It’s somewhat paradoxical that just worrying about not getting enough sleep can actually trigger insomnia, but that’s precisely the case. That’s just one reason, though, that 43 percent of people between the ages of 13 and 64 say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep — about 7 to 9 hours for most adults on weeknights, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America poll.
These results are troubling, because more and more research is showing that lack of sleep can result in an unhealthy changes in the body. Increased body fat, a higher risk for diabetes and heart problems, and even an increased risk for depression and substance abuse can plague the insomniac. The ability to learn new information and pay attention is decreased, and as you might expect, there’s an increased risk of getting in a car accident. Even worse, a British study that compiled the results of hundreds of sleep studies over the course of 25 years — covering more than a million people — showed that sleeping less than six hours a night was associated with a 12 percent increase in premature death. And now researchers think lack of sleep may increase the risk of developing the plaques in the brain that characterize Alzheimer’s.
Clearly sleep troubles are nothing to snooze at. If it takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, if you have problems staying asleep three nights a week for a month or longer, or if your sleep isn’t restful and restorative, it’s time for a visit to your doctor to discuss possible causes.
In the meantime, if occasional sleep problems are stressing you out, here are some ideas to try, starting tonight.
“I’ve learned through my patients that when they eliminate caffeine, they start sleeping better,” says Dr. Kari Straub, a naturopathic physician at Spokane Natural Medicine Clinic. One of the things she asks patients with sleep problems to do is initiate a trial elimination of caffeine for one month.
Dr. Hans P.A. Van Dongen agrees. Van Dongen is the assistant director of the Washington State University Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane. “People will say, ‘I need it every morning,’ and it works really well [to wake us up], which is why we keep drinking it, but at the same time, you build up a tolerance, and it becomes a habit that you have to maintain to keep going, but it’s not the solution,” he says. Van Dongen suggests drinking just one cup of coffee per day.
“Use it when you most need it, when you’re doing something really important, and stop using it if you don’t need it,” he says.
GET MORNING SUNLIGHT
“To reset our diurnal clock and nourish the adrenal glands, get morning sunlight within 15 minutes of waking,” Straub says.
Straub recommends at least 30 minutes of sunlight every morning, and says that within a week, the body’s internal clock will start resetting.
Exposure to bright light is an excellent solution for night owls who need to shift their internal clocks back, says Van Dongen. Also, bright light has been proven to help jet-lagged individuals get back in sync.
“But most of us have sleep shortage problems, and light isn’t the answer for that. Getting up to get morning light would cut back on the rest we need,” Van Dongen says.
As people age, they have a tendency for their biological clocks to be advanced, which means they get sleepy earlier in the evening, and wake up earlier in the morning, Van Dongen says.
“Older people need as much sleep as younger people. They should just adjust their timing and go to bed a littler earlier, and see if that helps,” he says.
“Drugs should be considered a temporary measure to get over a temporary situation,” says Van Dongen. If you have a stressful time in life when you have to finish a project, or be rested for an event, he suggests seeing your doctor for a sleep aid prescription.
Natural supplements are also available. Dr. Straub recommends valerian and melatonin to some of her patients. Talk to your medical doctor or naturopath to find out if a sleep aid is right for you.
NO ELECTRONICS BEFORE BED
“Studies show that computers, TV and cell phones overstimulate us, and don’t allow us that deep sleep we need for healing,” Straub says.
“Don’t’ watch TV in the bedroom to become sleepy. Try turning off all electronics a half-hour before bedtime,” suggests Van Dongen.
“Breathe in through the nose, hold it about 10 seconds, then blow out through pursed lips,” says Straub. She recommends 30 deep breaths before bed, and several deep breaths during the day to help relax.
“It increases the oxygen level in the brain, and gets rid of excess carbon dioxide from shallow breathing all day,” Straub adds.
STOP EATING EARLIER
Eat a lighter dinner, earlier, and forego evening snacks for better sleep. “It works like a charm. Of course, it takes a few nights, or about a week if you’re in the habit of snacking before bed, for the digestive system to realize it’s not going to get food at night,” Straub says.
Both of our experts agree that the healthier you are, the more likely you are to have a good night’s sleep, and exercise is a big part of that — just don’t exercise right before bed.
“Work up to the goal of 45 minutes of exercise, five to six days a week,” Straub says.
Exercise before 3 pm, since it can be too stimulating in the evening, which may make us more alert.
PEACE OF MIND
Straub urges her patients to find inner peace by asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, as well as focusing on gratitude and sense of being loved unconditionally. Finding greater inner peace, and not dwelling excessively on the occasional night of poor sleep may help mitigate insomnia.
FOLLOW A RITUAL
Van Dongen says most people need a systematic routine to unwind and get ready to sleep. For some, a cup of milk and a hot shower may be helpful. “It’s not necessarily the milk or the shower that makes you sleepy, but as part of a routine to unwind, it can be helpful,” he says.
CREATE A HAVEN
Then there’s your environment. Sleeping is aided by darkness and quiet. So use light-blocking blinds or curtains in your bedroom or wear eyeshades. Remove a ticking clock, and wear earplugs to buffer sound if you’re vulnerable to noise, recommends Van Dongen. The scent of a little lavender essential oil on a cotton ball or in a pillowcase can have a relaxing effect that helps some people fall asleep, says Straub.
Above all, don’t ignore sleep problems. A good night’s sleep is just as important to good health as nutritious food and regular exercise.