If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, you’re not alone. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that literally millions of people sleep so poorly that they’re tired during the day. Forty-three percent of them were so sleepy it interfered with their activities. Fatigue can have serious side effects. Sleepiness causes 100,000 auto accidents each year in our country alone.
What’s worse, sleeping pills are often addictive and can have serious side effects. But there are other great ways that will safely help you get a good night’s sleep.
This is important because a restful night’s sleep affects your emotional and physical health. In fact, it’s just as important for you to get enough good quality sleep as it is to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. It’s part of a lifestyle that promotes health and fights disease.
When you sleep, your body eliminates free radicals, your immune system strengthens itself, and your body and mind refresh themselves. As we get older, we tend to have more interrupted sleep. One reason is that we produce less melatonin, a hormone that controls our response to light and dark.
Melatonin supplements can help regulate your sleep cycles. From one to three mg of melatonin taken half an hour before bedtime is usually enough for a deep, restful sleep. For more information, read the articles on melatonin on my website: www.womenshealthletter.com.
But there’s much more you can do to help you sleep than take melatonin. If you simply make a few minor lifestyle changes, you’ll soon find the sleep you want and need. Some of these changes work by helping your body’s ability to produce more melatonin naturally. Others relax you so you can get to sleep more easily.
Change your diet
What you eat — especially at night — affects how you sleep. You may think that a sugary snack before bedtime is a good idea because it makes you sleepy. Well, it isn’t. Sugar initially raises your blood sugar and causes you to be alert. Then it drops and you get sleepy. Later in the night, when blood sugar levels drop still further, you may wake up and have difficulty getting back to sleep. Refined grains (white flour and white rice) and alcohol can have the same effect.
Instead, snack on a few whole grain crackers with a little cheese or an ounce or two of nuts or nut butter. Protein helps keep your blood sugar level while you sleep. A little fruit-sweetened yogurt, or a single piece of fruit, is also acceptable for nighttime snacks.
An afternoon cup of coffee or tea, or even a piece of chocolate, can keep you awake at night if you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine. Many people have an increased sensitivity with age. Avoid caffeine after noon. At most, drink a cup of green tea. Although green tea contains a little caffeine, many people find it doesn’t interfere with their sleep due to the theanine it contains.
Modify your environment
Prepare yourself for sleep an hour or two before you go to bed. Begin by turning down the lights. Darkness helps your body make melatonin. If you’re watching TV, don’t put on any bright lights in the room.
Of course, use good lighting for reading, but don’t read stimulating books or watch intense TV shows before bedtime. They can keep you awake. Sleep in a room that’s as dark as possible. Only use a night-light in your bathroom. If you turn on the overhead light, you’ll stop all melatonin production for the rest of the night. If necessary, wear an eye mask to block out light.
Get exposure to plenty of bright light during the day. If you read a lot, use full spectrum fluorescent light bulbs found in all hardware stores. These are not like ordinary fluorescent bulbs. They mimic daylight and contribute to melatonin production.
Try an herbal sedative
If you don’t want to take pharmaceutical drugs, but want a relaxant, you may want to try herbs. Valerian root, hops, skullcap, chamomile, linden flowers, and passionflower all have relaxing, sedative effects. You can find several of them in various herb tea blends and in capsules.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is particularly effective for women who have irregular sleep patterns, or have difficulty falling asleep. From 300-600 mg of valerian can be as effective as pharmaceutical sedatives. Caution: Never take herbal sedatives with either over-the-counter or prescription drugs.
Write it down
If you don’t want to forget tomorrow’s chores, or if you’re worried about something that nags at you, write it down on a small pad kept on your night stand. Use a pen with a tiny light, or write one or two words in the dark. You’ll be able to decipher it later. Once you’ve written it down, you can let that thought go. Deal with it in the morning when you’re more alert and refreshed. This tiny modification can make all the difference between getting to sleep or lying in bed with a racing mind.
Move your clock
Many of us have a clock we can read in the dark near our bed. Move it out of sight. If you are having trouble falling asleep, or if you wake up, it won’t help to know the time. All this does is create more worrying and keep you awake.
Another reason to move your clock is that its electromagnetic fields, found in all electric appliances, can interrupt your sleep. Many years ago, I had a patient who was very sick with a number of serious health problems. She had insomnia, and lack of sleep further lowered her immune system. I questioned her thoroughly and discovered she slept under an electric blanket. The blanket interfered with her body’s electromagnetic field and kept her awake. Don’t sleep under an electric blanket, and keep your clock at least three feet from your bed.
Tip: If you like to jump into a warm bed, use the electric blanket to warm the sheets. And then remove the blanket when you go to bed.
Keep your bedroom cool and your body warm. Your body temperature drops at night, and this can keep you from falling asleep. Take a hot shower or warm bath before bed to raise your temperature.
Have cold feet? They can wake you up. The solution: wear socks or knitted booties to bed. If your feet get too warm, like mine often do, booties are easy to slip off without waking up.
Listen to music
A study in a nursing journal found that playing soothing music for 45 minutes at bedtime improves sleep patterns. All of the study’s participants, aged 60-83, slept longer, woke up less frequently, and were more awake during the day after three weeks of listening to music at night.
Music had a cumulative effect. The longer they played it, the more improvements they noticed. Buy a little tape recorder that automatically shuts off at the end of a tape. Listen to music each night at bedtime, and watch your sleep improve.
Take the right minerals
Many people take calcium at bedtime to help them sleep. The body loses calcium at night, so this may sound like a good idea. But calcium contributes to anxiety and causes muscles to contract, contributing to restless leg syndrome and leg cramps.
Magnesium, on the other hand, relieves anxiety and relaxes muscles. In fact, magnesium often reverses restless leg syndrome and cramping legs and feet.
Instead of calcium, try taking 100-200 mg of magnesium citrate, glycinate, or amino acid chelate at night. If it causes loose stools, get your magnesium in an evening snack like nuts, seeds, or whole grains.
Try these easy solutions for a great night’s sleep. And next month, I’ll show you some homeopathic treatments for sleep disorders. I’ve seen these help even the most stubborn cases of insomnia.
Lai, H.L. and M. Good. “Music improves sleep quality in older adults,” J Adv Nurs, February 2005.
The Lancet, vol 354, October 23, 1999.
Trivieri, L, Jr. and J.W. Anderson. Alternative Medicine: The definitive guide, second edition, Celestial Arts, 2002.