A good night’s sleep: easily obtained by some, a rare commodity for others. It has been estimated that 60 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders and 10% of adults report a regular lack of sleep. Considering the consequences of sleep deprivation, these statistics are concerning.
We all know that we feel better when rested, but sleep is about more than how we feel when awake. Sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain, and depression. Without good sleep, productivity decreases at work and school and reaction times slow leading to accidents. It has been reported that if a person goes without sleep for twenty-four hours, their body performs as though they were legally drunk. There is a belief that we can adapt and learn to live with less sleep, but this is simply not true. Without good sleep, we will get sick.
So why are Americans not sleeping? The most common reasons have to do with lifestyle. Stress tops the list. Substances, such as alcohol and caffeine, are common offenders. Medications, such as statins and corticosteroids, and conditions associated with pain or discomfort, such as acid reflux, are disruptive to sleep. Shift work and jet lag have negative consequences. Circadian rhythm, the twenty-four cycle that tells our body when to sleep and wake, is disrupted by overexposure to light and electronics which is pervasive in our modern world. The list of possible interferences is long, which helps explain why correcting poor sleep patterns is not always an easy fix.
People often turn to pharmaceutical drugs to help with sleep, but these medications do not necessarily provide a healthy sleep equivalent. Most sleep aids are recommended for short-term use, but often people use them as a long-term solution. In addition to the side effects of these drugs, long-term use can result in dependence and tolerance, meaning they are not as effective over time. More importantly, they mask sleeplessness rather than addressing the root cause of the sleep disorder.
An integrative approach to Sleep Health involves a comprehensive plan to address all aspects of life. It is important to treat medical problems that can be the cause of sleep disturbances, such as obstructive sleep apnea. Look over medications to see if sleep interference is a side effect and talk to your doctor. Because common causes of sleep troubles are related to lifestyle, most people will have improvements in sleep with lifestyle changes. First and foremost, make sleep a priority. Determine how many hours you need and be protective of that time. There is a term known as “noise reduction”, the premise being that we have trouble sleeping not from a lack of sleepiness but from excessive wakefulness. Noise reduction aims to manage excessive stimulation and support our innate capacity for sleep.
I am frequently asked about supplements for use as sleep aids. As with any sleep aid, supplements should only be used as one part of a comprehensive plan for sleep. Supplements won’t have the “knock-out” effect of pharmaceuticals but rather gently assist a person to sleep with use over time. Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies make that is involved in maintaining our circadian rhythms and it is a commonly misused supplement. When it comes to sleep, more melatonin is not better, as lower supplement doses seem to be more effective. A reasonable dose for an adult would be 1-3 mg taken two hours before bedtime. Valerian is a sedating herb that can be consumed as a tea, capsule, or extract 30 minutes before bed to help with sleep. Hops, best known in the brewing of beer, has soothing and sedating effects. Hops, often used in combination with valerian, can be used for sleep when taken as a tea 30 minutes before bed. Magnesium, a mineral important to many functions in the body, has a relaxing effect. Deficiency is common and supplementing magnesium may also help with sleep. Supplements can interact with medications, so it is important to speak with your doctor before starting to take them. If you are combining botanicals, work with a herbalist or integrative medicine doctor. Aromatherapy is also a useful tool for sleep. Essential oils of lavender or rose applied topically with a carrier oil or inhaled via a diffuser can promote relaxation and sleep. Sleep difficulties are common and management works best through an integrative lens.
There is no magic pill. Take a step back and look at all the areas of life that could be negatively affecting sleep. The good news is that we are inherently wired to sleep at night. Reduce the noise, slow down, and allow your body to get the rest needed to function and stay healthy.