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.
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.
Benzodiazepines are the oldest class of sleep medications still commonly in use. Benzodiazepines as a group are thought to have a higher risk of dependence than other insomnia sedative hypnotics and are classified as controlled substances. Primarily used to treat anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines that have been approved to treat insomnia include estazolam (brand name ProSom), flurazepam (Dalmane), quazepam (Doral), temazepam (Restoril), and triazolam (Halcion).
Many herbal tonics support adrenal health and help balance energy levels, which allow us to work, exercise, and digest during the day, then drop into an alpha state during the night. My favorite herb for insomnia is ashwagandha, which helps to relax the body. Try 500–1,000 mg at bedtime for 6–12 months until you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern. Other effective bedtime herbs include valerian (especially if pain is part of your disturbed sleep quality), passionflower, lemon balm, and California poppy.
Sleep deprivation for even one or two nights can vastly affect your need for sleep. Unlike many things in life, sleep time is not something that is routinely changed. You can’t get used to a lower amount of sleep just because it fits your schedule. If you try to, it will affect your judgment and reaction time, even if you are not consciously aware of it. But you can’t resist it for long. Sleep deficit can be cured only by getting some sleep.
2. Minimize noise, light, and temperature extremes during sleep with ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner. Even the slightest nighttime noises or luminescent lights can disrupt the quality of your sleep. Try to keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature -- not too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees).
The more overstimulated your brain becomes during the day, the harder it can be slow down and unwind at night. During the day, many of us overstress our brains by constantly interrupting tasks to check our phones, emails, or social media. Try to set aside specific times for these things, and focus on one task at a time. When it comes to getting to sleep at night, your brain won’t be accustomed to seeking fresh stimulation and you’ll be better able to unwind.
Ongoing sleep deficiency can lower your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infections. It can trigger mood changes like irritability, depression, and anxiety. And studies have linked insufficient sleep to weight gain; increased risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes; and even shorter life expectancy.
Researchers from a Swiss study published in the journal Nature observed that warm feet and hands were the best predictor of rapid sleep onset. In the study, participants placed a hot water bottle at their feet, which widened the blood vessels on the surface of the skin, thereby increasing heat loss. Shifting blood flow from your core to your extremities cools down your body, working in concert with melatonin.
Goel, N., Kim, H., & Lao, R. P. (2016, October 27). An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiology International, 22(5), 889–904. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Namni_Goel/publication/7469424_An_Olfactory_Stimulus_Modifies_Nighttime_Sleep_in_Young_Men_and_Women/links/5811f6b408ae9b32b0a34d4b.pdf
Some sleep researchers believe that it might be normal to be awake some during the night. (The fact that you sleep straight through the night without budging may again be a sign of inadequate time spent sleeping and increased sleep pressure.) This phenomenon of being awake at night is called "quiet wakefulness" and is often observed when the sleep habits of non-Western cultures are studied. When people sleep in a group in close quarters, there is more time spent awake during the night. This makes sleep a more fluid concept. Time may be spent chatting, eating a snack or engaging others around you. In history, fragmented sleep with periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night was common, reflected in the midnight adventures seen in the plays of Shakespeare, for example.
Keep your room cool, clean, dark, and quiet. Do your best to keep the temperature in your bedroom just below 70 °F (21 °C). Sleeping in a hot and uncomfortable area is not a good or relaxing way to sleep, so do your best to get air regulation throughout the room. Clean up regularly, and change your sheets every 1 to 2 weeks, or whenever they’re dirty. A cluttered space can increase stress, and it can be tough to relax if your sheets are smelly.
Valerian. Valerian is a sedating herb that has been used since the second century A.D. to treat insomnia and anxiety. It is believed to work by increasing brain levels of the calming chemical GABA. Although the use of valerian for insomnia hasn’t been extensively studied, the research shows promise and it is generally considered to be safe and non-habit forming. It works best when taken daily for two or more weeks.
But with schools continuing to open at ridiculously early times and bosses still mostly unwilling to embrace the science calling for shorter workdays, it's hard to see how most of us are realistically going to either sleep in later or get to bed earlier (especially if, you know, you want to squeeze in fluffy extras like seeing your loved ones, feeding yourself, and enjoying life in the evenings).