New research to help you sleep
If you toss and turn every night, or lie awake ’til the wee hours, you’ve got company. There are sleep distractions at every age: While you are younger, parenting duties may keep you up; as you age, pain, menopause or sleep apnea may mess with your rest. Researchers have uncovered that there is a link between sleep quantity and increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “We talk about sleep as one of the three pillars of good health, along with diet and exercise,” says Steven Lockley, a neuroscientist in the division of sleep medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; an associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School; and a co-author of Sleep: A Very Short Introduction.
If you’re craving better sleep, read on: New research is shedding light on how to get it.
1. Turn out the lights—especially the blue ones
Eyes wide open? Blame your electronic devices. Research into the effects of electric light on our sleep-wake cycles has exploded recently. “If we’re exposed to light at night, it shifts the biological clock around,” says Lockley, whose work focuses on this area. “And it acts as an acute stimulant, so it alerts the brain.” Light triggers an increase in heart rate, body temperature and brain activity level. It also suppresses production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body it’s dark out and time for shut-eye.
All light has some effect, but we are particularly sensitive to blue light—the kind that’s emitted by all those electronic gadgets you check or use right before bed, like your smartphone and e-reader. “If you don’t want to disrupt your melatonin, avoid bright or rich light two to three hours before bed,” Lockley advises. If that’s not possible, at least shut off your devices an hour before going to sleep, since our sensitivity increases the later it gets. Use dim lamps in the evening, sit far from the TV (and avoid putting one in your bedroom), and don’t watch a movie on your iPad before trying to drift off.
2. Try going for therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) is not well-known, but it’s effective for almost all ages including adults and teens, as shown by a 2012 study at Loughborough University. “The outcomes are very good for CBT for insomnia,” says Norah Vincent, clinical psychologist at the Health Sciences Center behavioral sleep medicine clinic in Winnipeg. “You have to work a lot longer at CBT to see the gains for some other health problems.” Ninety percent of Vincent’s patients report improvement in their sleep after following the six-week program. And the success rate of the clinic’s online program, which people do from their home, has an 80 percent success rate.
CBTi has six components: cognitive therapy, which changes your thinking patterns about the problem; stimulus control, which restricts bedroom activities so you’ll link your bed with drowsiness instead of agitation; relaxation therapy, which helps your body unwind; sleep hygiene; mindfulness meditation; and sleep restriction, which—believe it or not—is probably the most effective component. Sleep restriction increases your drive for sleep and quickens sleep onset, resulting in a deeper sleep. For example, if you’re only sleeping six hours a night and you have to get up at 7 a.m., try staying up until 1 a.m. “It’s counterintuitive, but people hit the pillow hard and sleep more deeply,” Vincent says. After a few nights, move your bedtime 15 or 30 minutes earlier at a time.
3. Pick up good habits
Good sleep hygiene incorporates a long list of habits such as avoiding heavy foods before bed and not exercising close to bedtime. But over time, experts have placed more emphasis on certain habits from the list and less on others. In addition to avoiding light exposure before bed, having a thoroughly dark room is critical, says Cathy Risdon, a professor in McMaster University’s department of family medicine, adding: “I think very few people achieve that in their sleep environment.” Blackout curtains or eye masks often do the trick.
It’s also important to shun caffeine after about 3 p.m. (if not sooner), since it takes a long time to leave your system. Also key: Keep your room cool. In fact, even reconsider a pre-bedtime bath; it may heat up your body, making it harder to sleep. Your bedroom should also be quiet. The low, constant sound of a fan might help to block out noises that could disturb your sleep, or you could invest in a white noise machine.
4. Be sure to get some daylight
There are also things you can do in the daytime that may help you sleep better at night. “When you get up, turn your face to the light,” Risdon says. “Go for a 10-minute walk and greet the sun.” Expose yourself to light as much as you can throughout the day to train your brain’s day-night pattern. If the lighting at work isn’t great, get to a window or outside as often as you can, Lockley suggests. “It can be intermittent; it doesn’t have to be continuous. Take ‘light breaks.’”
Try to keep your mealtimes and bedtimes consistent, even on weekends. Risdon says chronobiology—the study of our body’s various cycles—is a growing area of interest. “There are oscillations in the body over a 24-hour period linked to when we eat, when we move, and everything else,” she says. “The more we understand them, the more we can honor their function.” When we’re not fighting our body’s natural patterns, sleep is bound to come more naturally.
5. Try a sleep supplement
Most sleeping medications on the market today are addictive or give you a groggy hangover, and are approved only for use in the short term, according to sleep experts. As for melatonin supplements, they can help reset your clock when you’re working night shifts or traveling across time zones, but it turns out they are not an effective medication for nighttime sleep. Some people, though, notice improvement with magnesium or zinc. Say Vincent and Risdon, if you’re deficient in iron, or vitamin B12 or D (a doctor can test your levels and make a recommendation), then supplementing may make a difference. Risdon adds that topping up B12, iron and folate can help eliminate unwanted leg movements that can occur at night when we are deficient.
Just don’t expect a supplement to transform you from raving insomniac to perfect sleeper. “If a person’s life is wildly out of balance—for example, they are working 18 hours a day and eating foods out of a box and not getting exercise—it doesn’t matter what their vitamin D levels are,” Risdon says. “But if someone is doing the best they can to get sleep and make lifestyle changes, but is still D-deficient, then they will see a huge benefit by topping up their levels.”