STRESS: When you’re stressed, your flight-or-fight response is active during the night, and your sleep quality is going to be shallow. It’s natural: If you have kids, you are programmed to be able to respond to your environment during the night to make sure you’re not getting eaten by a predator. Parents have this issue when their fight-or-flight response system is overly activated by worrying about their kid, and that worry actually makes their sleep quality worse.
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.
Chamomile tea. Simple, delicious, and effective. Chamomile tea has been used as a relaxation aid for centuries, but it’s more than just a folk remedy. One review found that the stuff acts as a mild sedative, helping to calm the nerves, reduce anxiety, and ease insomnia. And don’t be afraid to make a strong brew. Some experts recommend using two or three tea bags to get the full, sleep-promoting effect.
When you feel stressed or anxious, adrenaline courses through your veins, your heart beats at a rapid rate, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow. So before I get into the specifics behind how the 4-7-8 breathing trick works, I wanted to explain in my own words what it feels like when you try it. To me, the effect of the breathing technique feels almost like a sedative drug, because in order to hold your breath for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight—when your breath is so shallow and short—your body is forced to slow your heart rate. It has no choice. Holding your breath, and then slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain reaction. It feels like going from a mad-dash sprint to a finish line to a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park.
Similarly, if you’re having sleep troubles, limit your cell phone use around bedtime. One study found that people who spent more time on smartphones, especially close to bedtime, were more likely to have shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality and take longer to fall asleep (PLoS One, Nov. 9, 2016). So, turn off your cell phone, computer and television at least an hour before bedtime. (See the chart for other behavioral changes you can make to improve your sleep.)
Progressive muscle relaxation. Because relaxing your physical body can be just as effective as relaxing your mind. Try repeatedly tensing and releasing your toes to the count of 10, recommend experts at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Sleep Disorders Center. It’s crazy simple, but it can actually help relieve pent up energy and help you feel more relaxed.
The promise is in the name, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve tried every app like this one that I could find on the App Store, and this is by far “the best bank for its buck” I’m sure you could find one that has more features, but for a monthly subscription. It does what it promises and wakes me up when I’m already close to waking, and it’s gotten me to work on time every day that I’ve used it. I feel significantly better on mornings when I use Sleep Better than on mornings when I don’t. Great app. The only thing I wish they’d change is more comprehensive sleep statistics and information. I don’t know what some of their charts mean. For instance, how do they calculate my sleep efficiency? To me, 96% sleep efficiency should mean that I wake up feeling peppy and walking on sunshine. While I have woken up feeling much better most nights, there have been one or two mornings when I woke up feeling groggy because I’d only allowed myself five hours of sleep (not the app’s fault) and it still said I had 96-98% sleep efficiency. That doesn’t make sense to me unless they just mean out of the little sleep I happened to get that night. Overall, a great app, and I highly recommend it.
Valerian is an herbal extract. It is one of the leading natural supplements for managing anxiety and insomnia. But according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Data Base there is not enough proof to say that it is effective in treating insomnia. Some limited findings show that valerian may reduce the time needed to fall asleep and may improve sleep quality. Unlike the benzodiazepines, most people feel no morning grogginess after taking valerian. Other findings were not as promising. They showed that when compared to a placebo, valerian didn't relieve anxiety or insomnia any better than the placebo.
There are diagnostic tests that can be helpful for assessing your sleep problems, with special tests for insomnia. It may be helpful to keep a sleep log or use an actigraph (like a fitness tracker) to track your sleep patterns. Further testing with an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram can also be helpful to identify sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome as potential contributors to insomnia.
Having a few drinks before bedtime will increase your NREM sleep (Stages 1 and 2) and reduce your REM sleep. You’ll remember that REM sleep helps you organize and store your memories. Too little REM sleep can be devastating for the brain and body. In addition, REM sleep is the sleep stage where the most calories are burned. And alcohol is filled with empty calories, so drinking is never a good idea when you’re trying to sleep better or lose weight. See more info on REM sleep here.
There is a big difference between the amount of sleep you can get by on and the amount you need to function optimally. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours per night. In today’s fast-paced society, six or seven hours of sleep may sound pretty good. In reality, though, it’s a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation.
The artificial (or “blue”) light emitted by screens can disrupt our bodies’ preparations for sleep by stimulating daytime hormones. Dubious bargain: trading sleep for Leno and Letterman. Basner M, Dinges DF. Sleep, 2009, Jul.;32(6):0161-8105. Reduce exposure by turning off TVs, phones, and computers at least one hour before bedtime. Can’t give up the Daily Show? At least dim a screen’s brightness, either manually or with the help of automated programs.
Dr. Goldstein warned, however, that the sleep you get from an antihistamine isn’t going to be as restorative as unmedicated sleep. “It’s like alcohol,” she told us. “You’ll get sleep, but you’re not going to wake up with mounds of energy.” Dr. Zammit explains, “When you take a sedating antihistamine, REM sleep may be suppressed at the beginning of the night. But then it rebounds at the end of the night, and this can lead to vivid, intense, and sometimes disturbing dreams.”
Research has shown that changing your lifestyle and sleep habits is the best way to combat insomnia. Even if you decide to use sleeping pills or medications in the short term, experts recommend making changes to your lifestyle and bedtime behavior as a long-term remedy to sleep problems. Behavioral and environmental changes can have more of a positive impact on sleep than medication, without the risk of side effects or dependence.
Sleeping pills and other sleep-promoting pharmaceuticals can offer a short-term solution to a temporary bout of insomnia. And plenty of people use them. But often, prescription sleep aids come with unpleasant side effects like headaches, sore muscles, constipation, dry mouth, daytime fatigue, trouble concentrating, dizziness, and more. Add them all up, and they’re about as bad—if not worse–than your garden variety sleep deprivation.
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.
The more overstimulated your brain becomes during the day, the harder it can be slow down and unwind at night. During the day, many of us overstress our brains by constantly interrupting tasks to check our phones, emails, or social media. Try to set aside specific times for these things, and focus on one task at a time. When it comes to getting to sleep at night, your brain won’t be accustomed to seeking fresh stimulation and you’ll be better able to unwind.
There are several different types of prescription sleeping pills, classified as sedative hypnotics. In general, these medications act by working on receptors in the brain to slow down the nervous system. Some medications are used more for inducing sleep, while others are used for staying asleep. Some last longer than others in your system (a longer half-life), and some have a higher risk of becoming habit forming.
For those who have difficulty with insomnia, there are a handful of options to help you sleep. One treatment option is sleep restriction. This involves limiting the amount of time that you spend in bed (often to 7-8 hours) so that the time you are there you are more likely to spend asleep. It can also be useful to observe a behavioral change called stimulus control. Stimulus control helps break the association between your bedroom and not being able to sleep.
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Sleep is not just a block of time when you are not awake. Thanks to sleep studies done over the past several decades, it is now known that sleep has distinctive stages that cycle throughout the night. Your brain stays active throughout sleep, but different things happen during each stage. For example, certain stages are needed to help you feel rested and energetic the next day, and other stages help you learn and make memories. A number of vital tasks carried out during sleep help maintain good health and enable people to function at their best. On the other hand, not getting enough sleep can be dangerous for both your mental and physical health.*
If you’ve tried natural remedy after natural remedy and are still having difficulty sleeping, it’s a good idea to talk about your insomnia with your doctor. Together, you can discuss your symptoms, which could point to underlying health issues that might be making it harder for you to fall asleep. She can also review any prescriptions that you’re taking to see whether they might be interfering with your ability to nod off.
"If you find yourself unable to fall asleep, get up and go into another room. Stay up as long as you wish and then return to the bedroom to sleep. Although we do not want you to watch the clock, we want you to get out of bed if you do not fall asleep immediately. Remember the goal is to associate your bed with falling asleep quickly! If you are in bed more than about 10 minutes without falling asleep and have not gotten up, you are not following this instruction."
People should be able to sleep like they’re able to get healthcare. This also means making our work environments more conducive to sleep. For optimum productivity, we need around eight hours of sleep, right? But that doesn’t have to be in one go. Maybe I’ll get a little less than that during the night, and then I’ll take a 20-to-30-minute power nap at midday. There’s a siesta for a reason! New Yorkers oftentimes try to pound through with coffee and whatever, but giving in to your natural circadian rhythm during that afternoon lull might be a good thing. We weren’t made to produce for eight hours straight.
It may sound hippy dippy, but if you focus on it effectively, daydreaming about relaxing scenes can really help ease your mind. During visualization, know that it’s OK if your mind wanders but keep returning your focus to the scene. Try out different methods and audio tracks to see what works best for you. Visualization can also be a helpful mid-day stress reliever to keep in mind.