Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to "turn off" all the noise from the day. No way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, or are reviewing all the day's events and planning tomorrow (sound familiar?), you simply cannot just "flip a switch" and drop off to a blissful night's sleep.
Melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that increases at night. It is triggered by darkness and its levels remain elevated throughout the night until suppressed by the light of morning. Although melatonin does not appear to be particularly effective for treating most sleep disorders, it can help sleep problems caused by jet lag and shift work. Simple exposure to light at the right time, however, might be just as effective. If you take melatonin, be aware that it can interfere with certain blood pressure and diabetes medications. It’s best to stick with low doses—1 to 3 milligrams for most people—to minimize side effects and next-day drowsiness.
This yoga method is thought to reduce blood pressure and calm you. Holistic sleep therapist Peter Smith says: “Lie on your left side, resting a finger on your right nostril to close it. Start slow, deep breathing in the left nostril.” Peter, author of Sleep Better With Natural Therapies (£13.99, Singing Dragon, out October 28), says this technique is particularly good when overheating or menopausal hot flushes are preventing sleep.
You already know the most common drinks to help you sleep, but for an even more effective herbal insomnia cure, try valerian tea. This herb is found in health food stores, at pharmacies, or from a qualified herbalist, and when brewed into tea, it can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and produce a deep, satisfying rest. Also taken in capsule form or as a tincture, this organic sleep aid helped about one in 13 insomniacs enjoy a longer night’s sleep (with fewer middle-of-the-night wake-ups) in a Norwegian study. And as for insomnia due to menopause, there’s more good news: 30 percent of menopausal and postmenopausal women got better sleep after drinking valerian tea, according to a recent study from Iran. Find out what your sleep position says about your personality.
“This is a stimulus control theory,” says Meltzer. “Everything in life has a stimulus value, even your bed,” meaning your body should recognize that lying in bed means it’s time to go to sleep. To give your bed that value, the only things you should be doing in it are sleep and sex, she explains. “Getting out of bed if you can’t sleep is the hardest one to do, but it’s so important. If you’re spending 10 hours in bed, but only sleeping six, that’s really bad. Your bed becomes a place for thinking, worrying, watching TV, and not for sleeping.”
If melatonin doesn’t work or patients don’t want to take it, Barone suggests trying valerian root. A 2015 review published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that “a few high-quality studies report modest benefits of valerian for insomnia patients,” adding that while the overall evidence remains mixed, the safety of valerian is well-established.
Now to the more technical details: People who are stressed or anxious are actually chronically under-breathing because stressed people breathe shortly and shallowly, and often even unconsciously hold their breath. By extending your inhale to a count of four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, allowing the oxygen to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath for seven seconds, and then emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs by exhaling steadily for eight seconds. The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild sedative-like effect. It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air.
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.
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Valerian is thought to affect levels of one of the calming neurotransmitters in the body, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also relieves muscle spasms and is thought to help alleviate menstrual period pain. Valerian is typically taken an hour before bed. A standard dose is 450 mg. If taken during the day, valerian may result in drowsiness—it is often taken in two to three 300 mg doses with meals.
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.