“Sleep is what makes us brilliant because it’s the most natural powerful performance enhancer known to humankind. It’s time we started treating it as such.” – Dr Guy Meadows, Clinical Director of The Sleep School
Recent advances in neuroscience have led to the discovery of a ‘sleep shampoo system’ in the brain. This discovery could herald new progress in looking after the mental health of an aging population and averting more serious mental disorders, like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This discovery comes at a time when insomnia is at epidemic rates. An estimated 50-70 million Americans now spend hours awake staring at their ceiling fans and not getting the 8 hours of rejuvenating sleep their brains and bodies need to stay healthy.(1) And what’s worse, new research has revealed that insomnia isn’t just making people grouchy, more accident prone and forgetful, it could be a key cause of chronic health problems.
A modern day disease
In our our always on-the-go, hyper-connected and highly caffeinated society, too few people are getting enough sleep. And it’s making us sick.
When you fail to get 8 hours of sleep a night over a period of time the damage to your brain and body can compress. In the short-term it can cause:
- Higher risk of illness
- Worsening attention span
- Weakened ability to focus
- Heightened risk of accidents
- Irritability and crankiness
- Increased appetite
“We tend to treat sleep as a health non-entity instead of a vital component to a healthy lifestyle. It is past time that the medical community “wakes people up” to the importance of a proper amount and quality of sleep. This will make our patients healthier, and 1our roads safer.” – Brendan Duffy, of St. Charles Sleep Disorders Center (2)
Why we’re struggling to sleep
There are many reasons for today’s insomnia epidemic.
People are suffering from higher levels of stress, anxiety and the relentless bleep from our smartphones are stopping us from reaching the relaxed state of mind we need for sleep. This was the assessment of Dr Gottfried, a sleep expert. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, she revealed how our modern lifestyles are placing severe stress on our ‘circadian rhythm’.
The circadian rhythm regulates all manner of biological processes, including our brainwaves, body’s cells, hormones and even our ability to turn food into energy. And Dr Gottfried believes that insomnia may be to blame for the huge rises in obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression and heart disease.(3)
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that sleep is vital for reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol.(4)
“Sleep can definitely reduce levels of stress, and with that people can have better control of their blood pressure. It’s also believed that sleep affects cholesterol levels, which plays a significant role in heart disease.” – Raymonde Jean, MD, director of sleep medicine and associate director of critical care at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City (5)
Insomnia ages our brains by five years
Over the last 10 years advances in neuroscience have revealed that poor sleep may be aging our brains prematurely too.
It has been discovered that our brains have what is called the ‘glymphatic system’. This is a system of tiny tubes that release a fluid that acts as ‘shampoo’ to cleanse our brain of toxins, waste products and plaque that accumulates during the day. This explains why sleeping pills can make you feel groggy because they prevent your brain’s ‘sleep shampoo’ from working properly.
“During sleep, the space between brain cells expands 60 per cent more than when you’re awake. This allows the brain to flush out built-up toxins with cerebral spinal fluid, the clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.” – Dr Gottfried
The discovery of the glymphatic system explains why just one night without much sleep can make you feel mentally drained, irritable and forgetful. Multiply the buildup of toxins in the brain over a few weeks, months or years and you have the recipe for a public mental health crisis.
In fact, recent studies suggest that the build up of brain plaque may be to blame for premature mental aging and even the onset of dementia. The Harvard School of Public Health, for example, found that sleeping less than five hours a night can age the brain up to five extra years.(6)
7 tips for better sleep
- Have a bedtime routine that starts one hour before you need to sleep. This could include a relaxing bath, reading a book (rather than Facebook posts) and writing a list of the things you need to do tomorrow.
- Avoid using blue screen technology, such as your smartphone or tablet, one hour before you need to sleep.
- Get up earlier in the mornings so you have one hour to yourself before work or the kids wake up.
- Keep your smartphone away from your bed. Otherwise you’ll get woken by message alert pings and be tempted to check your emails or social media updates
- Address any troubling thoughts that are making you feel anxious and keeping you awake. Write down what the problem is and a plan for how you’ll solve it tomorrow
- Avoid stimulants, like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine late at night. A couple of beers or a glass of red wine may make you feel drowsy. But your sleep will be poor quality sleep and you won’t feel as rested the next day.
- Try natural insomnia remedies, like eating a banana, a warm glass of milk or chamomile tea
These tips can help with mild bouts of insomnia.
But if you suffer from chronic sleeplessness due to anxiety or depression then you should always speak to your doctor. They may recommend medication or talk therapy as a first line of treatment.
What is talk therapy?
Talk therapy, also known as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ (CBT), has been found to be highly effective for treating anxiety, depression and also insomnia.
It works by teaching you how to replace negative, troubling thoughts with more positive ways of thinking. This in turn helps to improve your mood and makes getting to sleep much easier.
“We know the effectiveness of medications tends to wear off when the medication has stopped, whereas the efficacy of CBT persists over time, even after therapy is discontinued,” – Dr. Sateia.(7)
Dangers of prescription sleeping pills
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently released a set of guidelines for doctors on prescribing medications and supplements for chronic insomnia.(8)
These guidelines are needed because too many people are being prescribed habit forming pharmaceutical drugs when a natural supplement could have been more effective.
While most people can restrict themselves to taking only one sleeping pill, some people develop a reliance, believing popping a pill is the only way to sleep at night.
This can lead them to taking up to 50 pills per day to reduce their anxiety or, in some cases, because they enjoy the high. Then when their prescription runs out, many try getting more sleeping pills on the black market, and all the dangers that entails.
Even if you don’t succumb to a physical dependence, taking pharmaceutical sleeping pills for chronic insomnia is not a healthy option. According to WebMD, their side effects can include:
- Burning or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty keeping balance
- Daytime drowsiness
- Dry mouth or throat
- Impairment the next day
- Mental slowing or problems with attention or memory
- Stomach pain or tenderness
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Unusual dreams
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should always stop taking the sleeping pill immediately and contact your doctor.
“Under-sleeping is the next sugar – it’s a health time bomb.Our lives are more hectic than ever, more people live in cities where they’re less attuned to light-dark cycles, we binge-watch TV shows, tablets emit sleep-disrupting blue light all evening, and it’s become normal for our bosses to email us at 9pm (they never could 20 years ago).” – Dr Gottfried.
How to produce the ‘sleep hormone’ naturally
Insomnia is not a new problem.
But it’s prevalence, with up to half of people now suffering from interrupted sleep patterns, could be because of staring at our smartphones all day.
The reason may be because the ‘blue screens’ of smartphones, tablets, laptops and TVs are preventing us from producing one of the key hormones we need for sleep.
It’s called ‘melatonin’ and it is our body’s natural hormone that’s released when we need to sleep. However, staring at blue screens all day can prevent your body from producing enough of the melatonin you need to sleep at night.(10)
This is why it’s recommended that you switch off the TV, put your tablet and smartphone in a drawer and turn down the lights one hour before bedtime.
What are good supplements that may help with sleep?
There is no miracle cure to insomnia. However, there are natural supplements available which have helped some people to get to sleep more easily.
The following four supplements have been found in some studies to help people fall asleep:
Melatonin – The body’s natural hormone for regulating your sleep patterns. A study, reported on by the US National Library of Medicine, found that Melatonin may be effective at helping people fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper, more restful sleep:
PR-melatonin is the first drug shown to significantly improve quality of sleep and morning alertness in primary insomnia patients aged 55 years and older-suggesting more restorative sleep, and without withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation. (US National Library of Medicine).
Magnesium (as Oxide) – Many people suffer from a magnesium deficiency because of eating too much processed food. A lack of magnesium has been linked to insomnia and poor sleep quality.
Valerian Root – This herb comes from the root of a tall, flowering plant and has been used to treat sleep problems for thousands of years. Studies suggest that valerian root may help the brain to release chemicals that calm the body and mind so sleep becomes easier.
L-Tryptophan – An amino acid naturally found in turkey meat, L-Tryptophan may help regulate the production of melatonin and serotonin, to help improve your mood and to sleep better at night.
As mentioned, these supplements are not miracle cures for insomnia. They are also not a replacement for making healthy lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and lowering stress, that can help reduce insomnia over the long-term.
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