Even with a calming bedtime ritual, the stresses of 21st century life, not to mention the economic roller coaster of the last few months, are enough to keep anyone tossing and turning. Whatever your concerns— job insecurity, dwindling 401K, or even (perish the thought) swine flu—you need your sleep to help you stay productive, optimistic and healthy. Sleep has even been shown to be a factor in weight loss!
According to a poll released in March by the National Sleep Foundation, only 28 percent of us get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, and 20 percent of us don’t even get six.
“We don’t value sleep in our society; we value being on the move and getting things done,” explained Susan Sprau, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA and consultant for the sleep disorder center at UCLA Santa Monica Orthopaedic Hospital.
Whether it’s stress, a change in season throwing off your natural rhythms, or you’re just plain working too much, there are several ways to set yourself up for steady, consistent sleep. Of course, people diagnosed with sleep disorders should follow doctors’ orders, but those of us who simply seek more quality rest have several options.
Creating Calming Conditions
Having a comfortable bedroom is no small thing when it comes to claiming quality sleep. Sprau has several tips for making your bedroom a sleep haven; climate control is number one.
“Our core body temperature drops when we sleep and rises when we’re awake,” Sprau said. “So it’s important to sleep in a cool room.” A cool bath is another good way to bring down body temperature and trigger the sleep cycle. Run a fan, open windows, or set the air conditioner to a comfortable level to ensure that your body temperature doesn’t rise during the night and jolt you out of slumber.
The fan may do double duty with Sprau’s second suggestion, the creation of white noise. If your mind can’t shut down, giving it something soothing to focus on may induce sleep. Any repetitive, lulling sound will do, like a fan, soft classical music, or a CD that simulates the gentle lapping of waves on the shoreline.
Aromatherapy can have the same impact. Although evidence that the scent of lilac induces sleep is only anecdotal, Sprau says giving it a shot can’t hurt. And while meditation is one of her favorite sleep recommendations, it typically must be practiced over a period of three to six months to become an effective remedy.
Perhaps Sprau’s most critical piece of advice for those who find their sleep space becoming less and less restful is the “sleep and sex only” rule.
“Don’t balance the checkbook, watch TV or do any other activities in that space,” Sprau advised.
Dealing With Disorders
It may take just a simple dietary adjustment or supplement to get you the sleep your body craves. But if you have trouble sleeping for more than two weeks consecutively, it’s time to consult a health specialist. Insomnia can be a serious disorder that requires medical intervention.
A Little Help from Our Friends
Prescription drugs comprise a large chunk of the $23.7 billion a year sleep industry, but most of these are addictive, expensive, and can cause residual drowsiness. And while medical marijuana and alcohol initially relax the body, they also wear off in a few hours’ time, triggering the body to wakefulness.
Safer bets are the herbs and natural supplements below, but as always, seek the guidance of a health professional before starting any new program.
L-Tryptophan is the favorite of Edd Hanzelik, MD, a Westlake-based integrative medicine physician. It’s an amino acid nutritional supplement in capsule form, also found in some foods. Hanzelik likes it because it’s the only substance normally found in the diet used by the body to make serotonin, which in turn makes sleep-promoting melatonin. There is controversy over the L-Tryptophan solution due to a 1990 FDA ban on the supplement, when it was thought that it caused a rare and deadly flu-like condition. It was later discovered that one bad batch of imported L-Tryptophan had caused the outbreak of Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome, and not the substance itself. It’s now widely available at health food stores and online. It’s also famously found in turkey, which at least partially explains Thanksgiving Day postprandial drowsiness. Other dietary sources include milk, eggs and red meat.
Valerian is a non-addictive herb that comes in capsules, liquid extracts and tea. Studies show it impacts GABA, the central nervous system’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter associated with sleep. Susan Sprau recommends it be taken for short periods of time, around three months, for the most effective results. Hanzelik sometimes mixes valerian with an herbal combination of passion flower and skullcap.
Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the body. Supplements work on the receptors that help control circadian rhythms, or the natural sleep/wake clock. Sprau cautions against many over-the-counter melatonin remedies that she says contain too much of the supplement. She recommends one to three milligrams.
Magnesium/calcium is an ideal combination of supplements for people who have leg cramps or Restless Leg Syndrome. The molecules affect the ability of muscles to contract and relax. In the natural diet, find calcium in dairy products and magnesium in nuts, seeds, grains and vegetables.
Lower your cortisol. Cortisol is a natural hormone of the adrenal glands that gets secreted during a fight or flight response to stress. While it’s crucial at certain times, an excess can contribute to a sleepless night. A simple technique like following your breath will help lower cortisol levels, but there are also anti-cortisol supplements for those occasional nights you just can’t turn off your brain. These are a favorite among body-builders, so a store that caters to athletes might be your best bet.
Photo courtesy Joicircadian rhythm, cortisol, melatonin, sleep, trytophan, valerian