
Other potential health benefits: Melatonin may help to guard against cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease. It’s also being investigated as a therapy for some cancers. Supplemental melatonin may be effective at improving sleep quality and sleep quantity in people with ASD, and also may help improve daytime behavior. Melatonin has shown promise as a natural treatment for a range of conditions, including fibromyalgia, menopause, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Sleep medications, which are most useful for short-term sleeplessness, do require some caution, because they can result in hangovers the next day, or, even worse, lead you to eat, amble about, and even drive while asleep, with no memory of having eaten, ambled about, or driven. The FDA suggests that if you take Ambien, in particular, and at certain dosages, you shouldn’t drive the next day, or take part in other activities that necessitate your being completely awake, because the drug can remain in your system at levels that may affect your functioning.
Well, I think the approach to sleep should be really simple stuff first. I’m not a physician, so I can’t give advice about which medications to take and when, but the consensus among the specialists I spoke to was that you should try to get your sleep stability right first, and make sure that you’re getting consolidated sleep and not waking up all the time.
Championed by best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil—and various wellness bloggers, the “4-7-8” breathing technique is purported to help you fall asleep in under a minute. The method is said to relax you by increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood stream, slowing your heart rate, and releasing more carbon dioxide from the lungs. According to DrWeil.com, here’s how you do it:
Maintaining a regular bedtime and wake time all seven days of the week is important for quality slumber (yes, even on the weekend!). “People stay out late on Friday night after a long week, then sleep in the next morning, which carries over to Sunday; then you have Sunday night insomnia, which sets you up for sleep debt during the week, and it becomes a cycle,” says Dr. Dasgupta. (Do you have a sleep disorder? Answer these 5 questions to find out.)
“Sleep is not an on-and-off switch,” says the sleep expert and clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, the author of The Power of When. “Your body needs time to unwind and ready itself for shut-eye.” That’s why Dr. Breus recommends practicing a three-part routine called the “Power-Down Hour.” During the first 20 minutes, complete any tasks that absolutely must get done before bedtime. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and get dressed for bed during the next 20 minutes. For the last 20 minutes, lie in bed quietly and meditate. Focus on the rhythm of your breathing and shoo away any negative thoughts during this time.
If you’re experiencing sleep debt, you may be tempted to take a nap as a quick fix; however, this isn’t the ideal solution. Naps can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night and can further disrupt your sleep schedule; if you absolutely have to nap, keep it to an hour or so during peak sleepiness hours in the afternoon, but keep it short, or else you might not be able to fall asleep that night.
You know a good night’s sleep is the key to a happy and well-rested tomorrow. And getting enough shut-eye can help you drive more safely, maintain a healthy weight, and even lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes. But if you’re stuck in a cycle of tossing and turning—and then start stressing about the fact that you’re tossing and turning—it's all too easy to feel frustrated. Not so fast: With these tips you’ll be snoozing within minutes of your head hitting the pillow.