Can you train yourself to need less sleep, and, if not, how the hell can you get more? Do those relaxation drinks hyped on the internet do any good?
I’m not always getting the greatest shut-eye lately thanks to my baby daughter, who shares my bed and spends a lot of time tossing, turning and kicking me in the stomach. And when you’re woken up half a dozen times a night, you get a little twitchy and then have a difficult time falling asleep. Insomnia becomes an exhausting freaking cycle.
I spend a lot of days walking around in a haze wondering how long I can survive on three to four hours of sleep a night.
There are plenty of non-kid-related reasons people lose sleep, and folks who say most of us aren’t getting enough. Plus, new research shows that extended sleep loss kills brain cells.
For insomnia, specialists recommend sleeping in a dark, cool room and avoiding computer screens for at least an hour before bedtime. Exercise, avoid stimulants later in the day and keep a routine. Warm milk and honey is an effective old standard. Sleeping pills should be a last resort.
What the experts say
“Sleep loss leads to deficits in performance and ability to process information. You can get by on less sleep than normal and sustain that lifestyle, but you have to be willing to live with the risks.
The long-term effects of sleep loss are twofold. First is decreased ability to sustain attention, which means the brain becomes unstable. And there are health implications. Hormonal and metabolic systems get disrupted, which can lead to a host of disorders and diseases including cardiovascular consequences, diabetes and obesity. If you bank sleep on a fairly regular basis, the starting point from which you’re working if you lose sleep puts you in a better position and provides some resilience. If you must sleep less during the week, you can make up for that during the weekend. Napping, as in short bouts of supplemental sleep, can be quite valuable.”
HANS VAN DONGEN, research professor, Sleep Research Center, Washington State University, Spokane
“With insomnia, do not give in to the urge to compensate. People sleep in on a weekend or go to bed earlier and spend longer in bed. Or they drink more caffeine and use alcohol closer to bedtime. All seem like good ideas, but they perpetuate the problem. Choose a regular rise time and, even if you fell asleep just an hour before, get up.
Avoid napping or going to bed too early. [You can bank sleep or make up for it] if you’re a normal sleeper, but not with chronic insomnia.
A lot of people wake up in the night and spin their wheels, staying awake for hours. Review that stuff before bed or write it out so you don’t have to deal with it when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Get all communication devices out of the bedroom. Technicians often hear the phones of patients who come in for [sleep] testing. If you’re watching on the EEG, you can see that it’s quite disruptive.
Individual ingredients in relaxation drinks all have legitimate evidence for a variety of effects, but as a combined cocktail we don’t know what they do.”
JAMES MacFARLANE, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, University of Toronto
“Studies in humans have shown that restricting the sleep of healthy young adults to four to five hours a night for days leads to attention lapses that do not fully reverse even after three full nights of as much sleep as possible.
We looked at the cells important in attention (locus coeruleus neurons) in mice that were kept awake during their usual sleep period but then allowed to sleep during the time they are usually awake, similar to night shift workers. Not only do the cells get injured, but 25 per cent of these neurons die. We then looked for whether these neurons mount a protective response with shorter periods of wakefulness, and indeed they do. Our work suggests that catch-up sleep may help but may not fully normalize the brain.”
SIGRID VEASEY, associate professor of medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
“When a person is having difficulty falling asleep, it’s important to identify the root cause. Simply using medication to mask the problem won’t solve the underlying issue.
I recommend Passiflora incarnata, valerian root or Melissa officinalis in the form of a tincture or tea. I also advise 200mg of L-Theanine in supplement form, which increases GABA levels in the brain. Researchers found that brain GABA levels are 30 per cent lower in insomniacs compared to sound sleepers.
Dab calming essential oils such as lavender and camomile around the temples and between the eyebrows and always sleep in a dark room. The body produces the hormone melatonin when it’s dark, which promotes restful sleep. Drinking antioxidant-rich tart cherry juice in the morning and evening naturally boosts melatonin levels.”
SARA CELIK, naturopath, Toronto
“In traditional Chinese medicine, insomnia has to do with your emotional heart, or shen. When your shen is disturbed, you can’t sleep. There’s a Chinese saying that the way to a calm shen is through proper speech. This means avoiding anxiety by refraining from lying or promising things you can’t do. In TCM we use potassium and magnesium, which are in oyster shells. You make a tea out of them.”
KALEB MONTGOMERY, Chinese medicine practitioner, Toronto
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