Even without considering genetics and age, the National Sleep Foundation's 2008 Sleep in America poll found that many adults are apparently not meeting their sleep needs, sleeping an average of only 6 hours and 40 minutes during the week, and about 7.5 hours on the weekends.2 How can you tell if your sleep is adequate and meets your needs? Sleep scientists and physicians have a variety of methods to help determine if you are getting enough sleep.
You've followed the usual tips for getting enough sleep — sleeping on a regular schedule, avoiding caffeine and daytime naps, exercising regularly, avoiding lighted screens before bed, and managing stress. Still, it's been weeks and a good night's sleep remains elusive. Is it time for an over-the-counter sleep aid? Here's what you need to know if you're considering medication to help you sleep.
Journaling. You might think that writing stuff down would make you dwell on it. But when you focus on the things that you appreciate, you might actually sleep better. One recent study, published in Applied Psychology, found that students who wrote in a gratitude journal for just 15 minutes per night worried less at bedtime—and achieved better sleep.
I couldn’t wait to put the trick to the test, and to my complete disbelief, I woke up the next morning unable to even remember getting to the eighth second of the exhale because it knocked me out that fast. For the next four nights leading up to the big day, even as my stress increased, I was able to fall asleep the minute I tried the 4-7-8 trick. I also used it to relax in the moments leading up to the speech.
It varies. There’s no clear answer. In our studies, we’ll play really loud sounds that people have no conscious awareness of at all: We can play a sound literally at 70 decibels, which is like someone screaming, and that’ll wake them up briefly and then they’ll go right back into the sleep stage that they were in. Other times you can get a full awakening, and you’ll have to go through the process again.
Derived from acupuncture, acupressure is an alternative medicine technique based in the Chinese medical theory that a network of energy flows through specific points in your body. Pressing on these points is meant to restore balance and regulate your mind, body, and spirit. A faculty member from leading natural health university Bastyr University suggests these acupressure techniques to alleviate sleeplessness:
Contrary to all our wishes, you can’t really compensate for weekday sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's because you need to sleep one hour for every hour missed, which means that if you miss four hours during the week you'd need to sleep extra hours on Saturday and Sunday. Instead, pick a more reasonable weekday bedtime to stick to. Nudge your bedtime back 15 minutes at a time to help you adjust, says the NSF. If you normally hit the hay at 11:30 p.m., for example, go to bed at 11:15 for a few nights, then 11, then 10:45 — until you reach your ideal bedtime, which for most people is about 7 to 9 hours before you need to wake up.
Scientists continue to learn about the function and regulation of sleep. A key focus of research is to understand the risks involved with being chronically sleep deprived and the relationship between sleep and disease. People who are chronically sleep deprived are more likely to be overweight, have strokes and cardiovascular disease, infections, and certain types of cancer than those who get enough sleep. Sleep disturbances are common among people with age-related neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Many mysteries remain about the association between sleep and these health problems. Does the lack of sleep lead to certain disorders, or do certain diseases cause a lack of sleep? These, and many other questions about sleep, represent the frontier of sleep research.
Valerian is one of the most common sleep remedies for insomnia. Numerous studies have found that valerian improves deep sleep, speed of falling asleep, and overall quality of sleep. However, it's most effective when used over a longer period of time. One caveat? About 10% of the people who use it actually feel energized, which may keep them awake. If that happens to you, take valerian during the day. Otherwise, take 200 to 800 milligrams before bed.
Set a regular bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night signals to your body that it's time to sleep. Waking up at the same time every day also can help establish sleep patterns. So try to stick as closely as you can to your sleep schedule, even on weekends. Try not to go to sleep more than an hour later or wake up more than 2 to 3 hours later than you do during the week.
If your bedroom is boiling hot — or even slightly warm — do what you can to cool it down. "Warmness may make you feel sleepy, but is not conducive to deep sleep," Logie says. "Our body starts to naturally cool later in the day and keeping your room cooler can help speed up this process that's involved with you falling asleep quickly and getting that deeper sleep."
The other benefit of speaking with a healthcare professional is that you can discuss the use of sleeping pills. There are two major classes of prescription medications that can help you sleep: benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines. The list of sleeping pills is long and includes drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, Trazodone, Belsomra, and others. These should not be used longer than a few weeks and if insomnia persists, you may want to seek other treatment. In particular, you can ask for a referral to a psychologist who might be able to teach you cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) techniques.
Experts say that during the teen years, the body's rhythm (sort of like an internal biological clock) is temporarily reset, telling a person to fall asleep later and wake up later. This change might be due to the fact that the brain hormone is produced later at night for teens than it is for kids and adults. This can make it harder for teens to fall asleep early.
If you’re bringing the stress of your job and daily life to bed with you, you’re not going to sleep well. Resolve to keep everything that’s stressful out of your bedroom, so don’t bring in work materials, your phone or even allow yourself to think about work while in your bedroom. You can also gain control over your worries and anxieties by keeping a worry journal. Write about the things that are bothering you so you can work through them instead of bringing them to bed with you.
I know what you are thinking: Is he serious? How can stopping my caffeine intake at 2:00 p.m. help me sleep better? It’s simple! Caffeine has what’s called a “half-life” of about 8 hours, which means that its level is reduced, but still somewhat effective in your system after this time. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it will prevent you from either falling asleep or having good quality sleep.
If any of this resonates with you, you might be interested in a new book by Henry Nicholls called Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest. Nicholls, a science journalist in England, chose the topic of sleep in part because of his personal experience with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. So he decided to write a book about how to sleep better.
Though I’m not promising or claiming (nor does Weil) that practicing this breathing technique can fight disease or provide clinical benefits, I can tell you one thing: If it affects you like it did me, it will help you fall asleep way faster. Not only is it free, it also works for a number of different instances. In addition to using it to fall asleep in a pinch, you can practice it if you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself thinking about something you have to do the next day, in order to fall back asleep; if you are nervous before an event (like a wedding, or giving a speech); if you are angry about something and want to calm down. My friend (the bride-to-be who slept like a baby the week before her wedding), who gets nervous to fly, uses it before flights and during if the plane encounters turbulence.
The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep. (The brain stem includes structures called the pons, medulla, and midbrain.) Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem. The brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends signals to relax muscles essential for body posture and limb movements, so that we don’t act out our dreams.
If sleep has plunged to the bottom of your to-do list, you're not alone. Although the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the average American logs only six hours and 40 minutes. What gives? Blame crazy schedules and, of course, sleeping woes. Before you rush to the drugstore to buy an over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medication, try one of the following natural sleep remedies. "These are safer and have fewer side effects than OTC medications," says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of From Fatigued to Fantastic and medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. Many of these can not only help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but they may also promote muscle relaxation.
Valerian. Like chamomile tea, folk practitioners have turned to the root of this flowering plant to easy anxiety and promote relaxation. And it works: According to a review of sixteen studies, valerian root is shown to help people doze off faster and sleep more soundly. It might not be ideal for long-term use, though, so talk with your doctor before starting a valerian regimen.
When it comes to sleep, the less blue light you expose yourself to in the hours before bedtime, the better. Light of any kind can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, but blue light waves do so more powerfully, thereby shifting sleep-friendly circadian rhythms, says Harvard Health Publications. Besides electronic devices like tablets and smartphones, the biggest blue-light offenders in your home are likely fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights, which many people use because of their energy efficiency and powerful light. Give yourself a romantic break from all the blue and eat dinner by candlelight.