Sweet Slumber: Natural Tips for Deep SleepJun 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Ronica O’Hara
A good night’s sleep is a challenge for a growing number of Americans. Even before the pandemic, 35 percent of adults reported sleeping less than the recommended seven hours a night, and in a new survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 56 percent said they were sleeping worse due to what’s termed “COVID-somnia”.
Being sleep-deprived not only makes us crabby and accident-prone, but also raises our risk of obesity, depression, heart disease, dementia and a weakened immune system, studies show. Fortunately, we can stave off fretting about lack of sleep by adopting some simple, natural practices.
Get a pattern going. “Keeping to the same routine will signal to the body and brain that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep,” says Dallas nurse educator Jenna Liphart Rhoads. This means sticking to the same bedtime and awakening schedule, and doing quieting activities an hour or so before bed, such as stretching, meditating, drinking tea or journaling.
Munch smartly on sleep-inducing foods. Many experts advocate foregoing food two hours before sleeping. As another option, “sleep snacks”, is suggested by New York University adjunct nutrition professor Lisa Young. She says, “These are foods that contain natural substances that may help promote a good night’s sleep.” They include warm milk or turkey (tryptophan), tart cherries (melatonin), kiwi fruit (vitamin C and serotonin), bananas (potassium and magnesium) and nuts and seeds (magnesium).
Don amber glasses or an eye mask to block light. The blue light emitted by ordinary light bulbs and device screens prevents the pineal gland from releasing melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, which is why it’s wise to shut down electronic devices an hour before sleeping. If doing so isn’t easy, at least block the blue light by using amber or orange (not clear or yellow) glasses to restore melatonin production, advises former General Electric lighting researcher Richard Hansler, Ph.D., of Cleveland; he also advises replacing regular bedroom bulbs with only those that produce low levels of blue light. To encourage deep sleep, fully darken the bedroom or wear an eye mask: a Chinese study found wearing such an accessory along with earplugs significantly increases the restorative rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.
Write a to-do list to calm a racing mind. Baylor University researchers found that compared to people that journaled about what they had accomplished that day, those that spent five minutes writing a to-do list for the next day fell asleep nine minutes sooner—the same effect as taking a prescription medication. The more specific their list, the quicker the shut-eye.
Get cozy with a weighted blanket and socks. Weighted blankets, ideally weighing about 10 percent of a person’s body weight, lead to better sleep and reduced fatigue, depression and anxiety, reports a Swedish study. Some are filled with natural ingredients like rice and cloves, and can be warmed in a microwave beforehand, providing a fragrant, swaddled feeling. Plus, Korean researchers found that wearing warm socks to bed helped subjects fall asleep about seven minutes sooner, sleep 32 minutes longer and experience fewer light awakenings.
Take a natural sleep aid. Prescription sleeping pills for insomnia can produce dependency and additional unwelcome side effects such as grogginess, diarrhea, headaches and stomach pain. Natural choices without these drawbacks include melatonin, a pineal gland hormone that primes the body for sleep; small doses of 0.3 milligram (mg) to 1 mg work effectively by mirroring natural circadian levels, research shows. Half of U.S. adults are estimated to be deficient in magnesium, which relaxes muscles and increases levels of a neurotransmitter with calming effects; 500 mg is a common dose. Valerian (300 to 900 mg) has been found to improve sleep quality in women during menopause.
Check out health issues to get to the root. Apnea, thyroid conditions, anemia, menopausal hot flashes, heartburn, incontinence and depression can affect the quality and quantity of sleep, as can medications such as beta blockers, blood pressure medications, some antidepressants and decongestants. If anxiety or depression is causing tossing and turning, cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to improve sleep in up to 70 to 80 percent of people with insomnia. Whether in-person, via Zoom or by email, even one or two sessions can lower insomnia symptoms, with six to eight sessions typically being more helpful.
Natural health writer Ronica O’Hara can be reached at [email protected].