A good night’s sleep is one of the most important requirements for good health. Yet, an alarming number of us find it nearly impossible to experience consistent, restorative sleep. In fact, Americans are plagued with sleep problems. According to a study published March 2104 in the journal Maturitas, one out of four people are not satisfied with their sleep. The Centers for Disease Control report that 62% of American adults experience problems with sleep at least a few nights a week and over 40 million suffer with chronic sleep disorders. Almost one third of us sleep less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours a night.
Sleep disorders fall into two major categories: Difficulties falling asleep; or more commonly, trouble staying asleep. Poor sleep isn’t a minor problem. The consequences can be significant—even fatal. They include chronic fatigue, daytime sleepiness, difficulties concentrating, mood disturbances, depression, relationship problems, and impaired driving and motor skills that may lead to potentially deadly accidents.
If you are one of the millions who struggle getting a full night’s rest each night, you probably have spent many a sleepless night wondering why you can’t sleep and if there is anything you can do that will help. The answers to these two questions begin with understanding a few basics about how we fall asleep.
Midnight and Melatonin
The wonders of slumber begin with your sleep hormone “melatonin.” The pineal gland, located near the center of your brain, starts to release melatonin when it begins to get dark outside. If you go to bed by 10 p.m. and shut off all the lights, there is a spike in melatonin between midnight and 2 a.m. Researchers have discovered this peak is essential for good health.
Melatonin is not just your sleep hormone. It also has many other essential functions including supporting your immune system, neutralizing the damage from oxygen free radicals, and balancing other hormones including estrogen.
If you consistently stay up too late—especially midnight or beyond—your melatonin levels are flattened.
The consequences of being a night owl can be devastating: Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity rates double; the risk of certain cancers such as breast cancer soar; and your life expectancy shortens.
There are a variety of factors that can dampen the flow of melatonin. First, melatonin is extremely sensitive to light. Therefore, it is very important that you make your bedroom as dark as possible. Shut off all the lights, pull the shades, and wear an eye mask if necessary. Next, melatonin is undermined by electrical magnetic frequencies (EMFs). EMFs are produced by all wired and wireless devices, including your computer. Avoiding any device with a screen for several hours before going to sleep is especially important because these electronics provide a double-whammy against melatonin by producing both EMFs and light. For this same reason, don’t use electric clocks in your bedroom—choose battery powered ones instead. Finally, avoid excess alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants because they also suppress melatonin.
Pharmaceutical Sleeping Pills
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the results of a sleep study in 2013 which involved interviewing approximately 17,000 American adults from 2005 through 2010. The study found that nearly 9 million of U.S. adults take prescription sleeping pills. Most taking these medications were given their first prescriptions in their 40s or 50s. White women with a higher education were found to use these drugs more often than any other group.
If you think taking prescription pills is the best solution for your sleeping issues, think again. According to a 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal, sleeping pills are fraught with potentially serious side effects ranging from erratic behavior including sleep walking, falling, hangovers, and impaired judgment; to cancer and death.
Before you reach for a pharmaceutical sleep aid, try some of these tips first.
12 Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep:
- Eat three nutritious meals a day. Your evening meal should be light and early—before 7 p.m. if possible. If you eat a heavy meal too late, you will be “digesting” instead of sleeping.
- Exercise regularly, preferably early in the morning. Exercising in the evening—especially strenuous exercise—is too stimulating.
- Go to bed by 10 p.m. and get up by 6 a.m. Research shows these are the optimal hours for sleep to regulate hormones, help the body detoxify, and experience the deepest stages of rest.
- Eliminate or severely restrict stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol.
- Wear comfortable clothing to bed.
- Keep your room cool.
- Avoid hot spicy foods, especially at dinner.
- Turn off the TV and do not bring work-related material into the bedroom.
- Because stress significantly interferes with your ability to sleep, avoid watching disturbing television news or movies in the evening. Keep the damaging effects of chronic stress to a minimum by practicing an effective stress-reducing technique daily such as Transcendental meditation, qi gong, or yoga.
- Help yourself to relax before bed by gently massaging your hands, feet, and neck.
- Listen to soothing music in bed. According to a 2005 study conducted by Dr. Marion Good at Case Western Reserve University, listening to soothing music for 45 minutes in bed improved subjects sleep quality by an average of 35% over three weeks.
- Take a warm bath in the evening. Several studies show that a warm bath one or two hours before going to bed can help you to fall asleep. For instance, a 1999 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that elderly subjects who took a ten minute evening bath, fell asleep faster and experienced better quality sleep.
Supplements for Sleep
There are a number of supplements that can help your slumber without the dangerous side effects of pharmaceutical sleep aids. Research shows the most effective include melatonin and 5-HTP; the minerals calcium and magnesium; vitamin B12; and the amino acids taurine and L-tryptophan.
Herbs for Unwinding
There are also several herbs that have a relaxing effect and can help to gently lure you to sleep. Valarian, passion flower, hops, kava kava, skullcap, lemon balm and chamomile tea are just a few that have been proven by research be especially soothing.
If you have trouble sleeping, please first try all the gentle, natural approaches presented above rather than using pharmaceutical medications which can cause disturbing side effects. You may also want to create a ritual that is most relaxing for you—one that best prepares you to ease into this extraordinarily powerful, health-promoting, sublime activity.
You may discover that soothing music, warm baths with lavender and chamomile, gentle massages, perhaps reading an uplifting book or hearing the calming voice of an audio book; or simply being in quiet meditation or prayer consistently lulls you to sleep. Find what works for you. Make it a nightly ritual or habit so that your mind/body will learn to anticipate this glorious restorative state and will quickly and effortlessly drop you into peaceful sleep.
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Päivi Polo-Kantola et al. “A population-based survey of sleep disturbances in middle-aged women – Associations with health, health related quality of life and health behavior.” Maturitas, Volume 77, Issue 3, Pages 255–262
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.htm
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