When you’re desperate to get some rest, it’s tempting to head for the medicine cabinet for relief. And you may get it in the moment. But if you regularly have trouble sleeping, that’s a red flag that something’s wrong. It could be something as simple as too much caffeine or viewing electronic screens late at night. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying medical or psychological problem. But whatever it is, it won’t be cured with sleeping pills. At best, sleeping pills are a temporary band aid. At worst, they’re an addictive crutch that can make insomnia worse in the long run.
How melatonin works: It often surprises people to hear it, but melatonin does not work as a sedative. Melatonin production is triggered by exposure to darkness, and is a powerful bio time regulator. It improves sleep by helping to strengthen the body’s sleep-wake cycles. Stronger sleep-wake cycles translate into a more consistent sleep routine. When your bio clock is in sync, it can help improve your mood, daytime performance, energy levels and your overall health, including immune function, and regulation of metabolism, digestion, and appetite.
This third one is what I study. The “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” is this idea that during the day, we make all these connections with the world around us. It used to be like, “Don’t go over there—the lions live there now.” Now it’s like, “What did Barbara say to me in the office?” These excitatory connections we make during the day result in the neurons in our brains getting overall higher activation. Then during the nighttime when we sleep, we have a downregulating process where the things that didn’t really matter to your survival sink to the bottom, and the things that are most relevant to your survival rise to the top. What deep sleep does is all the neural processing, and what REM sleep [rapid-eye-movement sleep] and light sleep do is basically integrate that into your long-term personality and understanding of the world.
A 2011 analysis found no studies that are rigorous enough to provide good evidence for aromatherapy for assisting sleep. The scent of English lavender aromatherapy oil has long been used as a folk remedy to help people fall asleep. It is one of the most soothing essential oils. Try putting a lavender sachet under your pillow or place one to two drops of lavender essential oil in a handkerchief. Or add several drops of lavender oil to a bath—the drop in body temperature after a warm bath also helps with sleep. Other aromatherapy oils believed to help with sleep are chamomile and ylang-ylang.
The latter portion of this plan is meant to tidy up some of the loose ends, including conditions that can undermine sleep. If the early changes haven't proven to be effective or relevant, it may be because other issues are at play. Ultimately, if your efforts aren't rewarded in the end, it may be useful to speak with a sleep doctor who can provide you the personal assistance you need to overcome any remaining problems. This advice is generally good for all, but carefully crafting it to attend to your individual needs may make it invaluable.
Gallup has reported that over the past 50 years, we’re sleeping a whole hour less per night than we did in the 1950s. That’s a lot. A lot of that has to do with having TV on all the time, and mobile phones are taking it to the next level. But I think the biggest issue right now is the lack of work/life balance. I mean, I’m an entrepreneur, so I feel like I’m basically always “on”. A lot of people have jobs where they’re getting emails all hours the night, and there’s no longer a nine-to-five schedule.
That doesn’t mean that you should never use medication, but it’s important to weigh the benefits against the risks. In general, sleeping pills and sleep aids are most effective when used sparingly for short-term situations, such as traveling across time zones or recovering from a medical procedure. If you choose to take sleeping pills over the long term, it is best to use them only on an infrequent, “as needed,” basis to avoid dependence and tolerance.
We need to sleep to think clearly, react quickly, and create memories. In fact, the pathways in the brain that help us learn and remember are very active when we sleep. Skimping on sleep has a price. Cutting back by even 1 hour can make it tough to focus the next day and slow your response time. Studies have shown that when you lack sleep, you are more likely to make bad decisions and take more risks. This can result in poor performance on the job or at school and a greater risk for an accident or car crash.
If your circadian rhythm is off, it negatively impacts your sleep quality. So having that consistent rhythm of going to bed and getting up at the same time will actually make your sleep more regenerative at night. Going for a walk outside and getting that sunlight in the morning is the best thing to do to wake up. Your circadian rhythm isn’t a fixed thing: It’s actually shiftable based on your environmental cues.
Give yourself some dedicated wind-down time. It doesn’t have to be a full hour or an elaborate routine, but try to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes doing something that relaxes you before you try to fall asleep. That could be taking a warm bath or shower, changing into comfy pajamas and sipping a cup of chamomile tea. Or something completely different — so long as it’s relaxing to you.