Natural Solutions for Chronic Insomnia
It’s no secret that skimping on sleep can leave you grumpy and groggy the next morning. But a slew of studies published over the past few years shows that getting less than eight hours of shut-eye each night could have far more serious long-term consequences. Linked to increased risk for a number of major diseases and chronic conditions, short sleep duration is now considered a significant health threat for many Americans. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that up to 70 million people across the country may suffer from insomnia, a problem often treated with sleeping pills and other medications.
For those dealing with chronic insomnia and seeking a drug-free cure for their sleep struggles, there are plenty of alternative approaches and lifestyle changes proven to support sounder slumber. Read on to learn more about the health risks associated with inadequate rest—and to find out how you can solve your sleep problems naturally.
The Cost of Chronic InsomniaEver-mounting evidence shows that sleep deprivation can negatively affect head-to-toe health, giving rise to problems ranging from impaired memory to weakened immune function. Here’s a look at a few key findings from recently published studies:
• Sleeping five or fewer hours each night may raise your risk for type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, finds a study presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. In a report released the previous year, scientists discovered that lack of sleep could decrease the body’s ability to keep blood sugar in check and result in reduced insulin sensitivity (a main risk factor for type 2 diabetes).
• In a 2009 study of 1,741 adults, insomniac participants sleeping less than five hours nightly had a 500 percent higher risk for high blood pressure (compared to study members who snoozed for more than six hours each night). Those who slept five to six hours per night had a 350 percent higher risk than normal sleepers.
• Short sleep duration may set the stage for weight gain and boost your obesity risk, according to a 2008 review of 29 previously published studies (including a total of 30,002 children and 604,509 adults). Estimated to affect more than a third of Americans, obesity is considered a risk factor for heart disease and cancer (the two leading causes of death in the U.S.), as well as for diabetes, fatty liver disease, and osteoarthritis.
The Ultimate Bedroom MakeoverCultivating a calming, cozy bedroom environment is one of the best ways to ensure healthy sleep, says Stephanie A. Silberman, psychologist and author of The Insomnia Workbook (www.sleeppsychology.com). “You don’t need to go out and buy some expensive mattress, but you should try to set up a space that feels good to you,” she notes. Here, the top three ways to turn your room into a sleep sanctuary.
1) Keep It Cave-Like. Since complete darkness is essential for healthy sleep, consider investing in blackout curtains to stop outdoor light from shining into your bedroom. If blackout curtains aren’t an option for you, try slipping on a sleep mask when you hit the sack. Not only overstimulating for your senses, nighttime light exposure can block your body’s production of melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate your biological rhythms).
2) Power Down. Keeping TVs, computers, and other electronic devices out of the bedroom is key for creating a peaceful atmosphere, says Silberman. By cluttering up your room with electronics, you’re conditioning yourself to connect the space with activities other than sleep, she notes. If you’re not able to remove such devices from your room altogether, try covering them up at bedtime so any emitted light won’t keep you awake. Covering the clock is especially important, adds Silberman. “When you keep staring at the clock, it can increase your anxiety about not being able to sleep, which just makes your insomnia all the worse,” she explains.
3) Soothe Your Senses. For total tranquility, seek inspiration from your favorite spa. Sprinkle your pillow with a few drops of lavender essential oil, a natural sedative shown to promote sleep in a number of studies. If you have trouble dozing off in complete silence, try playing soothing music or turning on a white-noise machine. Choosing calming colors (such as soft shades of blue and green) for your bedroom walls and décor can also make your bedroom more sleep-conducive. And to keep your bed as cozy as possible, opt for snug fabrics and high-thread-count sheets, find a pillow that properly cradles your neck, and change your mattress about every seven years to ensure supreme support.
More Solutions for Sweeter SleepAs you’re transforming your bedroom into a haven for healthy sleep, try to troubleshoot any elements of your nightly (and daily) routine that could contribute to your chronic insomnia. Sticking to a regular bedtime and wake time, curbing your caffeine intake, and exercising about five or six hours before you go to sleep can all help you find sleep more easily, says Silberman. And such changes may be particularly crucial for chronic insomniacs, suggests a new study from Biological Psychiatry. Researchers found that people with chronic insomnia may have less grey matter density in brain regions involved in “pleasantness evaluation,” which could prevent them from recognizing optimal comfort levels and, in turn, greatly interfere with efforts to fall asleep.
No matter what the trigger for your sleep troubles, taking time to unwind each night can go a long way in fending off insomnia. “About an hour before bedtime, stop using the computer, making phone calls, or doing anything else that keeps your brain too active,” says Silberman. Reading, watching a funny movie or TV show, or engaging in a stress-reducing practice (such as meditation or gentle yoga) can help ease your mind and make you more sleep-ready. “Just try to keep those activities out of the bedroom, so you can save your room for sleep,” advises Silberman. “If you stick to using your bed only when you’re truly very sleepy, you’ll eventually be far less likely to find yourself staring at the ceiling and missing out on all that precious sleep.”
Elizabeth Barker is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and executive editor of fashion blog nogoodforme.com. Her work has appeared in Body + Soul, Natural Health, Vegetarian Times, Kiwi, and Variety.