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.
According to the European Neurology Journal, calcium levels are at their highest during our deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep periods. What this means is that if you never get to the REM sleep phase or if it’s limited, it could be related to a calcium deficiency. Researchers indicate that the calcium is important because it helps the cells in the brain use the tryptophan to create melatonin — a natural body-producing sleep aid. (4)
When it comes to sleep, the less blue light you expose yourself to in the hours before bedtime, the better. Light of any kind can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, but blue light waves do so more powerfully, thereby shifting sleep-friendly circadian rhythms, says Harvard Health Publications. Besides electronic devices like tablets and smartphones, the biggest blue-light offenders in your home are likely fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights, which many people use because of their energy efficiency and powerful light. Give yourself a romantic break from all the blue and eat dinner by candlelight.
Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in many parts of the brain become more active as we get ready for bed. Nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters can “switch off” or dampen the activity of cells that signal arousal or relaxation. GABA is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, and sedation. Norepinephrine and orexin (also called hypocretin) keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. Other neurotransmitters that shape sleep and wakefulness include acetylcholine, histamine, adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin.
It actually may be normal to wake up at night. When we find ourselves waking in the night, no matter the cause, we may conclude that something is wrong. If there are no consequences in daytime function, however, this may not be the case. It is normal to wake to roll over, adjust the covers, respond to noise, and maybe even to get up to urinate. (Waking to go to the bathroom is so common as we get older that you would be hard-pressed to call it "abnormal.") Many people get back to sleep easily and are unaffected. The problem begins when our poor sleep compromises our lives. If difficulty falling or staying asleep at night begins to have consequences, there is a motivation to seek the cause.
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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.
The most common reason why you can't sleep is also the most obvious: you are not tired. Your desire to sleep will be greatly diminished if you are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Imagine lying down three hours before your normal bedtime. The chance of you being able to fall right to sleep is pretty slim. This has to do with the circadian rhythm of our bodies. This system helps to coordinate our activities, including our desire for food and sleep, to the external environment. Problems with the timing of sleep may occur in the circadian rhythm sleep disorders, as well as in temporary conditions like jet lag.
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.
A smart tip for jetsetters: Pack melatonin supplements, such as Natrol Melatonin Fast Dissolve Tablets. The supplement helps your body better adjust to the new time zone, allowing you to fall asleep come bedtime and avoid jet lag. But the sleep aid isn’t just for jet lag. You can also pop the tablets when you have occasional sleepiness or when your sleep schedule shifts and you need to get your body into sleep mode. It’s recommended that you start with a small 1 mg dose (take it 20 minutes before bedtime). You can slowly increase your dosage, but don’t exceed 10 mg.
When it comes to feeling tired of feeling so tired, I'm certainly not alone. Insomnia is incredibly common in the U.S., with 30 to 40 percent of American adults experiencing some symptoms of insomnia each year. [Etiology of adult insomnia]. Dollander M. L'Encephale, 2003, Mar.;28(6 Pt 1):0013-7006. So for anyone out there who has developed an expertise in fruitlessly counting sheep, we've rounded up a few strategies for finally catching those long-lost Z's when you can't sleep. And if you’re reading this at 3 a.m. because your mind won’t stop racing, don’t worry; we have tips for what you can do right now to improve the chances of getting (at least some) sleep.
Unless you’re in pain, your sleep aid doesn’t need to include painkillers. Products like Advil PM, which combine antihistamines with painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, have name recognition. But Dr. Gary Zammit, the executive director of the Sleep Disorders Institute, suggested following this rule when it comes to medications: Treat the problem that you have.
If pretending you’re tired sounds like too much work for you, you might want to look into hypnosis. Get that image of a creepy guy swinging his pocket watch back and forth until you bark like a dog out of your head. We’re talking about watching a five-minute hypnosis video while tucked in your bed. (YouTube is full of them; search “hypnosis for sleep.”) It might sound like a bit of hogwash, but researchers from the universities of Zurich and Fribourg beg to differ. Their 2014 study on the subject concluded that hypnosis can actually increase the quality of sleep. Huzzah.
How glycine helps sleep: Glycine can improve symptoms of insomnia, and can help you bounce back to healthy sleep cycles after a period of disrupted sleep. A recent study of the effects of glycine as a supplement showed it triggered a drop in body temperature and at the same time helped people both fall asleep more quickly and spend more time in REM sleep. And glycine may help you move more quickly into deep, slow wave sleep.
The most important thing is taking that time off—it’s more conducive to your productivity. A lot of times people think they can like fight through and push harder and harder and harder to get better results, but sleep can give you that, too. When you transition in and out of sleep, your brain produces theta waves, which help you think more divergently. That’s why a lot of times when you wake up from a power nap or from sleeping, you’ll be able to solve that intractable problem that you couldn’t earlier in the day. That’s one of the reasons I think taking a break—whether it’s meditation or nap—during that circadian dip can be much more conducive to productivity.
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.
Unhealthy daytime habits and lifestyle choices can leave you tossing and turning at night and adversely affect your mood, brain and heart health, immune system, creativity, vitality, and weight. But by experimenting with the following tips, you can enjoy better sleep at night, improve your mental and physical health, and improve how you think and feel during the day.
It varies. There’s no clear answer. In our studies, we’ll play really loud sounds that people have no conscious awareness of at all: We can play a sound literally at 70 decibels, which is like someone screaming, and that’ll wake them up briefly and then they’ll go right back into the sleep stage that they were in. Other times you can get a full awakening, and you’ll have to go through the process again.
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.
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.
9. A light snack may be sleep-inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates or dairy products. Milk contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, which has been shown in research to help people go to sleep. So milk and cookies or crackers (without chocolate) may be useful and taste good as well.
Some people turn to “natural” sleep remedies or over-the-counter supplements, such as melatonin, to help them sleep. Melatonin may be helpful if you have insomnia caused by disruptions in your sleep/wake cycle, such as problems related to shift work, jet lag, and delayed sleep phase syndrome, but you should take it about five to six hours before bedtime. Also, some data suggest that taking magnesium supplements can promote sleep, especially in people with restless legs syndrome.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) usually focuses on discovering and changing the thoughts or feelings that trigger depression and stress but it can be a natural insomnia cure, too. Research has found that CBT can retrain your body and mind for faster, deeper sleep. In a Harvard University study of 63 insomniacs, CBT was more effective than prescription sleeping pills; it cut the time it took for participants to fall asleep in half and improved sleep quality by 17 percent. You can practice CBT at home, too. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping a sleep diary of when you go to bed and wake up, as well as banishing daytime naps. Instead, adopt a regular sleep schedule; that means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
Your health care provider may recommend a polysomnogram or other test to diagnose a sleep disorder. A polysomnogram typically involves spending the night at a sleep lab or sleep center. It records your breathing, oxygen levels, eye and limb movements, heart rate, and brain waves throughout the night. Your sleep is also video and audio recorded. The data can help a sleep specialist determine if you are reaching and proceeding properly through the various sleep stages. Results may be used to develop a treatment plan or determine if further tests are needed.
If your mind tends to race as soon as your head hits the pillow, put the brakes on this sleep-stealing habit by distracting yourself from rehashing the day’s events. One tip Breus offers his patients: Count down from 300 in multiples of three. “Because this task is mathematically complicated to do in your head,” he explains, “it forces your brain to focus on something else besides your worries.”
How magnesium helps sleep: This mineral has a range of scientifically-backed connections to sleep. Magnesium helps to regulate the body’s bio clock and melatonin. Low levels of magnesium are linked to low levels of melatonin. Research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people who sleep poorly. Magnesium can also help insomnia that’s linked to the sleep disorder restless-leg syndrome. This mineral can help with symptoms both mild-to-moderate anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression, which in turn can help you rest better.
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.
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.
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain, may also help you fall asleep faster when taken as a supplement. Triggered by the absence of light, this natural sleep aid regulates the body’s internal clock, ensuring we are tired at night and mentally and physically alert during the day. A recent study published in the journal Critical Care found that melatonin improved sleep quality and reduced nighttime disturbances in its healthy subjects, and experts from Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center discovered that melatonin supplements increased sleep time by 13 minutes. Supplements can be found in health food stores and pharmacies, but read up on the things you need to know before taking melatonin for sleep and talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is a suitable natural insomnia cure for you. Don’t miss the 10 best vitamins for sleep.
An average adult needs between 7.5 and 8 hours of sleep per night. “But many people can function with 6 hours' sleep, and there also some who need 9 hours or more,” says Sudhansu Chokroverty, MD, professor and co-chair of neurology and program director for clinical neurophysiology and sleep medicine at the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute at JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J.
Not only does lavender smell lovely, but the aroma of this flowering herb may also relax your nerves, lower your blood pressure, and put you in a relaxed state. A 2005 study at Wesleyan University found that subjects who sniffed lavender oil for two minutes at three, 10-minute intervals before bedtime increased their amount of deep sleep and felt more vigorous in the morning.
When you first start, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or you’ll want to speed up your counting, but if you stick to the numbers (or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks (in other words, consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 without resuming regular breathing), you can literally feel your heart rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically relax. It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8.