I have suffered from insomnia and sleep apnea at times. Fortunately both are cured now. For years I found it hard to sleep, woke up in the middle of the night, and felt groggy all day. The sleep apnea and excessive snoring were eventually addressed by a series of operations, but the dramatic improvement in my well-being after the medical procedures showed me that a lack of good sleep was a serious health concern.
So over the last decade, I have experimented with a variety of methods to get a good night’s sleep. Many of them involve herbs or vitamins, but I have tried meditation and exercise as well. Nothing beats a good eight hours of shut-eye, and I find problems are much easier to deal with when I am refreshed.
Here’s a brief guide to sleep: It comes in around 90 minute cycles. You go from light sleep to REM (dreaming) sleep, then the cycle restarts with light sleep again. Normally you get 4-6 of these events in an eight-hour bout of sleep. Your mileage may vary. Everybody is different and require different amounts of sleep. If your norm is six or nine hours – that is right for you. Listen to what your body tells you.
Napping during the day is fine, but you should only rest for 10-20 minutes. Set an alarm clock or you will start going into the deeper sleep cycles and be very groggy when you wake up. Some people drink a coffee, then immediately nap. The coffee kicks in in about 15-30 minutes and gets you going again.
The room you sleep in should be dark and cool. The curtains must block out the light, or you can wear an eye mask. There are some very comfortable ones on the market now. Human beings are programmed to wake up at dawn, so even stray light actually disturbs the sleep rhythms I described above.
Stop watching TV or using screen devices an hour before bedtime. The blue light they produce suppresses melatonin release in your nervous system and makes going to sleep more difficult.
Exercising is very good for helping you sleep well – but during the day, not the evenings. A hard workout at 9 pm will leave you overstimulated and slow to wind down to rest. Some friends do yoga, which is less intensive and which can relax you in the evenings.
I like a drink but I find that alcohol also disturbs my rest. So I have cut down on that.
Meditation helps, particularly if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get to sleep. There is an app called Buddhify, which has a variety of soothing, audio-guided meditations. You need to use it with the screen under the pillow, or with the screen brightness turned right down, but I have found it helpful to tune out intrusive thoughts.
I have experimented with a wide variety of “nutraceuticals.” I’m going to divide this into “sleep latency” (that is, getting off to sleep), waking up in the middle of the night and general sleep quality.
The herb valerian, either in tablets or tea, is soothing and helps you drift off. Melatonin, a major sleep-related hormone is really worth looking at – only use a very small dose like 1 mg (which might mean cutting up tablets. which usually have 3 mg) before bedtime. Large doses make you feel groggy in the morning and give you vivid, sometimes unpleasant, dreams. Recently medical cannabis – cannabinol – has become available in various forms, including as gummies! This works to get you to sleep and also helps if you wake up in the middle of the night.
Waking up in the Middle of the Night
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid for the mavens) is a neurotransmitter that seems to help keep you asleep the whole night. Although studies suggest it does not cross the blood-brain barrier, it does affect your nervous system, and so ultimately affects the brain. It is usually found in the better health food stores or online.
Better Sleep Quality
I take magnesium and vitamin B6, which improve the all-important REM sleep. I also recommend 5-HTP, which is the raw material for serotonin, the ‘calming’ neurotransmitter, in your brain. Between one and three 50 mg tablets seem to work.* More than that and you will feel quite “up” and euphoric the next day. It has powerful positive effects. However, the body acclimatizes to it quickly so the effect wears off. In addition, it also can be quite expensive.
Because I work from home, I have long given up on the alarm clock, and only use it if I have an appointment. Waking naturally is best, since your body decides when it has had enough sleep.
I must stress that everybody is different, but by mixing and picking between a few of these techniques, you could have elevated sleep quality, which will significantly improve your general health.
*Take medication only after confirming with your physician.