There are many reasons why people have a difficult time staying asleep. The good news is that common problems with sleep are often easily addressed without the use of medication or pharmaceutical sleep aids. There are no guaranteed natural cures for insomnia, but there are effective steps you can take, including natural sleep aids. Ask yourself these questions (and try the simple sleep aid recommendations) if you find yourself waking frequently in the night:
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This is a very serious matter, as the consequences of poor sleep can undermine your health and sleep deprivation may even lead to your death. There are serious symptoms and physical effects of sleep deprivation, including hallucinations. For all these reasons—and more—it is absolutely worthwhile to get the help that you need in order to sleep well and wake refreshed.
How much sleep do seniors need? Sometimes you’ll hear that you need less sleep as you get older, but that is incorrect. A 2014 study revealed that seniors actually require similar amounts of sleep as younger adults, as much as 9 hours, although they only get 7.5 hours on average. The issue is that with age, the neurons responsible for regulating our sleep patterns slowly die off. This causes seniors to wake up even if they’re not fully rested, and to suffer from insomnia that makes it difficult to fall asleep in the first place.
Another common cause of difficulty falling asleep is the activities that precede your bedtime. If you eat or drink too late, you may suffer from heartburn or frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom. There are general guidelines to improve sleep. Many of these are meant to reinforce positive sleep habits. You should go to bed and get up the same time every day. Irregular sleep schedules may set you up for sleep disruption. You should follow a bedtime routine, including quiet, relaxing activities to help transition to sleep. If you fail to unwind prior to bed, you may find yourself struggling to drift off to sleep.
Achieving the ideal temperature in the UK can feel like a challenge – especially during those extreme summer and winter months. But according to Senior Clinical Physiologist Ana Noia from the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, it's crucial. 'The temperature tends to drop at night, giving your brain a signal that it's time to sleep. That's why when we're on holiday somewhere hot, nodding off can be trickier. Equally, sleeping somewhere too cold isn't great – if your hands and feet are uncomfortably chilly, you might struggle to sleep at all.'
They discovered that we have these molecular pathways that are responsive to light and allow the body to synchronize to the comings and goings of the sun. When that is working at its most effective, and all the cells are working as a team, overall health is much better. I think most people don’t understand the importance of light and how we consume it. Artificial light is completely at odds with our biology.
There are several different types of prescription sleeping pills, classified as sedative hypnotics. In general, these medications act by working on receptors in the brain to slow down the nervous system. Some medications are used more for inducing sleep, while others are used for staying asleep. Some last longer than others in your system (a longer half-life), and some have a higher risk of becoming habit forming.
Sleep is an important part of reaching your health goals. Shakespeare called sleep “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Adequate sleep is a primary component of a healthy lifestyle. Although often the undesirable result of our busy lives, insufficient sleep may also be indicative of imperfect health, and can itself lead to future health problems.
Some newer medications don’t have the same chemical structure as a benzodiazepine, but act on the same area in the brain. They are thought to have fewer side effects, and less risk of dependency, but are still considered controlled substances. They include zalepon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien), and eszopiclone (Lunesta), which have been tested for longer-term use, up to six months.
While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, most older people still need at least 7 hours of sleep. Since older adults often have trouble sleeping this long at night, daytime naps can help fill in the gap.
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:
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.
Unfortunately, a person can't just accumulate sleep deprivation and then log many hours of sleep to make up for it (although paying back "sleep debt" is always a good idea if you're sleep deprived). The best sleep habits are consistent, healthy routines that allow all of us, regardless of our age, to meet our sleep needs every night, and keep on top of life's challenges every day.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT for insomnia aims to change the negative thoughts and beliefs about sleep into positive ones. People with insomnia tend to become preoccupied with sleep and apprehensive about the consequences of poor sleep. This worry makes relaxing and falling asleep nearly impossible. The basic tenets of this therapy include setting realistic goals and learning to let go of inaccurate thoughts that can interfere with sleep.
As an insomniac, I get it. Good nights of natural sleep are few and far between. You take any amount of shut eye you can get, whether its restful sleep or not. Unfortunately, for those of us who can't fall asleep or stay asleep with a disjointed sleep pattern, the effects turn into a real nightmare. Sleep deprivation not only leaves you feeling out of sorts the next day, but it can lead to a host of unhealthy side effects. The last thing you need to worry about when you can't sleep is how your lack of sleep is effecting your health. That's where natural sleep aids come in.
Finally, you may find yourself turning to over-the-counter medications to help your sleep. One of the most common is a naturally occurring hormone called melatonin. It is sold in many pharmacies and herbal supplement stores. It can be highly effective if you have insomnia related to a poorly timed circadian rhythm. As it has a low risk of major side effects (the most frequent is sleepiness), it might be an option to consider. Other herbal supplements (such as valerian root) do not have a lot of research supporting their efficacy.
But other times, insomnia can become a long-term thing. Sometimes, that can happen as the result of a more serious health condition, like depression, anxiety, or sleep apnea. Other times, insomnia can stem from crappy sleep habits, like eating too many heavy snacks before bed, sleeping in an uncomfortable environment, or staying glued to your smartphone or tablet all night long.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that insomnia is common among those who are depressed and notes that people with insomnia have a much higher risk of becoming depressed. (11) Research from the Department of Psychology at the University of North Texas shows that depression may affect many aspects of sleep, from getting to sleep to staying asleep. By treating depression using St. John’s wort, you may be able to find that restful sleep your body and mind longs for. (12)
Making it through each sleep stage is crucial to getting high-quality sleep, but exactly how many times do you need to go through the sleep cycle? Many people argue that they get by just fine on very little sleep. However, research shows that only a tiny fraction of people can function well on fewer than eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep expert David Dinges, PhD, estimates that, over the long haul, perhaps one person in a thousand can function effectively on six or fewer hours of sleep per night.
But remember: It's important to talk with your doctors about consistent sleep problems. You should also let them know if you're taking any type of sleep aid, natural or otherwise, to ensure there isn't a potential risk with existing health conditions or other medications you're taking, says clinical sleep educator Terry Cralle, RN. "Like all drugs, natural sleep remedies can have side effects and risks. I think it's good to get information about them and then discuss it with a healthcare provider."
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.
A very common cause of difficulty sleeping relates to stress and the intrusion of stimulating substances and activities. You may have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test or presentation. In periods of emotional stress, such as after the death of a loved one, you may also have trouble sleeping. This is called acute insomnia. It usually passes when these stressors resolve. Similarly, stimulants such as caffeine and even nicotine can disrupt your sleep.
5. If sleep doesn’t come, don’t become anxious or annoyed and try to force yourself to sleep. The more aggravated you become, the less likely you are to fall asleep. Instead, try to clear your mind and relax. For example, I find that making myself feel grateful for something soon sends me off to sleep. Alternatively, get up and do something relaxing and enjoyable for about half an hour before giving it another go. Don't worry too much about losing sleep: lying in bed with your eyes closed can provide some of the restorative benefits of sleep.
Factors that influence your sleep-wake needs include medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and what you eat and drink. Perhaps the greatest influence is the exposure to light. Specialized cells in the retinas of your eyes process light and tell the brain whether it is day or night and can advance or delay our sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to light can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep when awakened.
At some point or another, most of us will experience a short, unpleasant bout of insomnia. Often, it’s the result of stress or a change in routine (like a new work schedule or having a baby), or medications that mess with sleep like antidepressants, blood pressure meds, allergy meds, and corticosteroids. The good news is that usually, once you find a way to deal with the situation, your sleep pattern will get back to normal.
“Magnesium is my go-to recommendation for patients experiencing trouble sleeping,” says Dr. Goldstein. “It’s nature’s relaxer.” Magnesium plays an important role in helping to balance blood sugar and hormones; an imbalance in either could be affecting your sleep. By supplementing magnesium, “you’re replenishing a mineral that basically everyone needs, as well as helping to literally relax the body.” Before reaching for a traditional sleep aid, try starting off with magnesium to see if it makes a difference.
The science behind the technique explains that when people are stressed or anxious, they tend to under-breathe (breathe shortly and shallowly). By forcing oneself to slow your inhale, you take in more oxygen, force it to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath, and then exhale slowly to release carbon dioxide. "The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream."
Sleep medications, which are most useful for short-term sleeplessness, do require some caution, because they can result in hangovers the next day, or, even worse, lead you to eat, amble about, and even drive while asleep, with no memory of having eaten, ambled about, or driven. The FDA suggests that if you take Ambien, in particular, and at certain dosages, you shouldn’t drive the next day, or take part in other activities that necessitate your being completely awake, because the drug can remain in your system at levels that may affect your functioning.
Hypnosis is a state in which a person is more focused, aware, and open to suggestion. Although how it works is not understood, hypnosis may bring about physiological changes in the body such as decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and alpha wave brain patterns, similar to meditation and other types of deep relaxation. Hypnosis may be helpful in enhancing the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques. But the studies done so far are not well-designed.
One reviewer says that the Stress-Relax Tranquil Sleep Chewable Tablets have helped calm him down and stopped his mind from spinning when lying in bed. Someone else says that the tablets even help him get better sleep when having panic attacks. Try the Stress-Relax chewables for your own anxiety, but remember to see a professional if you feel that your stress is too much to manage.
Practice 15 minutes of simple, yoga-like poses (such as neck rolls, shoulder rolls, and arm and back stretches) to help your muscles unwind before hitting the sheets, says Helene A. Emsellem, MD, the medical director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland. But go slowly. “The goal is to loosen your muscles to prepare your body for a good night’s sleep, not increase your heart rate,” she explains.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice was conducted with cancer patients, a common group that has serious issues with sleeping well, to better understand whether aromatherapy using essential oils could help provide some much-needed healing shut-eye. Aromasticks were given to patients over a 13-week period. Of the participants, 94 percent reported using the aromasticks with 92 percent reporting that they would continue use. Bergamot oil and lavender oil, in addition to sandalwood, frankincense and mandarin, were combined to create the useful sleep-inducing blend. (7)
Reconditioning. A few simple steps can help people with insomnia to associate the bedroom with sleep instead of sleeplessness and frustration. For example, use the bed only for sleeping or sex and go to bed only when you're sleepy. If you're unable to sleep, move to another room and do something relaxing. Stay up until you are sleepy, and then return to bed. If sleep does not follow quickly, repeat.
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.
Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë’s prophetic wisdom that “a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,” sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality.
Uncomfortable bedding has been linked to poorer sleep quality, while a comfortable mattress can up the chances of a satisfying snooze—we swear by our Casper mattress. Effect of prescribed sleep surfaces on back pain and sleep quality in patients diagnosed with low back and shoulder pain. Jacobson BH, Boolani A, Dunklee G. Applied ergonomics, 2010, Jun.;42(1):1872-9126.
You know what happens when you don’t sleep well: You feel sluggish in the daytime, and your concentration suffers. Poor or insufficient sleep has been linked to other problems, too, such as declined immune function and an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. In your struggle to find out how to sleep better at night naturally, you’re willing to try just about anything.
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.
You’ve likely been told over and over again that a good night’s rest equals eight hours of sleep. But research shows it’s not the number of hours you sleep that matters the most – it’s the quality of the hours you are getting. The largest sleep study ever conducted on 1.1 million people shows that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters most. The researchers found that participants who slept only six and a half hours a night lived longer than those who slept eight hours. It’s easy to conclude that you’ll live longer if you sleep for six and a half hours a night, but the reality is more complicated. It’s possible that the healthiest people simply need less sleep. And when you’re getting good-quality sleep, you likely need less of it.
When you feel stressed or anxious, adrenaline courses through your veins, your heart beats at a rapid rate, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow. So before I get into the specifics behind how the 4-7-8 breathing trick works, I wanted to explain in my own words what it feels like when you try it. To me, the effect of the breathing technique feels almost like a sedative drug, because in order to hold your breath for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight—when your breath is so shallow and short—your body is forced to slow your heart rate. It has no choice. Holding your breath, and then slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain reaction. It feels like going from a mad-dash sprint to a finish line to a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park.