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.
To set the record straight about being horizontal, Quartz spoke to one of the world’s most-talked-about sleep scientists. Daniel Gartenberg is currently working on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Aging and is also a TED resident. (Watch his talk on deep sleep here.) He’s also an entrepreneur who has launched several cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps, including the Sonic Sleep Coach alarm clock. All that with 8.5 hours of sleep a night.
Social or recreational drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol may have a larger impact on your sleep than you realize. Caffeine, which can stay in your system as long as 14 hours, increases the number of times you awaken at night and decreases the total amount of sleep time. This may subsequently affect daytime anxiety and performance. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine, with a difference being that at low doses, nicotine tends to act as a sedative, while at high doses it causes arousals during sleep.
It may sound hippy dippy, but if you focus on it effectively, daydreaming about relaxing scenes can really help ease your mind. During visualization, know that it’s OK if your mind wanders but keep returning your focus to the scene. Try out different methods and audio tracks to see what works best for you. Visualization can also be a helpful mid-day stress reliever to keep in mind.
It’s tempting to reach for coffee when we’re tired after a poor night’s sleep, but drinking caffeine can make it harder for us to fall asleep at night, creating a vicious cycle. Effects of caffeine on sleep and cognition. Snel J, Lorist MM. Progress in brain research, 2011, Aug.;190():1875-7855. Can’t quit cold turkey? Try limiting caffeine intake to earlier in the day so it’s out of your system by bedtime.
Anyway, basically your biggest zeitgeber is sunlight, and that’s the environmental cue that controls energy levels as well. But then also timing of meals, exercise, and having a consistent bedtime are all zeitgebers that impact your circadian rhythm. A bigger part of the problem is that we’re indoors so much now, so we don’t get that natural occurring sunlight when you wake up in the morning. That’s one of the best things that you can do to entrench your circadian rhythm.
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.
The following steps are organized to provide you guidance and support in your efforts to sleep better. It can be implemented over the course of a month, with different tasks assigned to each of the 30 days. Major changes are spaced out in the schedule to allow prior tasks the time needed to take effect. Most of the first week, for example, focuses on improving your sleep environment after the recommendation to fix your waking time is in place—but some of the groundwork laid through self-reflection this week will provide a foundation later on. Similarly, as is later recommended, creating a relaxing buffer zone and going to bed when you feel sleepy will take some effort, while simultaneously rearranging the use of substances may come easier.
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.
Each person varies in their exact sleep requirements, but for most people, getting at least seven hours a night is needed for both a healthy body and a healthy mind. When we don’t sleep enough—or our quality of sleep is not optimal—our health can suffer. In fact, research has shown that regular bouts of poor sleep can shorten your expectancy and increase the risk of serious health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
If sleep has plunged to the bottom of your to-do list, you're not alone. Although the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, the average American logs only six hours and 40 minutes. What gives? Blame crazy schedules and, of course, sleeping woes. Before you rush to the drugstore to buy an over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medication, try one of the following natural sleep remedies. "These are safer and have fewer side effects than OTC medications," says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of From Fatigued to Fantastic and medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. Many of these can not only help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but they may also promote muscle relaxation.

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.
Clinical trials have not proven chamomile to be helpful for insomnia. Chamomile is an herb traditionally used to reduce muscle tension, soothe digestion, and reduce anxiety, which may help induce sleep. Sip a cup of hot chamomile tea after dinner, but don't drink it too close to the bed or you may have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Hops, passionflower, and ashwagandha are other herbs that are often used for insomnia. As with chamomile, they have not proven their effectiveness in studies.
Olson also advises that those who turn to over-the-counter sleep aids do so intermittently, to help avoid building a habit, and to check with their doctors that the medicine doesn't interfere with any of their conditions or medications. If you wind up on a Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription sleep aid, Walia points out that it should be for the short term.
Watch something boring. Just about everything you read about improving sleep advises you to avoid screen time before bed. But the truth is, a lot of people do it anyway. If you’re going to watch TV or your laptop in bed, watch something unexciting. Think a Ken Burns documentary, or an episode of House Hunters. No scary movies, thrillers, or the 11 o’clock news. If it’s likely to get your pulse racing, turn it off. There’s even a website for it — Napflix, which serves up the most snooze-worthy videos on YouTube (think Bonsai tree pruning or tropical fish swimming in an aquarium).
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