Sleep is vital for physical and mental health, yet it often gets sacrificed when we are busy. While it is thought that sleep is relaxing and passive, actually quite a lot happens in the body during sleep. During the deepest stages of sleep our bodies’ major organs and regulatory systems are busy working on repair and regeneration and secreting certain hormones.
Insomnia affects up to 33% to 50% of the adult population and 10% suffer from chronic insomnia.
Insomnia is characterized by persistent difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, awakening frequently during the night, or waking feeling tired and not refreshed.
For some, insomnia may be triggered by stress, diet, medications or poor sleep habits. For some women, the hot flashes caused by hormonal changes in menopause can disrupt sleep. Regardless of the cause, a lack of sleep can take a toll on your health.
Short-term or transient insomnia is common and usually lasts only a few days. This may result from temporary situations, such as jet lag, stress at work, a brief illness, or a change in environment. When the precipitating factor disappears, the condition goes away, usually without medical treatment.
Insomnia is classified as long term or chronic when it lasts more than three weeks. Possible causes include stress; depression; use of alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine; snoring or sleep apnea; and other medical conditions.
The exact amount of sleep required is thought to be between 7 and 9 hours nightly.
Getting less than six hours is associated with health problems, such as memory loss, poor concentration, depression, headache, irritability, increased response to stress, high blood pressure, depressed immune function, low libido and weight gain.
Our bodies do not maintain a sleep reserve. You can’t “catch up” on a weekend. Depriving yourself of adequate sleep on a regular basis can take a toll on your health. Considering the vital role that sleep plays in our well-being, devoting seven to nine hours per night should be a priority.
Long term use of prescription sleep aids can cause short-term memory loss, dependency, and actually worsen sleep quality.
There are several types of medications that are used to promote sleep, called sedatives and tranquilizers. The most commonly used class is the benzodiazepines, including Ativan, Restoril, and Valium.
These drugs are recommended only for short-term use (a few weeks). Side effects can include daytime drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Abruptly stopping use of these drugs can cause withdrawal symptoms therefore they should be weaned off slowly (reduce dosage and take every other night) under doctor supervision.
There are a few dietary strategies that result in a better sleep.
- Try a light snack before bed of a food that contains tryptophan. This amino acid stimulates the release of serotonin and makes you feel sleepy. Examples include: turkey, chicken, soy foods or whole grain crackers or cereal.
- A warm glass of milk is an old-time remedy for sleep and there is actually some basis to this. Milk contains certain proteins that aid sleep and the calcium in milk helps promote muscle relaxation.
- Caffeine (coffee, tea, pop, and chocolate) can affect sleep quality, and should be avoided 8 hours before bed time.
- While alcohol may help you fall asleep, it causes nighttime wakening and reduces sleep quality, so minimize or avoid it completely.
- Go easy on sugary foods (cookies, candy) especially in the evening as these foods can cause a sugar-rush and affect your ability to fall asleep.
Sherry Torkos, pharmacist and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, says there are many natural ways to a better sleep that do not require a prescription.
“There are many natural ways to a better sleep including managing stress, getting regular exercise and eating a proper diet.“
Torkos recommends the following tips for people who struggle with insomnia.
- Set aside at least 7 to 8 hours for sleep. Leaving only 5 or 6 hours may make you feel stressed and impact your ability to fall asleep.
- Establish a regular bed and wake time and try to follow this routine even on the weekends.
- Do relaxing activities before bedtime – read a book, listen to relaxing music or have a warm bath.
- Reserve your bedroom for intimacy and sleep.
- Make your bedroom dark, quiet and comfortable.
- Exercise regularly early in the day.
- Don’t smoke – nicotine is a stimulant and impairs your ability to fall asleep and have a restful sleep.
- Consider acupuncture, massage, yoga and meditation to promote relaxation.
- Prescription sedatives should only be used when all else fails as they are addictive and cause numerous side effects, including impairment in short term memory.
Natural sleep supplements can help with a better sleep without the side effects of prescription sleeping pills.
- Supplements can help reduce the time needed to fall asleep, reduce nighttime wakening and improve sleep quality.
- Look for a product with the following ingredients:
- 5-HTP: (5-hydroxytryptophan) increases serotonin and melatonin levels which promotes relaxation and better sleep
- L-theanine: an amino acid found in green tea which reduces stress, promotes relaxation and improves sleep.
- Melatonin: a hormone naturally secreted by the brain that regulates our sleep/wake cycles.