In a World in which we are trying to cram more and more into each day, many of us view sleep a bit of a waste of time. However, while the sleeping body may appear quite inactive on the outside, inside, there’s a lot going on. It is during the night that we recoup physical and mental energies expended during the day. Inadequate sleep is well known to lead to problems with learning and memory, poor concentration, low mood and fatigue. Also, during sleep, the body undergoes processes of detoxification and repair. Bearing in mind sleep’s multitude of functions, it comes as no surprise that those who sleep for longer, live for longer. Yet, despite its undoubted importance for health, statistics indicate we are getting less sleep now than ever before. While sleep specialists recommend eight or more hours a night for optimum health, a third of us sleep for 6 ½ hours or less, and half of us have some degree of insomnia. For many of us, taking steps to ensure we get all the sleep we need is clearly of prime importance for our physical and mental well-being.
Insomnia can broadly be divided into two categories; difficulty in getting to sleep, and problems with waking in the night. These two sleep issues generally have different underlying factors, and are usually best approached using strategies specific to the problem. For individuals who have problems getting off to sleep, stress and/or anxiety is usually a feature. Whatever the precise nature of this is, certain factors tend to compound the problem and should be avoided as much as possible. Watching suspense, action or horror movies in the evening, for instance, generally increases the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which can impair sleep. Exercise, while generally good for sleep, should be avoided within four hours of bedtime for the same reason. More sedate activities such as reading, listening to soft music or taking a bath are generally ideal for helping the body and mind to wind down in preparation for sleep.
Many individuals who have difficulty getting to sleep feel tired on waking and may tend to use caffeine to prop them up during the day. However, caffeine is a potent stimulant which can tend to linger in the body. Several studies show that caffeine consumption is linked to insomnia. It is easy to see the vicious cycle many individuals get themselves into with caffeine and sleeplessness. In my experience, cutting caffeine out of the diet very often improves the quality and quantity of sleep, which in turn enhances energy and does away for the need for caffeine in the first place.
Some individuals who have a long term problem with insomnia may have actually got into the habit of not sleeping. After several weeks, months or even years of poor sleep, the mind can become accustomed to the idea that getting into bed means staying awake, rather than going to sleep. Many individuals in the situation attempt to get more sleep by going to bed earlier. In practice, this very rarely works because it often increases the proportion of time they individual spend in bed awake, which compounds the problem in the long term. Usually, a better tactic is to go to bed later, even in the early hours of the morning, once fatigue has really set in. The chances are that sleep will come quite quickly, and once the body has become accustomed to getting to sleep on retiring, the bedtime can be gradually brought earlier and earlier into the evening.
Some individuals may use medication to help them sleep. The most commonly prescribed sleeping pills are of a class of drugs known as the benzodiazepines (e.g. temazepam). While these drugs may help induce sleep, they can sometimes give rise to a hangover-like effect in the morning (defeating the object of taking them in the first place). Plus, benzodiazepines are well know to be addictive if taken regularly. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives. There is some evidence that as we age, levels of the sleep-inducing brain chemical melatonin may decline, causing problems with sleep. Also, several studies show that taking melatonin as a supplement can improve sleep. I generally recommend a dose of between 1.0 and 3 mg, taken 30 ” 60 minutes before bedtime. Despite being a natural substance, melatonin is only available by prescription in the UK.
Another useful natural remedy for sleeplessness is the herb Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). The root of the Valerian plant contains a number of constituents including essential oils which have calming and sleep-inducing properties. Unlike the benzodiazepine drugs, Valerian has no potential for addiction or dependence. The normal recommended dose is 300 – 500 mg of root extract or 5ml of tincture, taken one hour before bedtime.
Many insomniacs find that their problem is not getting to sleep, it’s staying asleep. This problem is quite often related to a drop in the level of sugar in the blood stream during the night. Normally, the body likes to keep an adequate and stable blood sugar level while we sleep. Should the blood sugar level drop, the body secretes certain hormones, notably adrenaline, to correct this. Adrenaline tends to increase wakefulness, hence the reason why individuals can find themselves wide awake at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. The secret to ensuring a good night’s sleep for many individuals is to maintain a stable level of blood sugar throughout the night.
Individuals who wake in the night should avoid foods which release sugar quickly into the bloodstream at their evening meal. Sweets, puddings, white bread, white rice, pasta and potatoes tend to induce rapid rises in blood sugar, often leading to low blood sugar a few hours later. To reduce the risk of this happening, supper should be based around foods which tend to stabilise blood sugar levels such as meat, fish, fresh vegetables, and perhaps some brown rice, wholemeal bread or wholewheat pasta. It is also a good idea to have a light snack before bedtime. Fruit and natural yoghurt, or a rye cracker or two with a savoury topping taken ½ – 1 hour before bedtime may help sleep by helping to ensure the blood sugar level does not drop during the night.
Certain nutrients can help the body keep the blood sugar level stable. Perhaps the most important nutrient in this respect is the mineral chromium, which is well known to contribute to blood sugar stability. Many individuals find that taking a supplement of chromium before bedtime reduces their tendency to wake in the night. 300 – 600 mcg of chromium should be taken with the evening meal.