After being awake for nineteen hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.
Abdominal breathing. Most of us don’t breathe as deeply as we should. When we breathe deeply and fully, involving not only the chest, but also the belly, lower back, and ribcage, it can actually help the part of our nervous system that controls relaxation. Close your eyes and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make each exhale a little longer than each inhale.
It’s actually pretty normal to wake up during the night, anyway. In The Canterbury Tales, one of the oldest manuscripts in English culture, they describe “second sleep.” There’s some evidence that we used to go to bed when the sun went down, then wake up for a little bit at night—putter around, make sure we’re not getting eaten by a lion—and then go back to sleep. So it’s pretty normal to like wake up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or whatever.
So if you're unable to sleep for about a 15- or 20-minute stretch, slip into your bunny slippers and out of the room. Try something relaxing and non-stimulating. Listen to music. Read a book. Even consider cleaning the house or doing the dishes, Olson suggests. A bath might do the trick, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, because sleepiness can brew from the post-bath drop in body temperature. Whatever activity you choose, do it away from bed, and return when you're feeling drowsy.
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, salt can help lower cortisol levels and balance blood sugar levels, which is what you want at night for restful sleep. Natural sugars can help by elevating insulin slightly, which helps lower cortisol (this is one of the reasons my doctor suggests consuming carbohydrates at night and not in the morning if you are trying to balance hormones).
Got grandkids? That means you probably have a plastic bottle of bubbles around the house. The benefits of blowing them before bed are two-fold: Bubbles are slightly hypnotic to look at and require a process of deep breathing to blow, said Rachel Marie E. Salas, M.D., a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a recent New York Post article. “It’s like a deep breathing exercise, which helps calm your body and mind,” she says. “And since it’s such a silly activity, it can also take your mind off of any potential sleep-thwarting thoughts.”
It actually may be normal to wake up at night. When we find ourselves waking in the night, no matter the cause, we may conclude that something is wrong. If there are no consequences in daytime function, however, this may not be the case. It is normal to wake to roll over, adjust the covers, respond to noise, and maybe even to get up to urinate. (Waking to go to the bathroom is so common as we get older that you would be hard-pressed to call it "abnormal.") Many people get back to sleep easily and are unaffected. The problem begins when our poor sleep compromises our lives. If difficulty falling or staying asleep at night begins to have consequences, there is a motivation to seek the cause.
Insomnia usually becomes a problem if it occurs on most nights and causes distress or daytime effects such as fatigue, poor concentration, and irritability. It predisposes to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; to physical problems such as infections, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes; and to motoring and other accidents. The relationship between insomnia and psychological symptoms is far from simple, as insomnia can both cause, and be caused by, depression, anxiety, and stress, opening up a vicious circle.
Anyway, basically your biggest zeitgeber is sunlight, and that’s the environmental cue that controls energy levels as well. But then also timing of meals, exercise, and having a consistent bedtime are all zeitgebers that impact your circadian rhythm. A bigger part of the problem is that we’re indoors so much now, so we don’t get that natural occurring sunlight when you wake up in the morning. That’s one of the best things that you can do to entrench your circadian rhythm.
Valerian root is a plant with roots that contain many healing properties, in particular for a relaxation and sedative effects. It’s often found in combination with chamomile in a tea. By increasing the amount of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA), it helps calm the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. GABA works by blocking brain signals that cause anxiety and that ongoing trickle effect that can come from it. This calming effect has made it a favorite natural remedy for anxiety too. (9)
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 67 degrees. In one study, University of Pittsburgh researchers found that when insomniacs wore a special cap designed to lower the temperature of the brain, they fell asleep about as quickly, and slept for about as long, as other study participants without sleep issues. Why this works: The cooling cap helped reduce brain metabolic activity, setting in motion a normal sleep cycle. But you don't need a special device to get better sleep. Keeping your bedroom cool and wearing breathable clothing (or even nothing at all!) can help welcome the sandman.
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.
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She happens to be a licensed wellness practitioner who studies meditation, stress, and breathing techniques, and she told me it would change my life. You simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. She explained that the studied combination of numbers has a chemical-like effect on our brains and would slow my heart rate and soothe me right to sleep that night. “It works,” she told me. “It’s crazy.”
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.
Even a hint of dim light—8 to 10 lux—has been shown to delay the release of nighttime melatonin in humans. The feeblest of bedside lamps pumps out twice as much: anywhere from 20 to 80 lux. A subtly lit living room, where most people reside in the hours before bed, will hum at around 200 lux. Despite being just 1 to 2 percent of the strength of daylight, this ambient level of incandescent home lighting can have 50 percent of the melatonin-suppressing influence within the brain.
Wear socks to bed. While a cooler core body temperature helps you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep, cold extremities (hands and feet) can have the opposite effect. If you tend to have cold feet at bedtime, put on a pair of cozy socks, rest your feet on a heating pad, or pile an extra blanket on the foot of your bed. If none of those appeal to you, try wearing a pair of warm slippers in the evening so that your feet will be toasty when you climb in bed for the night.