The FDA has not approved antidepressants for the treatment of insomnia, nor has their use been proven effective in treating sleeplessness. However, some antidepressants are prescribed off-label due to their sedating effects. As with all depression medication, there is a small but significant risk of suicidal thoughts or worsening of depression, particularly in children and adolescents.
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.
Why is working out seemingly so beneficial? The mechanisms aren’t entirely known, but National Sleep Foundation experts say that it could have to do with exercise’s ability promote feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Staying active might also help to keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in sync—particularly if you do it outside (more on that below).
There are many reasons why people have a difficult time staying asleep. The good news is that common problems with sleep are often easily addressed without the use of medication or pharmaceutical sleep aids. There are no guaranteed natural cures for insomnia, but there are effective steps you can take, including natural sleep aids. Ask yourself these questions (and try the simple sleep aid recommendations) if you find yourself waking frequently in the night:
The herb Vitex agnus castus (chaste tree) may help insomnia during menstrual periods or insomnia that is a side effect of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In one study, women with moderate to severe premenstrual syndrome were treated with either a vitex agnus castus extract or a placebo for three menstrual cycles. Participants were asked to document their symptoms with a PMS diary with a daily rating scale of 17 symptoms. They reported fewer symptoms, especially less insomnia and negative affect, but their cramps didn't improve. However, chasteberry should not be used by anyone on birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, or dopamine-related medications, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Studies have shown that classical music, or any music that has a slow rhythm of 60 to 80 beats per minute, can help lull you to sleep. In a 2008 study, students aged 19 to 28 who listened to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before bed showed significant improvement in sleep quality. Bonus: They also reported decreased symptoms of depression.
Frankly, we feel like spending that energy focusing on falling asleep might just tire us out enough to drop off anyway. But if you're out of other options—and don't want to take medication—it may be worth practicing this technique before bed for a couple weeks and see if you notice any changes. Make sure you're not also doing these other 10 habits that can actually sabotage your sleep, according to our nutritionist.
Melatonin, like all natural dietary supplements, is unregulated and untested for long-term use in humans. Some people find that melatonin causes grogginess and depression. Others report falling asleep quickly with melatonin only to awaken in the middle of the night. Still, studies show that melatonin appears to be safe with short-term use (three months or less).
The key here is to keep dinners simple and moderate in portion, so you won’t be bothered with indigestion later. Eating carbs four hours before sleep was more effective than one hour prior in the study, meaning planning your evening meals could prove helpful. Spicy foods can also affect your ability to fall asleep quickly, so keep that in mind, too.
An average adult needs between 7.5 and 8 hours of sleep per night. “But many people can function with 6 hours' sleep, and there also some who need 9 hours or more,” says Sudhansu Chokroverty, MD, professor and co-chair of neurology and program director for clinical neurophysiology and sleep medicine at the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute at JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J.
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Alcohol is a known sleep saboteur — it may make you fall asleep, but it disrupts normal sleep cycles, causing you to wake up in the middle of the night. Cherry juice, on the other hand, may help ensure restful slumber, because it’s thought to be naturally high in melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycles. A small study of 11 subjects published in March 2017 in the American Journal of Therapeutics found that participants with insomnia who drank tart cherry juice for two weeks increased the amount they slept. Cherry juice is presumably low risk, but if you have a tendency toward elevated sugar it's best to discuss with your doctor before you start.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (or CBT-I) is shown to be incredibly effective for chronic sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. While sleeping pills and other sleep aids may only treat the symptoms of insomnia, CBT-I helps identify the root of the problem, but it takes time and dedication, with regular visits to a clinician who may give you various sleep assignments to try at home and ask you to keep a sleep diary.
The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
Natural light is critical for our health and well-being. Bright light therapy, provided by your dermatologist or reputable light box manufacturers online, can reset your body clock by gradually shifting sleep patterns earlier or later, leading to better sleep. Check out these other benefits of light therapy. In a 2004 study, daily use of light-therapy lamps helped insomniacs fall asleep faster and sleep longer. You can also try going outdoors around noon; it will retune your circadian rhythm even if you’re stuck inside for most of the day.
It’s marketed as a before-bed beverage for a reason: The herb chamomile has been used as a sleep aid for thousands of years. While good research on chamomile’s effect on sleep is sparse, one 2016 study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that new moms who drank chamomile tea for two weeks reported fewer symptoms of sleep inefficiency and depression.
To set the record straight about being horizontal, Quartz spoke to one of the world’s most-talked-about sleep scientists. Daniel Gartenberg is currently working on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Aging and is also a TED resident. (Watch his talk on deep sleep here.) He’s also an entrepreneur who has launched several cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps, including the Sonic Sleep Coach alarm clock. All that with 8.5 hours of sleep a night.
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain, may also help you fall asleep faster when taken as a supplement. Triggered by the absence of light, this natural sleep aid regulates the body’s internal clock, ensuring we are tired at night and mentally and physically alert during the day. A recent study published in the journal Critical Care found that melatonin improved sleep quality and reduced nighttime disturbances in its healthy subjects, and experts from Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center discovered that melatonin supplements increased sleep time by 13 minutes. Supplements can be found in health food stores and pharmacies, but read up on the things you need to know before taking melatonin for sleep and talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is a suitable natural insomnia cure for you. Don’t miss the 10 best vitamins for sleep.
Some of our expectations regarding our sleep might be slightly misguided. As an example, the thought that we will fall asleep almost immediately upon retiring to our beds may be improper. It should normally occur in less than 15 to 20 minutes, but it may take as long as 30 minutes as we get older. In fact, people who fall asleep in less than five minutes may be "pathologically sleepy." This means that they are so sleepy that they fall asleep quicker than might be normal. In some cases, this ability to fall asleep quickly—and enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep quickly—can be seen in excessive daytime sleepiness that might occur in sleep deprivation or narcolepsy.
Another common anxiety that lurks in the wee-hours of a sleepless night is the mounting awareness that you're not asleep when you should be. Stress and frustration – not typically emotions that welcome relaxation – escalate as you fret about how you need to be up for work in four (or three or two) hours. The experts' suggestion? Get rid of time cues. "No clock watching," Walia says, "That's a big no-no. Turn the clock around."
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.
When you first start, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or you’ll want to speed up your counting, but if you stick to the numbers (or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks (in other words, consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 without resuming regular breathing), you can literally feel your heart rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically relax. It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8.