By Steven Hutchings
Some folks can’t sleep. That’s to be expected, considering the 24/7 nature of the North American lifestyle, with careers, finances, family obligations and the joys of being constantly plugged into the electronic age. But ongoing sleep problems? That’s a different story.
Insomnia is a broad term used to describe an inability to get refreshing shut-eye. The term applies to both short-term (acute) and chronic sleeping problems that can plague an individual for months and even years at a time. In addition, the disorder can be classified as:
Primary – In which the insomnia is not caused by another health concern.
Secondary – This refers to sleeping problems linked to another condition. Common offenders in this category include asthma, depression, heartburn, arthritis, cancer, and plain old-fashioned pain.
A 2002 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 58% of adults in the United States experienced sleeping problems at least twice a week. And forty million Americans experience ongoing sleep problems.
Is there a natural treatment for insomnia and those ugly nights when, no matter what you do, the Sandman just won’t show his face? Yes there is: it’s called proper sleep hygiene and perhaps having a natural sleep aid nearby for an insurance policy.
We’ll review what to look for in an natural sleep aid at the end of this article. First, let’s take a look at what, and what not to do to get that elusive shut-eye.
Common, Albeit Surprising Reasons You Can’t Sleep
There are the obvious things to do in preparation for sleep. Take a closer glance though at your own lifestyle and you may find there are hidden culprits that might contribute to why you feel groggy in the morning. Common, and often unconsidered reasons why many folks can sleep include:
Pets in the Bedroom – Pets are loving companions but they’re terrible bed mates. Over half of pet owners who sleep with their furry friends admit that their pet disturbs their sleep.
Alcohol – You know about caffeine, but have you stopped to consider that booze is another reason you can’t stay in dream land? Alcohol is a sedative until alcohol blood levels drop. That’s when many folks find it reduces sleep quality or simply wakes them up.
Acid Reflux – Patients with acid reflux often find that symptoms flare up in bed, when stomach acid enters the esophagus and triggers the pain of heart burn – yet another way that acid reflux can lower quality of life.
Medicines – Steroids for asthma, beta-blockers for high blood pressure and related medication for heart problems can all interfere with sleep. In that light, those with ongoing, chronic insomnia should speak with their doctor regarding all prescriptions they use.
Pain – Don’t underestimate this one. Even mild pain, be it from a head ache, back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia or any number of health ailments can all reduce quality of sleep and leave you feeling unrested when you wake. Got pain? Listen to your body and talk to your doctor.
Exercise – There’s a difference between being exhausted and being tired. Run a marathon and you’ll be completely wiped, yet your mind will be revving and unlikely to phase-shift down to sleep mode. Solution? Avoid exercise within three hours of bed and give yourself time to wind down.
Unfortunately, the allure of a quick fix via medication is often more appealing than the effort required to ensure good sleeping hygiene. To that end, many folks look to sleeping pills for that instant ticket to dreamland.
As we’ll see, that’s not only counter-productive, it’s often dangerous.
Don’t Abuse Sleeping Pills
Sleeping pills, or hypnotics, are psychoactive drugs used to treat short-term insomnia. They’re designed to sedate the patient rather than replicate the natural sleep cycle. Dose-dependant, sleeping pills are habit-forming and should be used for the shortest time possible.
Ask anyone who struggles with chronic insomnia, however, and you’ll quickly find that for most patients who can’t sleep, sleeping pills are rarely a short-term treatment; they’re an ongoing temptation to medication-induced grogginess linked to further sleeping problems, cognitive impairment, falls and risk of motor vehicle accidents.
If that wasn’t enough to dissuade you from going the sleeping pills routine, consider this: in a recent study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, researchers linked ongoing use of sleeping pills to a 4.6 increased risk of death.
That was enough to warrant the study’s author to label sleeping pills “as risky as cigarettes”.
In the study, conducted by noted sleep researcher Daniel Kripke, MD, Kripke and his team analyzed the medical records of 10,259 patients prescribed hypnotic sleeping pills and 23,676 patients who were not prescribed them. The data was spread over 2002 and 2007.
The study revealed disturbing trends regarding the patients that use sleeping pills. The top-third of pill-poppers had an average 5.3 increased death risk, with a range of 3.6 heightened risk for patients who took fewer than 18 sleeping pills a year to a 6.1 fold higher risk for the heaviest users. Curiously, patients that took sleeping pills were 35% more likely to develop cancer.
The risk of death for subjects that did not take sleeping pills was 1.2% during this period.
With one in ten Americans taking sleeping pills in 2010, the data was enough for Kripke and his team to link sleeping pills to between 320,000 and 507,000 deaths in the United States each year.
There are healthy, natural ways to get a good night’s sleep, but sleeping pills are not one of them.
The study is provocative, and Kripke knows his stuff, having completed multiple sleep-related studies since 1975. Yet it’s not without criticism, and some observers take issue with the simple fact that patients who take sleeping pills are more likely to experience other health ailments.
Others, including Bryan Bruno, MD, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, caution that sleeping pills aren’t a definitively higher risk of death.
In any event, though the results are controversial, the study highlights that sleeping pills are a short-term treatment for patients with sleeping problems triggered by an event such as divorce or death of a loved one. There are healthy, natural ways to get a good night’s sleep, but sleeping pills are not one of them.
Sleep hygiene refers to the practices and environmental factors that influence the quality and duration of your sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene and stick with the program and, despite the odd bad night, you’re in much better shape than with those problematic sleeping pills.
Keep Your Bedroom Dark and Cool – Think of a cave. Now try to make your bedroom that way, with a good set of blinds to block out the sun’s morning rays and preferably away from street noise. Ditto for noise from your neighbors. And keep your room cool – invest in a fan if need be.
Use Your Bed Only For Sleep and Sex – Your bed is a place for rest and pleasurable activities, not for reading, watching TV, lying awake or other things that train your brain to associate it with things other than sex and sleep.
Don’t Nap After 3PM – Your body likes routine, and your circadian rhythm requires a specific sleep/wake pattern. Don’t disrupt it with a mid-afternoon nap if you have insomnia or you could be lying in bed sleepless later that night.
Get Up At the Same Time Every Morning – This means weekends as well. Yes, that can be hard to do given the allure of sleeping in on your day off, but go to bed and wake at the same time every day to once again reinforce that circadian rhythm and encourage sleepiness at night and to feel refreshed when you wake.
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol Before Bed – One of the more obvious ways to sleep better. Caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a sedative. The former will keep you awake and the latter will reduce sleep quality and duration.
Don’t Take Stress to Bed – Another killer of restful sleep, stress levels interfere with the brain’s ability to tune out. Deal with finances or other potentially stressful issues during the day. And give yourself at least an hour to unwind, with light reading or gentle music.
Simply put, sleep hygiene is the best thing you can do to ensure that sweet, refreshing slumber on a regular basis. You’ll have the odd bad night, of course, but you’ll have fewer of them with the tips we’ve reviewed.
What to Do On Those Nights When You Can’t Sleep
There are some nights when, no matter what you do, it’s evident that Dreamland is a destination you’re just not gonna visit. And your response on those longest of evenings dictates whether you’ll be snoring soundly the night thereafter or awake for yet another tossing and turning.
On those nights, assuming you’ve practiced your sleep hygiene and avoided the obvious killers of good slumber, do not reach for a sleeping pill. It can be beneficial to have a natural sleep aid like Alteril, which we’ll discuss later, but for now do this: get up.
Simply put, sleep hygiene is the best thing you can do to ensure that sweet, refreshing slumber on a regular basis.
That’s right. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something other than lie in bed wishing you could sleep. Get up and read, listen to gentle music, surf the net. Do anything that lightly stimulates your brain. Then, when you feel tired, go back to bed. Still can’t sleep? Repeat the process.
More often than not, that’ll have you sleeping in less than an hour. And though you’ll feel a little tired the next morning, it’s better than no sleep at all, and worlds better than if you reached for a sleeping pill, which would just make it more difficult to sleep the next night.
But if you’ve done the routine and you still can’t sleep…
Get up, and stay up. Time for a little tough love on your brain – this is a battle you’re going to win.
Turn on all the lights. If you can’t sleep, might as well make use of this extra time. Tell yourself you’ll sleep better tomorrow as a result of what you’re about to do.
Stay active. Get yourself dressed and when time, go to work. You’ll no doubt feel like a zombie, having not slept, but you’re better off by sticking to your usual routine, forcing your body to adapt to a regular sleep/wake cycle. So stay active during the day, exercise if possible, and gut out the unpleasantry.
When work is over, and you feel like you can’t keep your eyelids open, and you really want to hit the sack – don’t. Doing so would further disrupt the wake/sleep cycle you’re trying to set. You’re engaged in a battle of wills between your brain and your body’s need for rest. You’ve made it this far. Just wait a little longer…
Have a light dinner. Try to eat by 7PM to allow your body time to digest the food. Now you can start your mental process of winding down, with lower lights and gentle music. Light reading is fine. But nothing stressful.
So here we are now, at an hour before your regular bedtime and you’re really feeling it. You’ve covered the basics, with minimum caffeine (and none after noon, correct?) and ditto for alcohol. You’ve done nothing stressful and haven’t napped throughout the day. You’re not gonna make it much further. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Now, for tonight, take a natural sleep aid. Not a sleeping pill – a natural treatment to ensure you’re off to Dreamsville and you’re there for a good eight hours. Take the supplement.
You’ll never sleep more soundly.
A Natural Sleep Aid?
Ideally, you’ll drift off without any help, prescription or otherwise. And if you’ve gone through the motions of a sleepless day, and you stick to the same wake time every day, you’re off to a very good start. More than likely, with the odd rough patch, your body will adapt, and you’ll get that sleep.
Now about those rough patches. We all go through them and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s stress. Very often it’s financial. Occasionally it’s something really harsh, like a divorce or a personal loss. Life stings when it wants to, and when it does, it’s not easy to sleep.
For those times, avoid sleeping pills. They’re habit-forming, they’re open to abuse, they’ll make it difficult to sleep without them.
Instead, try a natural sleep aid which, unlike those infamous pills, encourage relaxation. While they won’t put you in a drug-induced slumber, a natural insomnia treatment relaxes the brain and encourages the body to gently – and naturally – wind down, with herbals and amino acids that induce deeper, longer rest. Specifically, some of the proven natural sleep aids include:
Tryptophan – An essential amino acid, tryptophan aids in natural production of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin, that regulate your circadian rhythm and tell your body that it’s sleepytime.
Theanine – Another amino acid, theanine is linked to reduced stress and anxiety. In addition, theanine is proven to increase alpha brain waves emitted by the body when relaxed.
Chamomile – Mom was on to something when she gave you chamomile tea as a kid. In addition to its work as an anti-inflammatory, chamomile is a proven nerve relaxant and is used extensively as a natural sleep aid.
Hops – Another natural health helper with many hats, hops is a natural sedative, and when combined with other herbs, can reduce anxiety and encourage sleep.
Such ingredients can be found in a natural sleep aid, like Alteril, available on Natural Health Source, and when seen as a natural alternative to sleeping pills during difficult stages in life when it’s hard to sleep, offer peace of mind, just knowing they’re available if need be.
Remember, there’s no substitute for good sleep hygiene. If it’s hard to sleep, watch your habits. Get up and turn in for the night at the same time even on weekends. Watch that caffeine intake and leave the stress at work.
Chances are, with a little care and attention, and natural help when you need it, your body and mind will both adapt, and work in unison to ensure that when you hit the sack for the evening, it’s long, deep and refreshing. Happy slumber!