Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40 our sleep patterns change, and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These awakenings not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. The more awakenings we have at night, the more likely we will awaken feeling unrefreshed and unrestored.
7. Reduce your overall stress. At the same time, try to do something productive or enjoyable each day. As da Vinci said, a well-spent day brings happy sleep (and a well-spent life brings happy death). While lying in bed, do some deep breathing: breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds, then purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Let out as much air as you can and start again. Deep breathing also helps with controlling pain.
Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in many parts of the brain become more active as we get ready for bed. Nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters can “switch off” or dampen the activity of cells that signal arousal or relaxation. GABA is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, and sedation. Norepinephrine and orexin (also called hypocretin) keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. Other neurotransmitters that shape sleep and wakefulness include acetylcholine, histamine, adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin.
A 2011 analysis found no studies that are rigorous enough to provide good evidence for aromatherapy for assisting sleep. The scent of English lavender aromatherapy oil has long been used as a folk remedy to help people fall asleep. It is one of the most soothing essential oils. Try putting a lavender sachet under your pillow or place one to two drops of lavender essential oil in a handkerchief. Or add several drops of lavender oil to a bath—the drop in body temperature after a warm bath also helps with sleep. Other aromatherapy oils believed to help with sleep are chamomile and ylang-ylang.
Before recommending any action, your health care provider will explore with you a variety of possible causes for your sleep problems, including pain or depression. If necessary, he or she may recommend a sleep test (also known as a polysomnographic evaluation or sleep lab). Based on your symptoms, medical history and specific needs, your health care provider will be able to make a personalized treatment plan to help you achieve restful sleep.
Other potential health benefits: Melatonin may help to guard against cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease. It’s also being investigated as a therapy for some cancers. Supplemental melatonin may be effective at improving sleep quality and sleep quantity in people with ASD, and also may help improve daytime behavior. Melatonin has shown promise as a natural treatment for a range of conditions, including fibromyalgia, menopause, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Clinical trials have shown that passion flower can reduce anxiety as effectively as the prescribed drug known as benzodiazepine oxazepam. A four-week, double-blind study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder compared passion flower to the common anti-anxiety drug. While the oxazepam worked a little faster, both were the same in terms of effectiveness — however, the passion flower did not cause problems with job performance, such drowsiness while on the job, unlike the oxazepam. (8)
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.
A professor I collaborate with at Penn State named Orfeu Buxton says that 8.5 hours of sleep is the new eight hours. In order to get a healthy eight hours of sleep, which is the amount that many people need, you need to be in bed for 8.5 hours. The standard in the literature is that healthy sleepers spend more than 90% of the time in bed asleep, so if you’re in bed for eight hours, a healthy sleeper might actually sleep for only about 7.2 hours.
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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.
Go dark. It’s known that the light from a smartphone interferes with sleep. But what about your bathroom light? If you have the urge to go at night, don’t flick on the lights. “The latest recommendation is to use a flashlight if you need to get up at night,” Gamaldo says, because it offers less visual disruption. And remember: If you do wake up for a bathroom break, it might take up to 30 minutes to drift back off. This is completely normal, she says.
You have a peak moment of awakeness during the morning. After lunch you usually have a glucose spike, especially if you have a big heavy lunch, like a cheeseburger. That glucose spike combined with a circadian dip gives you a period of fatigue between around 2 and 4pm. You’ll then have another spike in alertness right before dinner, and then you’ll start getting tired again closer to bedtime. That’s your 24-hour circadian rhythm, basically.
Tossing and turning all night never feels good—and most Americans are all too familiar with it. An estimated 164 million people struggle with sleep at least once a week, according to a 2016 survey from Consumer Reports. Insomnia can do worse than just tire you out the next day. If you're suffering from chronic lack of sleep, it can take a toll on your overall health.
“It truly is cruel,” Simpson says. "Women may have had no problems with sleep their whole lives, except they can’t get any because their children or their job are keeping them up. Then they get the kids raised and the job slows down, and their sleep patterns go absolutely haywire. During menopause, women’s rates of insomnia go through the roof, and their rates of sleep apnea become more or less equivalent to men.”
In other words, daylight helps your body’s natural clock—which is dictated by the 24-hour cycle of day and night—know when to feel awake and when to feel tired. When your hypothalamus—the gland responsible for regulating sleep and energy levels—senses a change in light, it tells your body to ramp up or ramp down its production of the sleep hormone melatonin. During the day, you feel energized and alert because you don’t produce much melatonin. At night, you produce more, so you feel sleepy.
Sleep issues can often be traced back to an underlying issue. When we asked Dr. Breus for his first choice in treating sleep issues, he told us, “It’s never a pill. I would want to know the root cause. There could be an anxiety component where cognitive behavioral therapy could be helpful.” If you face sleeplessness regularly, it’s well worth speaking to your doctor about underlying causes.
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 may be doing all the right things—respecting your sleep needs and patterns, setting aside an ample amount of time to sleep, keeping a sleep diary—but still experiencing daytime sleepiness, fatigue, or insomnia. If that's the case, you should consider consulting a sleep specialist who can help you set up a better sleep environment, provide support for making behavioral changes that may be interfering with sleep, or possibly diagnose a sleep disorder. You have a right to feel well rested—and there are many resources available to help you get the sleep you need.
“Pregnant women see an increase in sleep problems in the first and last trimester. During the first trimester, sleep problems are caused by hormonal changes, and during the last trimester, the baby is larger and creates pressure on the diaphragm, which creates breathing problems,” Chokroverty says. “The baby also puts pressure on the bladder, so a pregnant woman needs to wake up during the night to urinate. Lower back pain and stress and anxiety during the last trimester also cause sleep disturbances.”
I haven’t seen a study that empirically shows that it’s helpful. There is certainly a false myth that we need eight hours of continuous sleep: I think it’s possible to have your sleep be a little bit broken up and be perfectly healthy—but getting that eight hours is crucially important. The thing is that the placebo effect in some of these polyphasic sleep methods runs really high.
If you routinely fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, you probably have sleep deprivation or a sleep disorder. Microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, are another mark of sleep deprivation. In many cases, people are not aware that they are experiencing microsleeps. Some suspect that the widespread practice of “burning the candle at both ends” among harried workaholics has changed perceptions so much that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now considered normal.
Unwind by keeping the lights low. Light signals the brain that it's time to wake up. Staying away from bright lights (including computer screens!), as well as meditating or listening to soothing music, can help your body relax. Try to avoid TV, computers and other electronics, and using your phone (including texting) at least 1 hour before you go to bed.
During the late '60s and early '70s, sleep studies suggested that the neurotransmitter serotonin may play a role in sleep induction. Later on, research in animals showed that destruction of parts of the brain that housed nerve cells containing serotonin could produce total insomnia. Partial damage to these areas of the brain caused variable decreases in sleep. The percentage of destruction of these particular nerve cells correlated with the amount of slow-wave sleep.
How valerian and hops help sleep: You can use valerian and hops separately to treat sleep problems. Valerian has been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly, reduce restless sleep, increase sleep amounts, and improve symptoms of insomnia. Research also shows valerian is effective in treating sleep problems linked to menopause. Hops itself can increase sleep time. Studies show these herbal supplements pair well together: according to research, hops may be more effective for sleep when in combination with valerian.
Sedative-hypnotic medications (benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines) can cause severe allergic reaction, facial swelling, memory lapses, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts or actions, and complex sleep-related behaviors like sleep-walking, sleep-driving (driving while not fully awake, with no memory of the event) and sleep-eating (eating in the middle of the night with no recollection, often resulting in weight-gain). If you experience any unusual sleep-related behavior, consult your doctor immediately.
Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. This helps set your body’s internal clock and optimize the quality of your sleep. Choose a bed time when you normally feel tired, so that you don’t toss and turn. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need an alarm clock, you may need an earlier bedtime.
Reducing sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about one-third. Excessive daytime sleepiness impairs memory and the ability to think and process information, and carries a substantially increased risk of sustaining an occupational injury. Long-term sleep deprivation from sleep disorders like apnea have recently been implicated in high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
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.
How glycine helps sleep: Glycine can improve symptoms of insomnia, and can help you bounce back to healthy sleep cycles after a period of disrupted sleep. A recent study of the effects of glycine as a supplement showed it triggered a drop in body temperature and at the same time helped people both fall asleep more quickly and spend more time in REM sleep. And glycine may help you move more quickly into deep, slow wave sleep.
Whole grain crackers. It’s not just a coincidence that you immediately want to take a nap after chowing down on a carb-heavy meal. Carbs cause your body’s blood sugar levels to spike, which appears to play a role in regulating your body’s sleep-wake clock, suggests a recent Japanese study. Still, you’ll probably get a stomachache and end up tossing and turning all night—by devouring a gigantic bowl of pasta. So pick a lighter option, like a handful whole grain crackers.
Adjust the thermostat. If you’re too hot or too cold at bedtime, sleep isn’t going to come easy. While there’s no ideal temperature for everyone, most people sleep comfortably when the bedroom is between 60 and 67 degrees. As you start to feel drowsy, your body temperature drops, which in turn helps you drift off to sleep. A cooler bedroom facilitates that. Don’t cool it off too much, though — shivering in bed isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep.