I'm not the world's best sleeper — I can't sleep on planes or in cars, and I'm so jealous of people who can fall asleep anywhere. If I'm really stressed, I toss and turn.
I know I'm not alone, because one of the top issues people ask me to help them with is sleep. There are also the people who assure me that five hours a night is enough, but who show all the signs that it's not, from dark circles under the eyes to poor digestion and overeating during the day.
Sleep in our culture is underrated. Sleep is when the body clears toxins from its system, including out of the brain. It's when your cells build proteins to repair damage, and when growth hormone is released in children. It's when the digestive system is most relaxed and it's when we dream, during a phase of sleep called REM. Scientists still don't know why we dream, but the structures in the brain that regulate it are so sophisticated it must have a deeply adaptive purpose.
And yet 60 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disorder and as many as 1 in 6 of those use prescription sleep medications, many of which are addictive and have side effects.
If you're not sure if you sleep well, it's as easy as answering one question: Do you feel rested when you wake up? If the answer is no, here are five ways to get your sleep back on track.
1. Avoid blue light before bed.
The screens of tablets, smartphones and some computers emit a blue wavelength light that affects your Suprachiastmatic Nucleus (SCN), a pinhead sized structure that contains 20,000 neurons and controls your sleep cycle, and decreases melatonin production, which can cause sleep disruptions. If you absolutely must look at your phone before bed, get the F.lux app. It's an app you install on your smartphone or laptop that filters the light emanating from your device so that in the morning it is blue/black predominant and in the evening it is red predominant.
2. If you wake up, get up.
In his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch explains that historically humans slept in two shifts: one for a few hours when the sun went down, and another from the early hours of the morning until dawn. In between, they woke up, often for a couple of hours, to tend the fire, have sex or pray. This was considered completely normal. It was only after electricity widely extended daylight well past sunset that patterns changed.
So if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep, get up and get out of bed, stretch, meditate, make love, or do something else that doesn't require turning on the lights.
3. Quit caffeine.
I have many patients who don't sleep well, but who claim there's no way coffee is the culprit. But research shows that just 100mg per day, the amount in one medium cup of drip coffee, can disrupt sleep, even if taken early in the day. And if you're one of the millions of people who have a genetic variant of an enzyme called CYP1A2, you many metabolize caffeine more slowly than others, which not only puts you at greater risk of interrupted sleep, it also puts you at greater risk of having a heart attack if you're a caffeine drinker.
Also keep in mind that sodas are the number one reason for American's increased caffeine intake since the 1970s, and that a piece of dark chocolate can have up to 30mg of caffeine!
4. Look for sleep apnea where you least expect it.
I recently had a patient in her early 50s whose slim body frame and active lifestyle fooled me into thinking there was no way sleep apnea was the cause of her insomnia. But then she went to her dentist, who noticed her narrow airway, and suggested she get a sleep study to make sure she wasn't suffering from apnea.
It turned out she typically stopped breathing up to 10 times per night, which not only was causing her to wake up, it was giving her anxiety about falling asleep, which made her insomnia even worse.
5. Face your anxiety head on.
In 2011, more than 74 million prescriptions were written for two medications, Xanax and Valium, a fact that says that Americans have a serious problem with anxiety.
To me this is no surprise. Often when I work with people on sleep, we start by taking care of the basics, like sleeping in a cool room, cutting caffeine, and avoiding screens and the blue light they radiate, but this process is often like peeling back an onion, revealing the deeper anxiety driving sleep disruption at the core.
If anxiety is causing you to toss and turn or have difficulty falling asleep, try developing a meditation practice before you turn to sleep aids. A scientific review of 47 studies looking at more than 3,500 people has shown that meditation can reduce anxiety, depression and pain, and while there are natural nonaddictive sleep aids like magnesium, getting to anxiety at the core is much better than a pill — even a natural one.
If you're not sleeping well, now is the time to do something about it. The science of sleep shows that addressing sleep issues can not only prevent a host of illnesses before they become a problem, it can your quality of life significantly today.
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