One of the foundations of health is a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to consequences including obesity, aggravation of pain conditions like fibromyalgia, poor memory, and even increased risk of cardiovascular disease. With all the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep, it might be tempting to do whatever it takes to correct sleep problems — including taking pharmaceutical sleep aids. But let’s step back and consider the consequences first.
A common class of medications prescribed for sleep (and anxiety) is the benzodiazepines (“benzos”) — with trade names like Xanax and Valium, or generic names alprazolam, diazepam, and others. The main problem with these drugs is well known: they’re addictive, and can lead to physiological dependence.
A new study published this month (1) found an unexpected danger with benzos: a 54% increased risk of pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the more serious complications of seasonal influenza, which I wrote about last week. If you’re currently taking benzos for sleep, or considering them, think about all the natural ways you can improve sleep instead. Of course, discuss changing your medication with the prescribing physician, since it’s best to wean down carefully on this type of drug. Now if you’re thinking, “I’ve tried all that natural stuff before! It didn’t work,” my response is… really? Everything? Review the list below, and give these suggestions an honest try for a period of several weeks.
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF YOUR SLEEP
1. Maintain consistent sleep and wake times. Do not push yourself to stay up past the initial signs of sleepiness. This can create epinephrine production, causing more difficulty getting to sleep later. It is good to have a “getting ready for bed” routine to relax and prepare your body for sleep. Avoid taking naps if you have trouble sleeping at night.
2. Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only. Do not read, watch TV, eat, or worry in bed. Solve daily dilemmas outside of the bedroom. If you find that you’ve been lying awake in bed for 15-20 minutes, get out of bed. Do something mundane until you feel sleepy, and then go back to bed. Repeat this as often as needed.
3. Your sleeping environment should be quiet, cool (70 degrees or less), and comfortable. The room should be clutter-free. Reduce the amount of ambient light as much as possible. Electronic devices such as clocks, stereos, TVs and computers generate electromagnetic fields that can disturb sleep for some people. Experiment with moving these into another room or using EMF shields. Feng Shui, the Chinese art of placement, can be valuable in creating an optimal sleeping environment.
4. Exercise regularly. Exercising during the day or early evening decreases the time it takes to get to sleep and increases the amount of deep sleep obtained. Most people do better avoiding exercise late in the evening.
5. Exposure to sunlight early in the morning and late in the afternoon or evening encourages a strong circadian rhythm. The hormone melatonin, which helps create a sleep state in the body, is suppressed in light and secreted in darkness.
6. As much as possible, ensure complete darkness at night. Darkness encourages your body’s natural production of melatonin. Do not fall asleep with the TV or lights on. Turn off all screens (TV, computer, video games, etc.) 30-60 minutes before bedtime. If you wake at night to go to the bathroom, do not turn the light on. Even this brief exposure to light at night may suppress your melatonin significantly, drastically reducing the quality of your sleep.
7. If you have problems with waking during the early hours of the morning, have a small protein snack just before bed to ensure consistent blood sugar levels throughout the night. Consistently get exposure to sunlight as late in the day as possible.
8. Improving overall health will improve the quality of your sleep. Work towards improving or eliminating health problems. Treatment modalities such as Neurostructural Integration Technique will help to relax the body. Effective stress management is essential.
THINGS THAT RELAX THE BODY AND PREPARE IT FOR SLEEP
• Warm baths, possibly adding Epsom salts or lavender oil
• Meditating for 5-30 minutes
• Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation (various recordings are available) or any other means of inducing the “relaxation response”. Daily practice brings greater results.
• Special acoustic recordings that increase specific brain wave patterns for relaxation and sleep
• Botanical treatments and aromatherapy using herbs and their essential oils (examples include chamomile, valerian, vervain (verbena), hops, lavender, passionflower, avena (oat straw), lemon balm and scutellaria (skull cap). Consult Dr. Peters for dosages and recommendations.
• Calcium and magnesium supplementation. Consult Dr. Peters for dosages and recommendations.
• 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) or melatonin supplementation may be necessary in individual cases. Consult Dr. Peters for dosages and recommendations.
THINGS THAT INTERFERE WITH SLEEP
• Although alcohol may make you fall asleep, the sleep obtained after drinking is fragmented and light.
• The stimulating effects of caffeine may last up to 10 hours in some people. Avoid it in the afternoon if getting to sleep is a problem. Caffeine is present in coffee, green tea, black tea, chocolate and some medications (pain relievers, decongestants, thermogenic weight loss products, energy supplements, etc.)
• The stimulating effects of nicotine (first- or second-hand smoke) can last several hours.
• Sleeping pills, aside from being highly addictive and full of side effects, decrease the amount of time spent in deep sleep and only increase light sleep.
• B-vitamin supplements can increase energy that keeps some people awake, if taken before bed. Take B-vitamins earlier in the day.
• Do not go to bed with a very full stomach. Large quantities of protein are stimulating to the body as digestion occurs. It’s best to finish eating at least three hours before going to bed.
1. The impact of benzodiazepines on occurrence of pneumonia and mortality from pneumonia: a nested case-control and survival analysis in a population-based cohort. Thorax doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2012-202374.