It seems like sleep should come naturally. But when it doesn't, you might quickly find yourself pleading, "Help me sleep!" It can be a frustrating, unnerving experience to have insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. You might lie awake for hours in bed at night. When you awaken without feeling refreshed, this problem quickly becomes a drag on the rest of your life and health.
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.
Kava. The root has long been a favorite among Pacific Islanders for promoting relaxation. In fact, one analysis found that kava was significantly more effective at treating anxiety than a placebo, and some preliminary research suggests it could also help treat insomnia. But like valerian, long-term use of the stuff isn’t advised, since it could have a negative impact on your liver.
Championed by best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil—and various wellness bloggers, the “4-7-8” breathing technique is purported to help you fall asleep in under a minute. The method is said to relax you by increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood stream, slowing your heart rate, and releasing more carbon dioxide from the lungs. According to DrWeil.com, here’s how you do it:
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.
Derived from acupuncture, acupressure is an alternative medicine technique based in the Chinese medical theory that a network of energy flows through specific points in your body. Pressing on these points is meant to restore balance and regulate your mind, body, and spirit. A faculty member from leading natural health university Bastyr University suggests these acupressure techniques to alleviate sleeplessness:
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.
If your bedroom is not a comforting and relaxing place, you’re not going to want to spend a lot of time there. Make adjustments to your bedroom so that it is dark, quiet, cool and cozy. A key factor in the comfort level of your bedroom is the bed itself, so make sure your mattress is big enough so you can move freely, new enough so it doesn’t cause aches and pains, and comfortable enough to support a good night’s sleep.
An ultra short episode of sleep is sufficient to promote declarative memory performance. Lahl O, Wispel C, Willigens B. Journal of sleep research, 2008, Apr.;17(1):1365-2869. But try to avoid napping after 3:00 or 4:00pm, as this can make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime. Effects of afternoon "siesta" naps on sleep, alertness, performance, and circadian rhythms in the elderly. Monk TH, Buysse DJ, Carrier J. Sleep, 2002, Feb.;24(6):0161-8105.
Unless certain medical conditions or medications are the cause of your sleeplessness, the most common culprit is anxiety, says Lisa Meltzer, an education scholar for the National Sleep Foundation and associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver. “If you’re anxious and worried, it’s very difficult to relax and fall asleep,” says Meltzer. “When you’re not sleeping well, you’ll be more anxious and you’ll have a harder time regulating emotion. It feeds on itself.”
We evolved from bacteria in the ocean that could differentiate sunlight from darkness—that’s what ended up forming the human eye. That means every organism is responsive to a circadian rhythm that’s largely dictated by sunlight. The photo receptors in our eyes pick up on sunlight, which controls the release of melatonin and all these other neurotransmitters that dictate your energy levels throughout the day.
Information on this website is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment. Any third party offering or advertising on this website does not constitute an endorsement by Andrew Weil, M.D. or Healthy Lifestyle Brands.
If any of this resonates with you, you might be interested in a new book by Henry Nicholls called Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest. Nicholls, a science journalist in England, chose the topic of sleep in part because of his personal experience with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. So he decided to write a book about how to sleep better.
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.
Of all the sleep tips you could ever read or hear about, the most important one is to stick to one sleep schedule—every day. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync and all of your other bodily functions will go smoother, including your sleep. You are probably squirming as you read this tip, thinking about your own sleep issues and how you have anything but a regular sleep routine.
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.
Generally, non-benzodiazepines have fewer drawbacks than benzodiazepines, but that doesn’t make them suitable for everyone. Some may find this type of sleep medication ineffective at helping them sleep, while the long-term effects remain unknown. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently directed the manufacturers of Ambien and similar sleeping pills to lower the standard dosage due to the serious risk of morning grogginess while driving, especially in women patients. Other side effects include:
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).
Slowed responses and dulled concentration from lack of sleep don't just affect school or sports performance, though. More than half of teens surveyed reported that they have driven a car while drowsy over the past year and 15% said they drove drowsy at least once a week. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that more than 100,000 accidents, 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 people are killed in the U.S. every year in crashes caused by drivers who are simply tired. Young people under the age of 25 are far more likely to be involved in drowsy driving crashes.
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.
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.
Memory consolidation: While you sleep, the brain repeatedly replays remembered events from that day; if these phases are interrupted, memories aren’t fully formed, or even not formed at all. This is part of what helps you learn new skills. One study found that mice doing an hour’s training followed by sleep would ‘learn more’ than mice who did three hours of training but were then sleep deprived. This process is the result of connections forming between neurons, which happens more often during sleep.
If you’re experiencing sleep debt, you may be tempted to take a nap as a quick fix; however, this isn’t the ideal solution. Naps can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night and can further disrupt your sleep schedule; if you absolutely have to nap, keep it to an hour or so during peak sleepiness hours in the afternoon, but keep it short, or else you might not be able to fall asleep that night.
We need to sleep to think clearly, react quickly, and create memories. In fact, the pathways in the brain that help us learn and remember are very active when we sleep. Skimping on sleep has a price. Cutting back by even 1 hour can make it tough to focus the next day and slow your response time. Studies have shown that when you lack sleep, you are more likely to make bad decisions and take more risks. This can result in poor performance on the job or at school and a greater risk for an accident or car crash.
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.
It’s the middle of the night, and you’re staring at the ceiling, thinking about work, or bills, or the kids. Sleep just won’t come, so you reach for a sleeping pill. But did you know that sleep medications are rarely meant for more than short-term use? They can cause dependence and tolerance, and the benefits don’t always outweigh the risks. Learn what you need to know about the side effects and safety concerns of common sleep medications—as well as effective insomnia treatments that don’t come in pill form.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia is a pretty common technique. Also called CBT-I, the therapy typically involves self-monitoring, mental strategies (like developing positive thoughts about sleep), and creating an environment that promotes sleep—and it’s been shown to improve sleep quality. Self-help treatment for insomnia symptoms associated with chronic conditions in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Morgan K, Gregory P, Tomeny M. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2012, Oct.;60(10):1532-5415. Learn these strategies with the help of a therapist or with online guidance or books—both are equally effective ways of implementing CBT-I. Efficacy of a behavioral self-help treatment with or without therapist guidance for co-morbid and primary insomnia—a randomized controlled trial. Jernelov, S., Lekander, M., Blom, K., et al. Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. BMC Psychiatry, 2012 Jan 22;12:5 Not into seeing a therapist? Check out Sleepio, a digital program that helps users learn about and implement CBT practices from the comfort of their own homes.
4. Sleep in a familiar, dark, and quiet room that is adequately ventilated and neither too hot nor too cold. If possible, try to use this room for sleeping only, so that you come to associate it with sleep. In time, your room could become another sleeping cue. If your sleeping environment is sub-optimal, try to use aids such as earplugs or a sleeping mask.
The research team, led by Floor Kroese, surveyed 177 people on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to assess what bedtime procrastination is and who is likely to do it. They asked participants to rate, on a scale of 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always) how much the following statements applied to them ("R" items are those that are not typical of bedtime procrastinators):
Clean your room. Get rid of the cobwebs, dust the shelves, vacuum the floor. Empty the wastepaper basket. Remove dirty plates, cups, and water-bottles. A clean room sets the emotional stage for your room being a safe, healthy place, not a neglected dumping-ground to wallow in. Also, regular cleaning can alleviate allergies which can disrupt sleep. It also keeps pests like mice, rats, and cockroaches from invading your space.
That was really interesting. If you have an extreme case of depression, sometimes some therapists will sleep deprive you a little bit. It’s basically to activate your fight-or-flight response and jolt you out of your depression. But things like empathy and working with others are also impacted when you’re sleep deprived, and you’re also more sensitive to pain. Some people are studying this link to address the opioid epidemic and through actually sleeping better: Chronic pain might be associated with deep sleep.
Evaluate your room. Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep. Your bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees. Your bedroom should also be free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. Finally, your bedroom should be free from any light. Check your room for noises or other distractions. This includes a bed partner's sleep disruptions such as snoring. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.
Medicate with caution. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, Walia and Olson do not recommend drugs as a first choice for relieving sleeplessness. Ideally, the tips above and improved sleep hygiene should do the trick. But, should you choose a sleep aid, Olson reminds people that, of course, they make you sleepy. This grogginess is great at 11 p.m., but not at 7 a.m. – when you have to drive a car.
You’ve got an early day tomorrow, and you know you should be asleep — but instead you’re just lying there, wide awake, watching the minutes tick by on the clock. It’s called sleep-onset insomnia, and the irony is, the more you worry about falling asleep, the less likely you’ll be able to. But there are some easy things you can do to break the cycle. Below we discuss simple changes to your lifestyle and your sleep environment that can help you fall asleep faster and get a more restful night’s sleep.