We’ve all been there: lying in bed, eyes wide open, no sleep on the horizon. Few things are as frustrating as insomnia, particularly when you know you have to be up at a certain time, but both the clock and your mind keep on ticking. “Not everyone requires the same number of hours of sleep a night,” explains Dr. Mark Breus, an Arizona-based Clinical Psychologist with a specialty in sleep disorders, and author of the book Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep. “But it is important to get the amount that’s right for you. As with exercise, maintaining a regular sleep schedule will help the body feel better and be healthier.”
While Dr. Breus believes that “most people should be able to sleep naturally,” there are a number of factors—biological, psychological, and environmental—that can prevent us from falling or staying asleep, like stress, illness, and travel. “If you don’t get good sleep for one or two nights, that’s okay,” explains the doctor. If the situation is more frequent, however, you may want to turn to an outside sleep aid or technique. For those who want to stay away from harsher (and potentially addictive) prescription medicines, here are some alternatives:
Take a Breath: “Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation”—in which you mentally go through your body and unclench each muscle—“can dramatically help facilitate sleep,” says Dr. Breus. There have also been some interesting studies on yoga and sleep; search online at sites like WebMD or the National Sleep Foundation for more information.
Keep it Dark: A common mistake people make if they wake up in the middle of the night is to turn the light on. “By doing that, you’re telling your brain it’s morning,” the doctor says, explaining that melatonin—a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms and other biological functions—“is only produced in darkness.” Instead, Dr. Breus suggests that his patients keep a nightlight on in the bathroom, instead of using the overhead.
Do the Math: Often the only time we have during the day to stop and think is when we lie down at night—“which is the worst possible time,” says Dr. Breus, “because you can’t turn it off.” When thoughts are racing, the doctor asks his patients to count backwards from 300, by threes. “It’s difficult enough that you have to stop thinking about other things and concentrate, and boring enough that you fall asleep.”
Go Herbal—Safely: There are countless herbal pills on the market that promise to aid with sleep and relaxation, but Dr. Breus stresses choosing wisely. “Look for ingredients with science behind them, like valerian root, which has been proven to be effective.” Kava kava is another accepted herbal (though there is some discussion about the dangers of ingesting too much), but the doctor notes that little data exists on the sleep-related benefits of herbs like skullcap, passionflower, and wild lettuce.
Most importantly, Dr. Breus recommends checking the contraindications of herbals with any other medications you might be taking, and to avoid over-doing it on supplements. “The biggest problems are people mixing too many herbals and taking more than the recommended dosage, just because they are natural,” he explains, citing melatonin as a prime example. “You only need a half a milligram of melatonin in a sleep aid—any more could be harmful to normal biological functions.”