Sleep – it’s one of the simplest things you can do to improve your energy, your mental sharpness, your immunity, and your overall health. Yet for many of us, getting a consistent good night’s rest is elusive.
You’ve probably heard the standard advice that you should get 8 hours of sleep each night. But the truth is that there is no single, set amount of sleep time that is optimal for everyone. Some people can get by fine on 5 hours of sleep each night. Others can’t. Some people need an afternoon nap. Others don’t.
Rather than follow a formula, you have to pay attention to your body’s natural rhythms and signals. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ll feel it. If you require an alarm clock to wake up each morning…if getting out of bed feels like trying to rise from a grave…if you yawn in the shower rather than sing…if you look forward to the day when you can just sleep in, then you might be sleep deprived.
Catch Some Shut-Eye or Risk Catching a Cold
Millions of Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. It’s a growing problem. We are getting less and less sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the average sleep time has dropped from 7.5 hours to 7.18 hours over the past 30 years.
Our increasing sleeplessness is negatively affecting our health. A study (“Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold”) published last month in the journal Sleep confirms that lack of sleep increases your risk of infections such as the common cold. In the study of 164 men and women, researchers found that those who slept less than 5 hours were 4.5 times likelier to catch a cold than those who slept 7 hours per night.
Tamp Down Stress for a Better Night’s Rest
The most common cause of sleeplessness is stress. You are most likely to experience insomnia when you are under a lot of pressure in some way. This can cause your mind to shift into overdrive.
To help cure your insomnia, try to reduce your stress.
Exercising vigorously can help—just not too close to bedtime You might also take some time in the evening to meditate.
Getting a massage can be a great stress reducer. A recent study showed that an hour-long Swedish massage left participants feeling more relaxed. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol were significantly lower.
A Good Diet Can Translate into a Sound Sleep
Foods that help induce sleep include those that are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin and is then converted to melatonin. You can find lots of it in milk, meat and sesame seeds. For those who need help establishing a regular sleep cycle, melatonin is available over-the-counter. If you do not have enough naturally occurring melatonin in your system, taking a melatonin supplement half an hour before bed can help to regulate your sleep cycle.
Also, magnesium is a natural sedative. Eat plenty of dark leafy green vegetables, whole grains, and legumes at suppertime.
Some people drink alcoholic beverages before going to bed in hopes of getting to sleep quicker. While it’s true that alcohol is a depressant, and that drinking enough of it can make you conk out, there are downsides. Alcohol can disrupt the onset of REM sleep and leave you feeling groggy instead of refreshed in the morning.
It’s best to avoid food and flavored beverages of any kind (other than perhaps a small glass of milk) in the 4 hours before you hit the hay. You don’t want your digestive system to be working hard while you’re trying to sleep.
Medicating Should Be a Last Resort – Especially if You’re Over 65
If you’re having trouble sleeping, then sleeping pills should be the last thing you turn to. Sleep medications can be habit-forming and they lose their effectiveness over time.
A recent The Globe and Mail article (August 20, 2015) spelled out some of the downsides to sleepinducing meds, especially for older people. “As people age, their ability to get a good night’s sleep becomes more elusive,” the article noted. And “those who might have reached for a sleeping pill to get through the night when they were younger are no longer good candidates for doing so after age 65 or 70.”
Most common over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids contain the active ingredient diphenhydramine hydrochloride. The side effects include dry mouth, dizziness, and urinary retention, which can be exacerbated in older people with more sluggish metabolisms. Older people are also more likely to be on other medications that could have adverse interactions.
The most common prescription sleeping pills are benzodiazepines. They have been implicated in falls among seniors who try to get up from bed or navigate the bathroom while on the meds.
Natural Alternatives to Dangerous Drugs
As an alternative to drugs, consider natural herbal remedies.
Valerian has been used dating back to the Ancient Greeks to reduce anxiety and help induce sleep. Valerian root extract can help relieve bodily pain and indigestion, two things that often keep people awake. It also relaxes the muscles and causes drowsiness (this supplement should not be taken before driving or working with heavy machinery or while on any other type of medication).
Another herb worth considering is chamomile. With its natural sedative properties and antihistamine effects, drinking tea infused with its blossoms should make you feel more relaxed. Drink some caffeine-free chamomile herbal tea at night.
Finally, the supplement 5-HTP helps some people deal with stress and anxiety issues. 5-HTP is an amino acid complex that the body uses to create serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. It may help you feel more relaxed and get better sleep.