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Excerpts from “A Good Night’s Sleep: Simple Effective Ways to Overcome Insomnia” by Barbara Wexler, chronic disease epidemiologist and medical writer

Sleep Is Not Optional—It’s Essential

It’s hard to convince children who want to stay up all night rather than miss a moment of fun that sleep is not a waste of valuable time. Sleep is not optional—it’s essential. It’s not only necessary for all of our physiological functions, including motor activity and cognition (thinking, reasoning, intuition and perception), but also for our basic survival. Animal studies have repeatedly demonstrated that when deprived of sleep, laboratory animals die in a matter of weeks, in much the same way that they would if they were denied food. 

Sleep appears to be even more important for the brain than it is for the body. Sleep is thought to influence cognition in many ways. Scientists believe that it helps eliminate one or more toxic by-products of wakefulness, or restores and replenishes neural substrates (the substances on which enzymes act) needed for optimal mental function. 

Recent research reveals that sleep actually reorganizes brain connections to improve performance. Sleep helps to strengthen memories and improve physical performance by producing large-scale changes in brain activity that makes a skill less dependent on conscious thought.

Researchers assert that more research is needed to determine whether a full night’s sleep prompts these changes in the brain, or whether they are prompted by a specific stage of sleep. These findings are not only important in terms of learning skills, such as playing a musical instrument or a sport, but also for post-injury or illness rehabilitation and for examining the relationship between sleep disturbances and learning problems.


Can’t Sleep?

Almost everyone has experienced an occasional problem getting to sleep or staying asleep. Problems falling asleep may be caused by stress or anxiety—an argument with a coworker, disagreement with a spouse, or a looming deadline at work or school, or the stress of experiences and worries far more serious. Pain or discomfort may also prevent you from falling asleep easily, especially if you can’t sleep in your usual position or can’t get comfortable. Eating or drinking, especially caffeine or alcohol too close to your bedtime can disrupt normal sleep patterns as can nicotine and other drugs. Even exercising late in the day may make it harder to fall asleep.


So if the sandman isn’t showing and the sheep counting isn’t working, what’s next?

Sleep hygiene refers to how well one sleeps. It’s also the term used to describe the conditions, habits, and practices that promote continuous and restorative sleep, including establishing regular bedtimes and waking times, allowing adequate time for sleep, restricting activities at bedtime that do not promote sleep, and modifying environmental factors so that they enhance, rather than impede, restful sleep.

Here are some simple steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene. Some of them are simply good, old-fashioned common sense, but others may surprise you.

 

Diet

In general, it is unwise to eat in the four hours before you’re planning to go to sleep. Late dinners and midnight snacks busy the body with the biochemistry and physical actions of digestion, which are hardly conducive to sound sleep. It also may help to avoid spicy, fried, and fatty foods, and mint, all of which may increase acid reflux and disrupt sleep.

If you’re hungry at bedtime and must eat, try a light snack like milk and some crackers or a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea and a slice of whole-grain toast. Milk and other dairy products are good choices because they contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that promotes sleep.

Avoid caffeine and other stimulants (cola, coffee, cocoa, nicotine, etc.) and alcohol in the six hours before bedtime. While it’s true that alcohol may make you feel drowsy and can help you fall asleep more readily, it also acts to disrupt the sleep cycle, making it less likely that you’ll wake feeling refreshed.


Environment

Surprise surprise, the ideal environment for sleep is a comfortable bed in a dark, quiet, and relatively cool room. A sleeping temperature of 60 to 65 degrees is ideal for most people, even in cold weather. 

It may be helpful to view the bed and bedroom as a kind of soothing sleep sanctuary and to avoid other activities in the space designated for sleeping. Basically, your bedroom should be used exclusively for relaxation, sleep, and sex. For example, it is wise to avoid turning your bed into a home office by working on a laptop, paying bills, or talking on the phone in bed. Don’t watch television, eat, or argue in bed. In other words, try to avoid bringing the sounds and stresses of your work, family life, or relationships to bed with you.

Don’t place the telephone at your bedside, or if the phone must be there, turn off the ringer when you go to sleep. Similarly, for many troubled sleepers, it’s helpful to move the clock out of sight and hearing distance—loud ticking can keep you awake, and watching minutes and hours elapse when you’re trying to get to sleep may only heighten feelings of time pressure and anxiety. Setting an alarm clock for your scheduled arise time and then placing it on a shelf or dresser out of view can help to prevent anxiety-fueled clock watching.

If street noise, loud neighbors, or a snoring partner prevent you from falling asleep or staying asleep, then you may want to invest in earplugs, a white noise machine, or a fan that hums to

block out the unwanted sounds. Similarly, if light is a problem, try dark shades on bedroom windows or a sleep mask that covers your eyes completely.

 

Alone or Together?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than half of Americans (61%) share their beds with significant others. For some, sharing a bed is a source of comfort and a way to achieve intimacy and freedom from the distractions of the day together. But for others, adjusting to sharing a bed is not without conflict. Disagreements arise about bedroom temperature, the position of the bed, which side each partner prefers, how to make the bed, sheet and blanket stealing, having a television in the bedroom, reading and eating in bed, and even the appropriate attire, if any, for sleep.

When one member of a sleeping couple snores or suffers from insomnia, the other may unintentionally “catch” the sleep problem as a result of being awakened often throughout the night. So while most couples prefer to sleep together, there are times when it makes sense, and may even be preferable, to sleep separately. 


Exercise

Regular physical exercise during the day is associated with sound, healthy sleep, but you should exercise well before you plan to go to bed, since vigorous or even moderate exercise may serve to rev you up rather than help you unwind in anticipation of sleep.

 

Schedule

Going to bed and waking at the same time everyday is an important aspect of sleep hygiene. Tempting as it may be to stay up very late and sleep in until noon on weekends, it will make it very difficult for you to get back on track on Monday. Be certain to schedule enough time for sleep—feeling pressured to fall asleep quickly because you only have six hours allotted for sleep will not help you to get to sleep easily. In general, it’s helpful to plan enough time so that you can devote time to relax before bed and sleeping for seven to eight hours.

It’s also a good idea to develop pre-sleep rituals to help you to wind down and decompress from your day. Children’s sleep improves with pre-sleep rituals like a bath, lullaby, and story, and adults can reap the same benefits. Adults can add gentle relaxation exercises like meditation, deep breathing, and some of the other stress-management techniques we’ll describe later on to help calm and quiet the mind and body before sleep. If possible, wake up to sunlight or very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep.

 

Limit Naps

Avoid taking long naps during the day. Napping in the late afternoon or early evening can disrupt nighttime sleep. Not all napping is bad—in fact, recent research reveals that brief midday naps can help office workers, especially men, reduce their risk of heart disease. Researchers believe that naps might benefit the heart by offering brief relief from work-related stress. The researchers concluded that, “An afternoon siesta in a healthy individual may act as a stress-reducing habit, and there is considerable evidence that stress has both short- and long-term adverse effects on the incidence of, and mortality from, coronary heart disease.”

 

Manage Stress and Anxiety

Many people complain that as soon as they lie down to sleep, they replay the stressful events of their day, anticipate the demands of the next day, or worry about ongoing problems. This may be because it’s the first quiet moment they’ve had all day and the first opportunity to consider troubling events or issues. So, it may be helpful to schedule worrying earlier in the day, during a designated worry period, in which you actually commit your concerns to paper and devote a few minutes to considering them and formulating solutions to them. It is vitally important that you write your worry list and devote worrying time outside the bedroom, and that you schedule it well before bedtime.


Herbs and Dietary Supplements to Ease Stress and Promote Sleep

Along with a healthy, varied diet, regular exercise, and relaxation, many people find that herbs and dietary supplements offer stress-relief benefits—helping them to unwind, feel calm, and get restful, rejuvenating sleep. The following list is neither exhaustive nor complete—it is simply an overview of some naturally occurring herbs and supplements commonly used to relieve stress and promote sleep.

  • Brewers yeast
  • Chamomile 
  • Ginseng 
  • Hops 
  • Kava
  • Lemon balm
  • L-Theanine 
  • Passion Flower
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Valerian 
  • Skullcap
  • Tyrosine
  • Melatonin
  • 5-HTP: The Serenity of Serotonin


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