By Dr. Mercola
Sleep is such an important part of your overall health that no amount of healthful food and exercise can counteract the ill effects of poor sleeping habits. Researchers have linked poor sleep to a number of health ailments, from short-term memory loss and behavioral problems, to weight gain and diabetes, for example.
There are many reasons for not getting a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, most people tend to reach for a sleeping pill instead of doing the work to figure out what's got them tossing and turning.
- Using the snooze button. While a few minutes more in bed may be tempting, using the snooze button could backfire as interrupted sleep can increase your fatigue. It's best to just get up on the first alarm
- Irregular sleep schedule. A regular routine of going to bed and getting up around the same time each day will help promote better sleep, while constantly interrupting your schedule can easily lead to insomnia and fatigue
- Taking long naps during the day
- Eating sugar before bedtime. Sugar alters the chemical balance in your body, which can contribute to impaired sleep
- Drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages too late in the day
Understanding Why and How Insomnia Occurs
A new book called Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, written by David Randall, was inspired by Randall's own troubles getting proper shut-eye. Since writing the book, he's been diagnosed with non-REM arousal parasomnia, a sleep disorder that can cause night terrors and sleepwalking. He discussed his book and his own bizarre sleeping habits in a recent NPR interview3. You can read more or listen to his story here.
Fortunately, sleep disorders such as sleepwalking and night terrors are not the primary reasons for impaired sleep. The vast majority of people who have trouble sleeping suffer with insomnia; the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. And while many complain their insomnia appears "impossible" to cure, there is hope...
Two years ago, I interviewed Dr. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and the leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams. In that interview, we discussed several important factors that affect your sleep, for better or worse. While the list provided by Lifehack (above) offers some helpful tips to help you get a better night's sleep, it can be extremely helpful to first understand why and how insomnia occurs in the first place.
In order to understand why you can't sleep, you need to understand that sleep is an outcome of two types of variables:
- Sleepiness – Under normal conditions, your sleepiness should increase throughout the day, peaking just before you go to bed at night. This is ideal, as you want your sleep to be high at the beginning of the night.
Making sure you're exposed to bright sunlight, and high-quality lighting during the day, followed by decreased light exposure once the sun sets, will help maximize your natural sleep cycle so that you're appropriately sleepy at the end of the evening.
- "Noise" – "Noise" occurs in three zones: the mind level, body level, and the environmental level. If the noise is conceptually greater than your level of sleepiness, you will not fall asleep.
The most common type of mind noise is called "cognitive popcorn," or unstoppable thoughts running through your mind at night. Examples of body noise include pain, discomfort, indigestion, side effects from prescription drugs, or residual caffeine from drinking coffee too late in the day. Environmental noise is usually obvious, such as various sources of noise in your room or house, a snoring partner, music, lights, or being too hot.
In order to get a good night's sleep, you want:
- sleepiness level to be high, and
- the noise level to be low
More often than not, the reason why you can't fall asleep is NOT because you're not sleepy enough, but rather because you're subjected to excessive noise, which, again, can be either mind/body/environmental-type noise, or a combination thereof. Typically, people will find between three to six different factors that contribute to the noise burden keeping them awake. Therefore, don't give up if you've addressed the most obvious source of noise and still can't sleep. Keep looking! You need to really evaluate your environment and your inner and outer state to determine and address ALL the contributing factors.
For Optimal Health You Need Proper Sleep
You may have the healthiest lifestyle in the world, eat the best possible organic food, avoid all sugar and processed foods, eat loads of fermented veggies, have an ideal body fat and work out regularly with an ideal Peak Fitness regimen, but if you fail to sleep well regularly, for whatever reason, it is virtually impossible to be optimally healthy. Interrupted or impaired sleep can cause a ripple-effect capable of wreaking all sorts of havoc in your body and health. For example, poor sleep can:
Dramatically weaken your immune system Impair production of melatonin – a hormone AND a potent antioxidant, which also has cancer-fighting properties Accelerate tumor growth – tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions Raise your risk of heart disease Cause a pre-diabetic state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can wreak havoc on your weight Raise your risk of stomach ulcers Seriously impair your memory; even a single night of poor sleep – meaning sleeping only 4 to 6 hours – can impact your ability to think clearly the next day Contribute to constipation Impair your performance on physical or mental tasks, and decrease your problem solving ability Contribute to mood disorders like depression
The Link Between Sleep and Migraines
In recent news, the links between poor sleep and migraines have also been examined. As explained by Eric Metcalf, MPH in a WebMD feature4, migraines and sleep appear to have a distinct, albeit complicated relationship. Both too little and too much sleep can trigger a migraine attack. On the downside, the mechanisms involved are still unknown. On the upside, there are ways to ease both problems, and addressing your sleep habits is key. He writes:
"Anne Calhoun, MD, is a headache specialist in Chapel Hill, N.C. She's particularly interested in sleep issues.In one of her studies, 43 women with chronic migraines were taught how to improve their sleep habits. In the group of women who addressed their bad sleep habits successfully, all but one saw their headache frequency decline until most days were headache-free."
Calhoun offers eight different steps to help clean up your sleep hygiene, many of which are identical to those mentioned elsewhere in this article, however the following four recommendations apply more specifically to those with migraines:
- Change your thinking. Some people whose migraines strike at night become afraid to go to sleep, Sahota says. If worrying about your migraines is keeping you from resting, consider talking to a counselor who works with people with chronic pain. An approach called cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn how to adopt healthier thoughts and behaviors related to your migraines.
- Comfort yourself. When you have a migraine, some people find that placing cold packs on their head helps them sleep, while others prefer a warm pack, Sahota says. Try each to see which kind helps you more.
- Take a two-pronged approach. After trying medication to stop a migraine, lie down in a dark, cool, quiet room. As you're sleeping, the medicine may go to work so you wake up feeling better.
- Review your medications. Ask your doctor if any medicines you're taking – including migraine drugs – can wake you up or make your sleep less restful. If so, taking them in the morning may help limit their effect on your sleep, Calhoun says. Getting to sleep without relying on medicine is the best option, Calhoun and Sahota say. So work on your sleep habits first. If you still can't get better sleep, talk it over with your health care provider.
Sleepless Nights May Put the Aging Brain at Risk of Dementia
In another recent NPR radio program5, the links between sleep problems and dementia were reviewed. According to NPR:
"Psychiatrist Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, runs a memory disorders clinic and studies people who are at risk of developing dementia and cognitive impairment. She says many of her older patients 'either have difficulty falling asleep, waking up on and off throughout the night, or feeling tired in the day' and have to nap a lot.
Yaffe recently conducted a series of studies evaluating more than 1,300 adults older than 75, initially assessing their sleep patterns and, five years later, their cognitive abilities. She found that those with sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea had more than twice the odds of developing dementia years later. Those who developed disruptions of their circadian rhythm were also at increased risk. So were those who awoke throughout the night, tossing and turning. "
Yaffe's findings were presented at the annual conference of the Alzheimer's Association, but while her research suggests there may be an association between poor sleep and dementia, more research is needed to confirm these links. Another psychologist interviewed by NPR offers several techniques to her patients to help them improve their sleep by literally relearning how to go to sleep. Her recommendations include:
- Restrict the amount of time you sleep. Start at only five hours or so, and slowly add 15-minute increments until you reach a full eight hours per night
- Limit time spent in bed to sleep and sex only. Never watch TV, read, pay your bills, or surf the internet, for example, while in bed
- If you don't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing and/or boring until you start feeling sleepy. Then lay down again
- Get rid of your clock. If you need the alarm, cover the clock with a cloth so you cannot look at the time
Can a Sleep Measuring Device Help You Sleep Better?
ZEO is an innovative sleep measurement device that you can use at home. It's an electronic device with a headband that emits a signal into what looks like an alarm clock. What this device allows you to do is to perform a personalized 'sleep study' at home. It's strongly correlated with polysonography, which you typically have to go to a sleep center to get, and pay big bucks for – around $2,000 for just one night.
The ZEO allows you to measure your sleep night after night, for as long as you want. So the device lets you evaluate how various factors affect your sleep. For example, you can evaluate how your sleep was affected by a cup of coffee in the afternoon, or how doing computer work past a certain hour impacted your sleep.
The data collection is quite sophisticated. It will show you time awake, how long it took you to fall asleep, time in light sleep, time in deep sleep, and time in REM sleep. It distributes this information over a graph and gives you percentages, along with an accumulative score of your sleep over time. It's a sophisticated device that I think can be used in a really positive way.
How to Optimize Your Sleep Sanctuary
For a comprehensive list of factors that can contribute to insomnia, and how to remedy them, please see my previous article, Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep. Here are seven of the most important factors that can help you get a good night's rest.
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. Even the tiniest glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep. This will help decrease your risk of cancer. Close your bedroom door, and get rid of night-lights. Refrain from turning on any light at all during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. Cover up your clock radio. Cover your windows – I recommend using blackout shades or drapes.
All life evolved in response to predictable patterns of light and darkness, called circadian rhythms. Modern day electrical lighting has significantly betrayed your inner clock by disrupting your natural rhythms. Little bits of light pass directly through your optic nerve to your hypothalamus, which controls your biological clock. Light signals your brain that it's time to wake up and starts preparing your body for ACTION.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least 3 feet. Remove the clock from view. It will only add to your worry when you stare at it all night... 2 a.m. ...3 a.m. ...4:30 a.m.
- Avoid using loud alarm clocks. It is very stressful on your body to be suddenly jolted awake. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, an alarm may even be unnecessary. I gave up my alarm clock years ago and now use a sun alarm clock, an alarm that combines the features of a traditional alarm clock (digital display, AM/FM radio, beeper, snooze button, etc.) with a special built-in light that gradually increases in intensity, simulating sunrise.
- Reserve your bed for sleeping. If you are used to watching TV or doing work in bed, you may find it harder to relax and drift off to sleep, so avoid doing these activities in bed.
- Consider separate bedrooms. Recent studies suggest, for many people, sharing a bed with a partner (or pets) can significantly impair sleep, especially if the partner is a restless sleeper or snores. If bedfellows are consistently interfering with your sleep, you may want to consider a separate bedroom.