The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
So soak up as much natural light as you can, even those last few minutes of blue light after the sun has gone down. And then avoid wandering around in bright artificial light as much as possible. And if you happen to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, whatever you do, don’t turn on those bright LED lights, because that will make it much harder to fall back asleep.
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.*
During deep sleep, you get these long-burst brainwaves that are called delta waves, but during REM, your brainwaves are actually functioning very similarly to waking life. Your body is also paralyzed during REM—it’s a very noticeable physiological difference. You also lose thermo-regulation, meaning if it’s hot in your environment, your body gets hot, kind of like you’re a chameleon.
Postpone worrying and brainstorming. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when it will be easier to resolve. Similarly, if a great idea is keeping you awake, make a note of it on paper and fall back to sleep knowing you’ll be much more productive after a good night’s rest.
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.
So what do you do? The second step to racking more zzz's is to perfect your sleep hygiene. That means developing a regular sleep schedule, using your bed only for sleep and intimacy, and ditching electronics and caffeine well before bedtime. Here's a sleep hygiene guide to get you started. But that second step is for the daylight hours. The first step is to get to sleep now – pronto – so you can grab at least a couple hours before the birds start chirping.
We swear, we’re not pulling your leg. Try and remember what you physically feel like when you’re tired: Do your arms go limp? Do your eyes roll back into your head? Now, mimic those physical signs: While lying in bed, think of a weight pressing evenly across your entire body. Okay, that sounds a little scary, but concentrating on the weight will stop other thoughts (e.g. the school lunches you still have to pack for tomorrow) from distracting you. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself waking up the next day, wondering how the heck you fell asleep so fast.
What you’re eating and drinking and when you’re enjoying it affects your sleep. Try to finish eating 2 to 3 hours before bedtime so your whole system is ready to relax. Drink alcohol in the early evening instead of right before bed so your body has time to digest it before you hit the sack. Make caffeine a morning-only drink and stick to other beverages in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine stays in your system longer than you might think and can disrupt your sleep.
Are you physically uncomfortable? A too soft or too firm mattress, an uncomfortable pillow, or an older, worn-out bed can all impede a good night’s sleep. Check your mattress for signs of wear at least twice a year, and consider new pillows. You may also want to see an osteopathic physician who specializes in osteopathic manipulative therapy. A session or two of this safe and effective sleep aid treatment can be life-changing.
Reading books on electronic devices before bedtime disrupts the body’s natural sleep rhythms, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, 12 people read a book on an electronic device for 4 hours before bed, in a dimly lit room, for 5 consecutive nights. On another 5 nights, they read a real printed book on the same schedule. When using an electronic device, they were less drowsy, took longer to fall asleep, and were less alert in the morning. According to the researchers, use of electronic devices suppressed melatonin levels, making it more difficult to get a good night’s rest.
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.
Studies have shown that exercise during the day can improve sleep at night. When we exercise, we experience a significant rise in body temperature, followed a few hours later by a significant drop. This drop in body temperature makes it easier for us to fall and stay asleep. The best time to exercise is late afternoon or early evening, rather than just before bed. Aim for at least 30 minutes four times a week. Aerobic exercises are the best to combat insomnia as they increase the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood.
SOURCES: Sleep Medicine, Kryger, Meir, et al., Third Edition, 2000. Sleep: "Excessive Daytime Sleepiness and risk of Occupational Injuries in Non-shift Daytime Workers," Vol. no. 3. Sleep: "Dose-response Relationship Between Sleep Duration and Human Psychomotor Vigilance and Subjective Awareness," Vol. 22, No. 2. Sleep: "We Are Chronically Sleep Deprived," Vol. 18 No. 10.
Get comfy in bed and try what's known as the "4-7-8" breathing exercise. "This technique is also known as 'The Relaxing Breath' and helps promote better sleep," Tramonte says. To do it, simply breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold it for seven, then breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight. And just like that you'll be asleep.
If you're a smartphone user, you'll have seen countless devices and apps that promise to measure sleep cycles. But Anna is dubious. 'Equipment like Fitbits aim to record levels of activity, measuring each time you move the device. The way they measure 'sleep' is by noting a period of motionless – predicting that's when we're sleeping. But there are issues with this – people often wake but don't move, for example. Just because we're still doesn't mean we're necessarily asleep.'
Although it's common to have the occasional sleepless night, insomnia is the inability to sleep or excessive wakening in the night that impairs daily functioning. Of natural remedies, three have been shown to be useful, and others have some preliminary but inconclusive evidence. Since chronic lack of sleep may be linked to a number of health problems (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression), it's important to consult your physician and avoid self-treating with alternative medicine. Here are 14 natural remedies to consider:
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a herbal home remedy, brewed as a tea or taken as a supplement, that is commonly used to reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality, and act as a sedative. Clinical trials of valerian have had inconsistent results for insomnia. Studies measuring sleep quality have found no difference between people taking valerian and those taking a placebo. However, a sizable number of people in the studies anecdotally reported that their sleep quality improved with valerian.
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.
Valerian. Like chamomile tea, folk practitioners have turned to the root of this flowering plant to easy anxiety and promote relaxation. And it works: According to a review of sixteen studies, valerian root is shown to help people doze off faster and sleep more soundly. It might not be ideal for long-term use, though, so talk with your doctor before starting a valerian regimen.
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.
From having occasional difficulty sleeping to insomnia, there is a lot you can do to get a better night's sleep, feel refreshed when you awake, and remain alert throughout the day. It's called "sleep hygiene" and refers to those practices, habits, and environmental factors that are critically important for sound sleep. And most of it is under your control.
1. I go to bed later than I had intended. 2. I go to bed early if I have to get up early in the morning. (R) 3. If it is time to turn off the lights at night I do it immediately. (R) 4. Often I am still doing other things when it is time to go to bed. 5. I easily get distracted by things when I actually would like to go to bed. 6. I do not go to bed on time. 7. I have a regular bedtime which I keep to. (R) 8. I want to go to bed on time but I just don't. 9. I can easily stop with my activities when it is time to go to bed.
Yes, it sucks when it’s 2 a.m. and you still don’t feel tired, despite knowing you need rest. But climbing into bed when you don’t feel ready for sleep is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, engage in relaxing activities (like gentle yoga and meditation or listening to soothing music) until you get the strong urge to snooze. If sleep hasn’t come within 20 minutes, get back out of bed and try relaxing activities again until you’re sleepy enough to give it another go.
Whether you’re scrambling to meet the demands of a busy schedule or just finding it hard to sleep at night, getting by on less sleep may seem like the only answer. But even minimal sleep loss can take a substantial toll on your mood, energy, mental sharpness, and ability to handle stress. And over the long-term, chronic sleep loss can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. By understanding your nightly sleep needs and how to bounce back from sleep loss, you can finally get on a healthy sleep schedule and improve the quality of your waking life.
Of course logging your troubles is all well and good, but it's a habit you build in the light of day, during the hours when you're supposed to be studious and bright. It's not particularly helpful when you're wide awake at 4 a.m. At that point, Walia suggests, "jotting down all your worries on a piece of paper so it's out of your head." And try the breathing, muscle relaxation and visualization techniques above.
Use sleeping aids and devices: Experiment with white noise machines, adjustable beds, sleep masks, and indoor air purifiers if you need help sleeping. White noise machines or noise reducers create ambient or white noise, which makes it more difficult for a sleeper to hear any potentially disruptive noises. Adjustable beds can alleviate pain that can disturb sleep, especially for those suffering from hip and knee pain or acid reflux disease. A sleep mask tricks the brain into falling asleep more quickly for people who need to sleep or nap during daylight, and indoor air purifiers lessen symptoms suffered by those with allergies or nasal congestion.
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.