Human beings need sleep. We don’t know exactly why that is, except to say that if we don’t get enough of it, our brains and our bodies get mad at us. During the course of a day, the brain takes in a remarkable amount of information, sights, sounds, smells, facts, feelings, fears, and pleasures. It seems that during our sleeping hours, the brain actually makes sense of this information, almost as though piles of paper are dumped on the desk during the day, and carefully filed away in their proper place at night.
The brain is not the only part of our body that needs sleep to operate efficiently. A new study, the first of its kind, published in the publication SLEEP, highlights the importance of a good snooze in enabling our bodies to fight off infections. In the study, researchers exposed volunteers to a cold virus, via nasal drops, and then carefully monitored their sleep. The results were eye opening. Volunteers who slept less than five hours were found to have a 4.5 times greater chance of developing a cold, and those who slept between five and six hours had a 4.24 times greater chance of getting a cold, compared to volunteers who got at least seven hours of sleep (which is the National Sleep Foundation recommended amount of sleep for adults). The study controlled out other factors such as allergies, stress, and smoking habits. It appears that sleep acts as a sort of infection-fighter for the body, while the lack of sleep seems to break down the defenses.
And yet, sleep remains a frustrating goal for a significant segment of the population. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, 1 in 3 people suffer from at least mild insomnia. The causes of insomnia are legion. Stress, workaholism, 24/7 technologies, a snoring partner, to name a few. The results of insomnia are alarming enough that the Centers for Disease Control has labeled insufficient sleep a public health problem. Besides a cluttered brain from unfiled information, and an inefficient immune system, the sleep-deprived are more prone to car and work accidents, depression, obesity, and many other chronic illnesses like diabetes and even cancer.
Many past studies have shown sleep medications to be valuable in the short term but problematic in the long term. The quality of medicine-induced sleep differs from natural sleep, and the resulting benefits are inferior. Add to that the addictive properties of many of the medicines and it is clear they should be avoided except as occasional remedies. Sleep experts point to other methods to fall asleep. Here are seven tips they recommend.
1. Distract your mind.
If you have been tossing and turning for an hour, your mind racing from today’s annoyances to tomorrow’s big meeting, time to pull out a book. Keep the light low (bright light can reset your internal body clock, exacerbating the problem), and relax with a little reading. All that tossing and turning releases adrenaline, which is the last thing you want. Distracting your brain with a book allows the body’s fatigue to set in so you can start to feel sleepy. Just don’t read from an electronic device. The blue light these devices emit seriously disrupts your internal body clock (the circadian rhythm) and exacerbates your sleep issues.
Another method to distract your mind is with a bit of self-hypnosis. Imagine yourself doing something enjoyable but repetitive, like shooting free throws, or swinging on a swing. Count as you go along. Chances are good you won’t make it past 50 repetitions before you’re slumbering away.
2. A little night music.
Studies have repeatedly shown that relaxing music lowers blood pressure and slows down the heart rate. We’re not talking Metallica or the Foo Fighters here. Some classical music or even just a white noise machine with the sounds of softly crashing waves or rainfall can do the trick. Listening to calming tunes also increases the length and quality of your sleep, according to sleep expert and author James Maas.
3. Bubble blowing.
Rachel Marie E. Salas, a Johns Hopkins neurologist, told Men’s Health to grab a bottle of bubbles before bedtime, and start blowing. The blowing activity replicates deep breathing and helps relax the body. And it’s so childlike and entrancing that it takes your mind off whatever is preoccupying you.
If you can’t bring yourself to blow bubbles, try a little yogic meditation. Sit down, get comfortable, close your eyes, and calmly count your breaths for 5 to 15 minutes. When you lose track, start over and begin counting again. After a few minutes, your blood pressure will decrease, your heart rate will slow and your mind will be soothed.
4. Make a list.
We often find ourselves with too much on our minds. The stress of trying to keep track of it all will surely prevent restful sleep. The solution to this dilemma is to write it down. Got things you need to remember for tomorrow? Put pen to paper and unburden your tired brain.
5. Exercise the body.
When you are stressed out, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. One of the primary functions of cortisol is to keep the mind alert, which is obviously really bad if you are trying to fall asleep. A study in Switzerland found that some intense exercise before bedtime can reduce the amount of cortisol in the body, allowing the brain to calm down and opening the gate to Slumberland.
6. Ignore that clock next to your bed.
Once you have turned out the lights, turn that clock away from you and forget about it until it rudely awakes you in the morning. If you are having trouble sleeping, or if you wake up in the middle of the night, checking the time simply adds stress to your mind. “I have been tossing and turning for an hour!” or “I’ll have four more hours of sleep if I can fall asleep now,” are not relaxing thoughts. There is no reason to create this anxiety and it just adds to the time you aren’t sleeping.
7. Chill out, literally.
When you fall asleep, your core body temperature drops. Turning down the thermostat to an optimum 65-68 degrees will help kickstart the process and allow you to more easily enter Dreamland. If you feel cold, add layers of blankets.