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.
The federal government’s Healthy People initiative has established a goal of getting more people to get adequate sleep on a regular basis. Their recommended amount of sleep is 8 hours for people 18 to 21 and 7 hours per night for adults over 21. According to their numbers, 69.6% of the population meets this goal, and the government wants to raise this to 70.9% by 2020.
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.
Keep precautions in mind. Diphenhydramine and doxylamine aren't recommended for people who have closed-angle glaucoma, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sleep apnea, severe liver disease, digestive system obstruction or urinary retention. In addition, sleep aids pose risks for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and might pose risks to people over age 75, including an increased risk of strokes and dementia.
Over the years, I’ve written in-depth about some of the best-studied, most effective natural sleep aids. As we head into the new year with a focus on prioritizing sleep, I thought I’d share a quick review of some of my top suggestions for natural sleep therapies. These are the supplements that I most often discuss with my patients, and in some cases use for myself and my family.
A very helpful tool to track your sleep time and patterns is a sleep diary. Used in sleep research and clinical settings, a sleep diary is a handy reference to help people become familiar with their own natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness. The information that you will record in the sleep diary is simple and straightforward. It includes the time you go to bed, the time you wake up, your total hours of sleep, and whether you had any nighttime awakenings (and if so, how long you were awake) and any daytime naps. In addition, noting how you feel upon awakening (refreshed or tired), and how you feel at different times of the day will enable you to become more aware of your patterns, and help you determine if you are getting adequate sleep. Just keeping track of your sleep in this way may help improve your situation. If you need more help to improve your sleep, refer to Adopt Good Sleep Habits and Address Your Sleep Issues.
These products do not cure or shorten the length of the common cold and may cause serious side effects. To decrease the risk for serious side effects, carefully follow all dosage directions. Do not use this product to make a child sleepy. Do not give other cough-and-cold medication that might contain the same or similar ingredients (see also Drug Interactions section). Ask the doctor or pharmacist about other ways to relieve cough and cold symptoms (such as drinking enough fluids, using a humidifier or saline nose drops/spray).
Now that you know how much sleep you need—and if you've allowed your body to pay back your sleep debt and "find" its natural sleep patterns and duration—you are probably also feeling a lot better, sharper, happier, and healthier. This is how it feels to be well rested. The next step is to make sure that you continue to make sleep a priority and find ways to protect your sleep time.
Use white noise to fall asleep in noisy environments. White noise is a constant, unobtrusive noise that helps you ignore disturbing sounds, like noisy neighbors or a busy street. It can be the sound of static, raindrops, rustling leaves, or calm, wordless music. You can look for a white noise channel on your video or audio streaming service, or invest in a white noise machine.
The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep. (The brain stem includes structures called the pons, medulla, and midbrain.) Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem. The brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends signals to relax muscles essential for body posture and limb movements, so that we don’t act out our dreams.
In my article about passion flower, you can see the numerous benefits, including calming and anti-anxiety effects. When we have anxiety, it can greatly affect how we sleep because you just cannot seem to turn the brain off — especially while you’re trying to rest. Passion flower can provide the calming effect needed to help stop that vicious circle of thought.
One reviewer says that the Stress-Relax Tranquil Sleep Chewable Tablets have helped calm him down and stopped his mind from spinning when lying in bed. Someone else says that the tablets even help him get better sleep when having panic attacks. Try the Stress-Relax chewables for your own anxiety, but remember to see a professional if you feel that your stress is too much to manage.
When it comes to feeling tired of feeling so tired, I'm certainly not alone. Insomnia is incredibly common in the U.S., with 30 to 40 percent of American adults experiencing some symptoms of insomnia each year. [Etiology of adult insomnia]. Dollander M. L'Encephale, 2003, Mar.;28(6 Pt 1):0013-7006. So for anyone out there who has developed an expertise in fruitlessly counting sheep, we've rounded up a few strategies for finally catching those long-lost Z's when you can't sleep. And if you’re reading this at 3 a.m. because your mind won’t stop racing, don’t worry; we have tips for what you can do right now to improve the chances of getting (at least some) sleep.
Drug interactions may change how your medications work or increase your risk for serious side effects. This document does not contain all possible drug interactions. Keep a list of all the products you use (including prescription/nonprescription drugs and herbal products) and share it with your doctor and pharmacist. Do not start, stop, or change the dosage of any medicines without your doctor's approval.
Alcohol may initially sedate you, making it easier to fall asleep; however, as it is metabolized and cleared from your system during sleep, it causes arousals that can last as long as two to three hours after it has been eliminated. These arousals disturb sleep, often causing intense dreaming, sweating, and headache. Smoking while drinking caffeine and alcohol can interact to affect your sleep dramatically. These sleep disturbances may be most apparent upon awakening, feeling unrefreshed, groggy, or hungover.
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."
Social or recreational drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol may have a larger impact on your sleep than you realize. Caffeine, which can stay in your system as long as 14 hours, increases the number of times you awaken at night and decreases the total amount of sleep time. This may subsequently affect daytime anxiety and performance. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine, with a difference being that at low doses, nicotine tends to act as a sedative, while at high doses it causes arousals during sleep.
How magnesium works: Magnesium plays a widespread role in the human body, helping regulate and many essential functions. One of magnesium’s most important roles is to enable healthy enzyme function. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different enzyme-related reactions in the body’s cells. This mineral helps regulate blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and helps to control the body’s stress response. Getting sufficient magnesium helps the body maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, as well as elevating and stabilizing mood.
One thing experts say you should never drink right before bed? Alcohol. Not only can it trigger heartburn or indigestion (common sleep deterrents), but too many liquids right before bed can also lead to nighttime trips to the bathroom. "It makes you fall asleep, but the downside is multiple awakenings and arousals during the night that make you feel un-refreshed in the morning," Dr. Dasgupta cautions. That doesn't mean you can't have that glass of Merlot at dinner—just make sure you have a few hours of buffer before hitting the hay.
But the good news is that you can take steps toward a good night’s sleep that are easy and painless. There are effective natural sleep aids that can help improve the quality and duration of your sleep, and they won’t leave you with all the unwanted side effects of conventional sleep medications. Here are the five most powerful all-natural sleep aids:
Probably the most common wearable to measuring sleep right now is the Fitbit. I’ve studied these devices in depth in a well-controlled laboratory experiment where we’re monitoring brainwaves. I can say the Fitbit is pretty accurate in measuring when you’re asleep and when you’re wake, but when it comes to measuring sleep stages, basically any device that measures heart rate, like the Apple Watch, is totally inaccurate. That’s because they don’t sample at the frequency necessary to get a good read on your sleep stages.
A very common cause of difficulty sleeping relates to stress and the intrusion of stimulating substances and activities. You may have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test or presentation. In periods of emotional stress, such as after the death of a loved one, you may also have trouble sleeping. This is called acute insomnia. It usually passes when these stressors resolve. Similarly, stimulants such as caffeine and even nicotine can disrupt your sleep.
Everyone benefits from a good night's sleep. If you continue to have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor. In addition to lifestyle changes, he or she might recommend behavior therapy to help you learn new sleep habits and ways to make your sleeping environment more conducive to sleep. In some cases, short-term use of prescription sleep aids might be recommended as well.
Many herbal tonics support adrenal health and help balance energy levels, which allow us to work, exercise, and digest during the day, then drop into an alpha state during the night. My favorite herb for insomnia is ashwagandha, which helps to relax the body. Try 500–1,000 mg at bedtime for 6–12 months until you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern. Other effective bedtime herbs include valerian (especially if pain is part of your disturbed sleep quality), passionflower, lemon balm, and California poppy.
Making it through each sleep stage is crucial to getting high-quality sleep, but exactly how many times do you need to go through the sleep cycle? Many people argue that they get by just fine on very little sleep. However, research shows that only a tiny fraction of people can function well on fewer than eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep expert David Dinges, PhD, estimates that, over the long haul, perhaps one person in a thousand can function effectively on six or fewer hours of sleep per night.
Not convinced? Consider this. One study, published in the journal SLEEP, concluded that people who get 60 minutes of exercise five days per week have more normal REM sleep than non-exercisers. But you might not need to sweat it out for quite that long to reap the benefits. Other findings show that insomniacs who engage in thirty minute spurts of exercise just three or four times a week sleep for nearly an hour longer than sedentary folks, and wake up less frequently during the night.
“This is number one—most of us have this reflex where our cellphone has to be within arm's length, even when we go to bed," says Raj Dasgupta, MD, sleep expert and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. "We need to break that habit.” Studies have shown that the blue light generated by electronic devices can delay the onset of sleep. (Here's how spending just one extra minute on your phone before bed can rob you of 60 minutes of sleep.) Turn your phone on silent and keep it on a dresser or far end of the bedside table so you’re not tempted to text, check one last email, or get lost in social media.
There are other non-medication options that might be helpful. Some people find benefit with the use of aromatherapy, although research studies may not support its use. Various relaxation techniques, including the use of biofeedback and breathing techniques, may also establish a connection between your mind and body. This can be incorporated into your bedtime rituals and make it easier to relax and transition into sleep.
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Benzodiazepines are the oldest class of sleep medications still commonly in use. Benzodiazepines as a group are thought to have a higher risk of dependence than other insomnia sedative hypnotics and are classified as controlled substances. Primarily used to treat anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines that have been approved to treat insomnia include estazolam (brand name ProSom), flurazepam (Dalmane), quazepam (Doral), temazepam (Restoril), and triazolam (Halcion).
A dark, cool bedroom environment helps promote restful sleep. Program the thermostat so the bedroom’s temperature is between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (experiment to find what works best for you), and use heavy curtains, blackout shades, or an eye mask to block lights. Also be sure to charge phones and laptops outside the bedroom—even this tiny bit of light can disrupt sleep. If you live in a studio or can’t get away from blue lights for any reason, consider making a (very small) investment in blue light blocking glasses.
For something that we spend a third of our lives doing (if we’re lucky), sleep is something that we know relatively little about. “Sleep is actually a relatively recent discovery,” says Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep scientist who is currently an assistant adjunct professor in biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Scientists only started looking at sleep 70 years ago.”
Another common cause of difficulty falling asleep is the activities that precede your bedtime. If you eat or drink too late, you may suffer from heartburn or frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom. There are general guidelines to improve sleep. Many of these are meant to reinforce positive sleep habits. You should go to bed and get up the same time every day. Irregular sleep schedules may set you up for sleep disruption. You should follow a bedtime routine, including quiet, relaxing activities to help transition to sleep. If you fail to unwind prior to bed, you may find yourself struggling to drift off to sleep.
Cherries. They’re the only edible source of the sleep hormone melatonin, so consider having a bowlful for dessert. If they’re not in season, opt for thawed frozen cherries or a glass of tart cherry juice. Drinking two glasses daily helped people with insomnia sleep for 90 more minutes, found one study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
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.