If you have trouble sleeping, you're definitely not alone. More than half of US adults experience some symptom of insomnia at least a few nights a week. To help us get more of that elusive thing called sleep — and address issues beyond insomnia, like snoring, "monkey brain", and difficulty waking — we enlisted the help of a sleep specialist. Here's what we learned.Photo by Alyssa L. Miller
We should spend about a third of our day asleep, resting peacefully and recharging for the next day. Instead, studies from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) show that more than a third of the US population wakes up feeling unrefreshed, and almost just as many people wake up often during the night. Furthermore, 21 per cent of us wake up too early (and then experience difficulty getting back to sleep) and/or have a hard time falling asleep in the first place.
Lack of sleep being a major epidemic (CNN reported a while ago that it may have been the country's top health problem), it's time to address a few specific sleep-related complaints.
Dr Nitun Verma, who is fellowship trained in sleep medicine from Stanford University and the Medical Director of the Washington Township centre for Sleep Disorders in Freemont, was kind enough to offer some great insight and advice on dealing with these sleep problems. (You can find his personal sleep blog and contact him at http://www.slumberhealth.com.)
Sleep Problem #1: Insomnia
Insomnia means "no sleep" in Latin and it's the most common sleep complaint in America, according to NSF. Dr Verma says he regularly sees people come into his centre who need help falling asleep but don't want to become dependent on sleep meds or medical devices. IT people and creative types seem to be more prone to experiencing insomnia or being night owls, perhaps, he suggests, due to differences in how the brain is physically wired for some people. But there is hope.
What we need to do is replicate the "farm environment," Dr Verma says — give our brains the needed signals to wake up when it's bright and start winding down when it's darker. He advises us to start dimming the lights several (at least three) hours before bed time. If you can't quit working on the computer until immediately before bedtime, still dim what you can as early as possible, Dr Verma advises. (Interesting fact: This has been shown to work even for people who are blind, as light exposure affects a different pathway of nerves in our eyeballs.)
While sending these signals by adjusting light exposure over many hours is the biggest thing you can do to train yourself, we should also remember other factors that can sabotage our ability to get to sleep. For example, caffeine's very long half-life — around six hours — means that if you have a cup of coffee at noon, by dinner time half of it is still affecting your brain, so that's why it's recommended to limit your caffeine to the mornings. Another thing that may help you get to sleep more easily is shifting the most stressful tasks earlier in the work day if you can.
What about sleep medication and other treatments? "Historically, the best treatment for insomnia in the long term is not medications. Instead it is some form of cognitive behavioural therapy," Dr Verma says, while noting that there is a lot of research on the horizon.
It can take weeks for you to train your brain and develop better sleep hygiene, so stick with the light adjusting routine. If insomnia continues, seek help from a trained professional PhD or MD.
Sleep Problem #2: Monkey Brain
Taking a long time to fall asleep is one of the symptoms of insomnia, but it's also a special problem that makes napping incredibly hard (if not impossible). It's been called "monkey brain" before, where you lie awake thinking about sleep but taking seemingly forever to get there.
What's worked for me: A few years ago, listening to one specific track on a "natural pregnancy" hypnosis CD always put me to sleep. Unfortunately, I no longer have the CD and didn't have a natural pregnancy, but I still use the technique whenever I have trouble sleeping: Basically, it's like counting sheep, but you count backwards visualising the numbers, down from 100...99...98 and so forth and eventually by around 80-something you let the rest of the numbers fall away. Sometimes it can really tire out your mind to the point of sleeping.
Unfortunately, the more you try to sleep, the more it usually backfires, because it's a passive activity. The best recourse for monkey brain is to try doing something that will relax you pre-sleep or pre-nap. But what works for one person won't necessarily work for another, as Dr Verma notes: "A really smart person, for example, may not see good results by doing something very boring, like reading a phone book, because they'll only use a small part of their attention. They would still have racing thoughts."
I've found that writing in a journal before going to sleep helps quiet the mind; it's also useful to have a pen and paper by your bed for sudden thoughts in the middle of the night.
For relaxation, you could also try one of those hypnosis/deep sleep mobile apps or audio recordings. Before you think "hooey" to that, keep in mind that being bored to sleep is better than not sleeping at all, so it's worth a try.
Sleep Problem #3: Snoring
Snoring is mostly annoying for the person listening to it, though sometimes snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea, a serious health condition. Dr. Verma cautions that a lot of times only snoring is treated, instead of the sleep apnea; if you have any doubt, see a physician who can evaluate your risk using a STOP questionnaire.
Otherwise, if snoring is confirmed as the main problem, there are many possible solutions like breathe right strips or snoring mouth guards, and treatments like a pillar implant procedure.
If your partner is a snorer, try going to bed before him/her so you're in a deeper state of sleep by the time your partner starts snoring. Otherwise, the cheapest solution: earplugs!
Sleep Problem #4: Difficulty Waking and Feeling Refreshed
If you're a night owl, mornings, or having to get up at an unnatural time for you, can be a problem. "Delayed sleep-phase syndrome," Dr Verma assured me, "can be outgrown." Delayed sleep-phase syndrome (DSPS) is the medical term for a chronic disorder of the timing of sleep; when you have DSPS you have a hard time sleeping until after midnight and then have difficulty getting up in the morning. If only your job and the world would let you sleep from 3am to 11am you'd be fine.
DSPS usually kicks in during adolescence but most people outgrow it. If you haven't yet, Dr Verma has some advice that you don't want to hear: the only way to adjust is to do the unpleasant thing and wake up by opening the curtains, brightening the lights, and blaring the alarms. In short, the exact opposite of what you would like. After a few weeks of this painful practice, you should adjust and be more alert in the a.m. Lowering comfort level in bed is a similar hack to help you wake up more easily.
Here's to Better Sleep
We know that sleep is important fuel for your brain and sleep deprivation one of the worst things you can do to your body.
For more help getting the rest you need and deserve, see our previous guide to rebooting your sleep habits and roundup of 10 favourite ways to sleep smarter and better. And, definitely, if you have sleep tips or problems, feel free to discuss them in the comments!