One of the vital roles of sleep is to help us solidify and consolidate memories. As we go about our day, our brains take in an incredible amount of information. Rather than being directly logged and recorded, however, these facts and experiences first need to be processed and stored; and many of these steps happen while we sleep. Overnight, bits and pieces of information are transferred from more tentative, short-term memory to stronger, long-term memory—a process called "consolidation." Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.
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.
For those who have chronic insomnia, the bedroom space may become a trigger for insomnia through conditioning. The sleep environment is meant to be comfortable and facilitate sleep. It should be cool, quiet, and free of distractions. Ideally, you would not allow a television or pets in your bedroom. Bed partners may be disruptive and some people choose to maintain separate sleep spaces for this reason.
Ease anxiety. Sometimes the sleeplessness stems from worry. Your brain is on overdrive, thinking about your bank account and the big meeting tomorrow and your kid's detention. For people who consistently have trouble "quieting the mind" at night, Olson suggests trying "to train your mind to think about those things at more appropriate times of the day." Schedule a time each day – say, between work and dinner – to simply write a sentence or two about what's worrying you and where you stand with that. "Maybe it's as simple as, 'I thought about this today, but I don't have any real solutions right now,'" Olson says. By systematically documenting these worries during the day, ideally, you'll be less likely to fixate on them at night.
The basal forebrain, near the front and bottom of the brain, also promotes sleep and wakefulness, while part of the midbrain acts as an arousal system. Release of adenosine (a chemical by-product of cellular energy consumption) from cells in the basal forebrain and probably other regions supports your sleep drive. Caffeine counteracts sleepiness by blocking the actions of adenosine.
Fortunately, doing that is easier than you might think. Below, we’ll take a look at the multitude of lifestyle changes—both big and small—that you can make to help you sleep better. We’ll also explore proven herbal remedies that can give you a relaxation boost when you really need it, minus the side effects that tend to come with prescription meds.
After talking with doctors and examining clinical studies, we learned that the research surrounding common remedies for restless nights, like melatonin and valerian, is often contradictory. To find the best sleep aid, it’s important to look for an active ingredient that suits your particular sleep problems — and to pay close attention to your dosage and timing.
Medicate with caution. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, Walia and Olson do not recommend drugs as a first choice for relieving sleeplessness. Ideally, the tips above and improved sleep hygiene should do the trick. But, should you choose a sleep aid, Olson reminds people that, of course, they make you sleepy. This grogginess is great at 11 p.m., but not at 7 a.m. – when you have to drive a car.
Trouble sleeping is often a symptom of another disease or condition, such as depression, chronic pain, medications, or stress, which might explain why it’s so common. Longitudinal course and impact of insomnia symptoms in adolescents with and without chronic pain. Palermo TM, Law E, Churchill SS. The journal of pain : official journal of the American Pain Society, 2012, Sep.;13(11):1528-8447.
Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine used to relieve symptoms of allergy, hay fever, and the common cold. These symptoms include rash, itching, watery eyes, itchy eyes/nose/throat, cough, runny nose, and sneezing. It is also used to prevent and treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness caused by motion sickness. Diphenhydramine can also be used to help you relax and fall asleep.
It’s oh, I don’t know, 3 o’clock in the freaking morning, and I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and wanting to cry with frustration. I'm trying to stay hopeful about my ability to catch a few hours of shuteye before work the next morning, but I’ve been up until 6 a.m. (not by choice) enough times in my life to know the beast of insomnia can’t always be tamed.
Go dark. It’s known that the light from a smartphone interferes with sleep. But what about your bathroom light? If you have the urge to go at night, don’t flick on the lights. “The latest recommendation is to use a flashlight if you need to get up at night,” Gamaldo says, because it offers less visual disruption. And remember: If you do wake up for a bathroom break, it might take up to 30 minutes to drift back off. This is completely normal, she says.
Valerian root is a plant with roots that contain many healing properties, in particular for a relaxation and sedative effects. It’s often found in combination with chamomile in a tea. By increasing the amount of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA), it helps calm the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. GABA works by blocking brain signals that cause anxiety and that ongoing trickle effect that can come from it. This calming effect has made it a favorite natural remedy for anxiety too. (9)
Another method for determining your sleep need is to take a "sleep vacation." During a two-week period, when you have a flexible schedule or perhaps are on vacation, pick a consistent bedtime and do not use an alarm clock to wake up. Chances are that for the first few days or week you will sleep longer because you'll be paying off your "sleep debt"—the amount of sleep deprivation that you've accumulated over a period of time. If you continue going to bed at the same time and allowing your body to wake up naturally, you will eventually establish a pattern of sleeping essentially the same amount of time each night, probably in the range of 7 to 9 hours. Congratulations! You've identified the amount of sleep that you need.
The science behind the technique explains that when people are stressed or anxious, they tend to under-breathe (breathe shortly and shallowly). By forcing oneself to slow your inhale, you take in more oxygen, force it to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath, and then exhale slowly to release carbon dioxide. "The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream."
The most common reason why you can't sleep is also the most obvious: you are not tired. Your desire to sleep will be greatly diminished if you are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Imagine lying down three hours before your normal bedtime. The chance of you being able to fall right to sleep is pretty slim. This has to do with the circadian rhythm of our bodies. This system helps to coordinate our activities, including our desire for food and sleep, to the external environment. Problems with the timing of sleep may occur in the circadian rhythm sleep disorders, as well as in temporary conditions like jet lag.
Certain protein-rich foods like milk, eggs, peanuts, and soy contain an amino acid called tryptophan that causes sleepiness, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. For best results, combine these foods with a source of carbohydrates, which help more tryptophan enter the brain. Some recommendations: roasted soybeans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, cheddar cheese, canned tuna, and pistachios. You don't need much: "Even smaller snacks can provide a tryptophan dose that studies have shown to be significant in helping with sleep," Rumsey says.
See a Doctor. While lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment for sleeplessness, if you’re still not getting enough rest after improving your bedtime routine and trying a variety of relaxation strategies, a physician may be able to help determine if your sleeplessness is merely a symptom of another health concern, and prescribe appropriate treatment.