By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Having trouble sleeping? In this article – which I hope can help, if you are – I share with you common reasons behind lack of sleep, as well as why sleep is so important, and why sleeping pills aren’t the answer. I also suggest many natural ways to help you get more sleep.
Though we spend about one third of our lives sleeping, for many, sleep does not come easy. Insomnia is defined by the inability to either fall asleep or stay asleep. It’s a problem that affects a huge number of people − an estimated one-third of the urban American population needs to get more sound, recuperative sleep. In Brazil, the country with the highest self-reported prevalence, the number is 40 percent.
Why You May Have Trouble Sleeping
There are literally a ton of reasons why people can’t sleep. Some people are just more susceptible to insomnia than others, but for most people, here are some of the most common reasons:
- Chronic stress
- Declining hormones (such as progesterone)
- Medications: such as antidepressants and high blood pressure drugs, and even cold and asthma meds
- Keeping erratic hours (like shift work) that upsets the biological clock
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Light sleep disorders: restless leg syndrome and disrupted breathing such as occurs with apnea and snoring
- Physical illnesses
- Woken up by infants / toddlers
- Spouse / significant other snores
Why You Need to Get More Sleep
Sleep loss causes major disturbances in how we function during the day, including lost productivity. Many acute and degenerative illnesses are linked to sleeping disorders. A chronic lack of sleep makes you more prone to infections, irritability, and depression, of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, and even putting on excess weight because you become more attracted to eating foods high in calories and carbohydrates.
Humans have resorted to a creative variety of weapons in their fight against insomnia. Actress Marlene Dietrich found her way to sleep, so she said, with a sardine and onion sandwich on rye. President Theodore Roosevelt preferred cognac in a glass of milk. Charles Dickens discovered restful sleep only in a bed pointing due north and with him lying precisely in the middle of the mattress. A sleepless Benjamin Franklin would arise from the bed in order to let it air and cool. Once the sheets were cold, he would slip underneath them again and try to fall asleep.
Sleeping Pills Aren’t the Answer
In our modern pill age, the pharmaceutical industry pushes colorful, artificially- dyed drugs that slam bedtime brakes on accelerating minds. Though powerfully effective, pharmaceutical sleep aids are addictive and deadly (the deaths of entertainment greats Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe were both reportedly linked to sleeping pills).
Daniel F. Kripke, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California–San Diego who has been studying sleep disorders since 1973, says unequivocally that the use of sleeping pills shortens lives by increasing the risk of suicide and other causes of death. They are “unsafe in any amount,” he says.
Natural Remedies to Get More Sleep
Below you’ll find a list of natural sleep solutions I’ve gathered over the years and recommended to patients. I have used some of them myself. Some of them you’ll recognize; others, perhaps not. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for you may not work for a friend or spouse, and you may need to use more than one of them to be successful.
- Go to bed about the same time each night – ideally you want to get in bed (and sleep, not watch TV or use your laptop) before 10:00 p.m. Going to bed earlier puts you more in line with your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle. Throughout most of human history, we’ve gone to sleep early and woken up early.
- Eat only light snacks after 7:30 p.m. – heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine ingested too close to bedtime can make it impossible to fall asleep. You also run the risk of indigestion which can also keep you up. Avoid refined sugar − it can trigger an insulin response that is likely to make you toss and turn a lot. If you get hungry in the late evening, have a light “tryptophan snack” − such as a turkey sandwich or a glass of warm milk. Tryptophan is an amino acid you get from food that is used by the body to make the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin, both of which are associated with better sleep. Milk also contains calcium, which helps the brain use the tryptophan.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark – darkness signals your body to produce melatonin, the brain hormone that’s the key to deep, restful sleep. Make sure your curtains or blinds block all light from the outside and the room is well ventilated. A cool environment helps keep your nasal passages moist and helps permit better oxygen delivery to your lungs.
- Ground or “Earth” – In case you haven’t heard about it, Earthing is connecting to the Earth’s natural, gentle energy by either being barefoot outdoors or in contact with conductive bed sheets and mats indoors for a period of time each day. Earthing is creating a big buzz in the health world. Among other things, it can calm the nervous system, reduce inflammation and pain, and promote blood flow. People have reported sleeping better, feeling better, and having more energy. Earthing is a landmark health discovery, in my opinion.
- Minimize ambient electro-magnetic fields (EMFs)– some people are bothered by the electric fields radiating from appliances and wires in the wall close to the bed. These fields can trigger sleep disturbances and, in some sensitive individuals, headaches, fatigue, stress, prickling and burning sensations of the skin, and muscle aches. One patient told me she resolved her insomnia after removing her computer, radio, night light, and TV from the bedroom. Here’s an easy rule of thumb: if the device is something that you plug in, keep it away from where you sleep. This includes electric clocks, radios, and TVs. I unplug − not just turn off − the lamp next to the bed, and my bedroom clock runs on batteries (batteries have an electrical field as well, but the intensity of it is minimal compared to plug-in devices). Additionally, you can counteract the effects of EMF on your body by sleeping on an Earthing sheet and connecting to the Earth’s electrically balancing energy.
- Don’t watch the late news – news is full of stress and negativity that can interfere with sleep if you tune in before bedtime. Wait until morning to check on what’s happening in the world. The same goes for sports events − they rev up your mind. I’ll never forget one of my heart patients who suffered an angina attack and a sleepless night after watching a seesaw basketball game involving his favorite team. Instead of watching the news (or the game), use your time before bed for activities that settle a stressed and agitated mind − for example, meditation, prayer, or listening to soothing music.
- Cut back on physical exertion – The same way you have to slow down a car before you can park it, you need to relax and calm your body before going to sleep. Physical activity too close bedtime − whether it’s a regular workout or simple house cleaning − leaves you running in high gear. One exception to this rule is cuddling and sexual activity that leaves you relaxed afterward.
- Take a bath – Have you ever noticed that children fall asleep more easily after a warm bath? A bath can be very relaxing and soothing, and a great opportunity to dive into a good book or magazine. Allow yourself the time to unwind.
Supplements to Help You Sleep
There is a whole spectrum of natural remedies that can be tried before bedtime. Here are the ones I recommend the most:
- Melatonin is the hormone produced by the pineal gland behind your forehead. The level rises with darkness and declines at dawn. Research on the sleep-promoting effect of melatonin supplements is inconclusive. It’s worked for some of my patients, like magic, but not for others. I wouldn’t recommend it for people with depression, as I have found that it sometimes makes the depression worse. Dosage: 500 mcg-2 mg.
- Magnesium is a great muscle relaxant. Dosage: 250-500 mg.
- 5HTP, an amino acid, is a precursor to the important neurotransmitter serotonin that is involved in mood and sleep regulation. Dosage: 50-100 mg.
- L-Theanine, another amino acid, has been shown to improve sleep quality and recovery from exhaustion. Dosage: 200-400 mg.
With the help of all these natural sleep remedies, counting sheep can become a thing of the past!
“O sleep, O gentle sleep,
“Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
“That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
“And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”
Shakespeare, Henry IV
- Kripke DF, et al. Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen Psychiatr. 2002;59(2):137–138.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is insomnia.Nhlbi.nih.gov, accessed June 4, 2013.
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