Genes may play a significant role in how much sleep we need. Scientists have identified several genes involved with sleep and sleep disorders, including genes that control the excitability of neurons, and "clock" genes such as Per, tim, and Cry that influence our circadian rhythms and the timing of sleep. Genome-wide association studies have identified sites on various chromosomes that increase our susceptibility to sleep disorders. Also, different genes have been identified with such sleep disorders as familial advanced sleep-phase disorder, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome. Some of the genes expressed in the cerebral cortex and other brain areas change their level of expression between sleep and wake. Several genetic models–including the worm, fruit fly, and zebrafish–are helping scientists to identify molecular mechanisms and genetic variants involved in normal sleep and sleep disorders. Additional research will provide better understand of inherited sleep patterns and risks of circadian and sleep disorders.
Night shift workers often have trouble falling asleep when they go to bed, and also have trouble staying awake at work because their natural circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle is disrupted. In the case of jet lag, circadian rhythms become out of sync with the time of day when people fly to a different time zone, creating a mismatch between their internal clock and the actual clock.
Science says, we’re supposed to get sleepy when the sun sets, but since we spend most of our nights indoors basking in the glow of our cell phones and tablets, our brains still think it’s daytime and refuse to shut down. So, here’s what you do: Put the gadgets away and watch the sunset. It being winter and all, that can be difficult. Philips’ Wake-Up Light ($180 at Amazon) offers the ability to fake it. Simply, set it to sunset simulation mode; it will gradually decrease light and sound (on your timeline) to help prepare your body for rest.
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.
Beyond food and plants, regular exercise and turning off electronics can make a huge difference in getting some rest. Exercise wears out the body and is one of the best natural remedies. As for electronics, the blue light emitted can trigger the brain to stay awake. Try developing a nightly bedtime routine that promotes relaxation and allows you to wind down. The brain will begin to associate the routine with sleep and help you get the rest you need.
Why is working out seemingly so beneficial? The mechanisms aren’t entirely known, but National Sleep Foundation experts say that it could have to do with exercise’s ability promote feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Staying active might also help to keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in sync—particularly if you do it outside (more on that below).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems by modifying negative thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior. A study at Harvard Medical School even found that CBT was more effective at treating chronic insomnia than prescription sleep medication—but without the risks or side effects. CBT can help to relax your mind, change your outlook, improve your daytime habits, and set you up for a good night’s sleep.
Everyone needs sleep, but its biological purpose remains a mystery. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
How L-theanine works: L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills. At the same time, L-theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety. L-theanine boosts production of alpha waves in the brain, which enhance relaxation, focus, and even creativity. That can make L-theanine a good choice for people who are looking to enhance their daytime relaxation without worrying about becoming sleepy and fatigued during the day.
This third one is what I study. The “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” is this idea that during the day, we make all these connections with the world around us. It used to be like, “Don’t go over there—the lions live there now.” Now it’s like, “What did Barbara say to me in the office?” These excitatory connections we make during the day result in the neurons in our brains getting overall higher activation. Then during the nighttime when we sleep, we have a downregulating process where the things that didn’t really matter to your survival sink to the bottom, and the things that are most relevant to your survival rise to the top. What deep sleep does is all the neural processing, and what REM sleep [rapid-eye-movement sleep] and light sleep do is basically integrate that into your long-term personality and understanding of the world.
Try “belly breathing.” Controlled, deep breathing is simply a way to direct your mind away from thoughts that might keep you awake. If you find your mind racing as you lie down to go to sleep, place a hand on your belly and breathe in deeply through your nose — so deeply that can feel the air filling your abdomen. Hold it for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth. Breathe mindfully like this for a few minutes, just trying to focus your attention on the rising and falling of your belly as you inhale and exhale. If your mind starts to wander, just bring it back to your breathing. The more often you practice this relaxation technique, the easier and more effective it will be.