Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com, and is a nutrition researcher with an MPH and MBA from Johns Hopkins University on hiatus from a PhD in nutrition. He has published peer-reviewed articles on vitamin D and calcium as well as a variety of clinical research topics.
If good sleep could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be the strongest medication ever produced. Numerous studies have connected inadequate sleep to chronic diseases and shortened lifespan. But alas, sleep is not that simple. In fact, it’s the one natural process that might cause the most issues for modern-day adults, with around 30 percent of the American population having some degree of sleep disruption.
“Correcting sleep deficits could be the single most important thing you do for your health…”
Why is that? Well, we tend to work in offices for long hours during the daytime, often staring at computer screens for hours on end. Occasionally we head to the gym to bust out an intense workout, and then rush to get dinner prepared before trying to get some zzz’s. With that fairly unnatural schedule, is it any wonder that our circadian rhythms are screwed up and unfettered sleep can be hard to come by?
Luckily relief can be found through a variety of tactics. Some of these are quite simple, while others employ new technologies. Sleep issues are complex, so remember that no one treatment is a panacea. But correcting sleep deficits could be the single most important thing you do for your health, so addressing these specific issues is worth the effort.
Sleep Snatcher #1: Joint Pain
When something hurts, it’s tough to fall asleep as quickly as usual. Not only that, but sleep and pain join together to form a vicious cycle: When you don’t get enough shut-eye, the pain becomes more annoying, and that leads to even less sleep. Sometimes joint pain is temporary and easy to diagnose, but other times it’s quite complex and even mysterious.
Regardless of the specific cause of pain, there are some things you can try to alleviate its impact on sleep. If sleep is difficult because a shoulder or a hip on one side of the body hurts, it makes sense to sleep on the other side. But therein lies the rub: How do you tell your unconscious body to roll over rather than sleep on a painful joint?
You can actually borrow a tactic from sleep apnea treatment by utilizing a tennis ball to discourage certain sleeping positions. Get a tennis ball and place it in the pocket of your pajama pants or shorts on the painful side, and that should discourage sleeping on that side. Once you’re able to doze off, sleep can be wonderfully recuperative for joint pain.
Another ancient method of addressing pain is massage. While the efficacy of massage for pain has mixed evidence in trials, a variety of studies show that touch and pressure can be therapeutic for specific conditions. If you don’t have a partner to lend a hand, even self-massage has shown benefits for some conditions. Try using either your knuckles or palm, or purchase a simple tool to knead away knots and increase blood flow. Work out any tension or trigger points you can find, for five to 10 minutes (or less if it starts to feel uncomfortable).
Sleep Snatcher #2: An Annoying Partner
“About a quarter of Americans either have sleep apnea or are at high risk.”
What happens when the reason you can’t sleep is laying right next to you? This can cause serious relationship issues, not to mention substantial daytime sleepiness. Typically, the issue with partners is that they produce too much sound, which annoys light sleepers even if their bedmate is sleeping like a rock. A very loud rock.
The obvious answer to noise issues is using earplugs. The downside: Not only can earplugs be uncomfortable for some, but regular use may lead to ear wax issues and increased exposure to bacteria. Luckily there are some alternatives. First, make sure your partner does not have sleep apnea. About a quarter of Americans either have sleep apnea or are at high risk. And since sleep apnea has several treatment options, it’s worth getting tested for.
If your significant other doesn’t really snore, but instead wakes up before you along with their annoying alarm clock, there is hope. A variety of wrist devices (such as those produced by Fitbit or Jawbone) are now available that gently buzz rather than sounding an alarm, which will wake your partner up but maintain your slumber. If you don’t want to fork out the cash for a gadget and already have a smartphone, apps (like Sleep Cycle for iPhone or Sleep as Android for Android) can duplicate this function if your partner is willing to sleep with their phone strapped to them, as if they were out on a jog. Yes, this might seem extreme. But to some, it’s a small price to pay for an extra hour or two of sleep.
Sleep Snatcher #3: Racing Thoughts
When you’re going to bed late, and you know eight hours isn’t attainable, it can be especially hard to fall asleep amidst scattered worries of the day ahead. Will you be too tired to perform well at work? What’s the commute going to be like? Maybe something’s due. There is no simple fix for racing thoughts, unfortunately, but there are some creative strategies to lessen them. (Note: If anxious thoughts are severely impacting your life, a visit to a therapist may be in order.)
One approach may be at the tip of your nose. Of the five senses, smell is the one that is rarely discussed in terms of indulgence. A chocolate chip cookie tastes good, and smells great, but the smell is mostly taken as a sign of the goodness to come. However, olfactory treatments can be effective on their own. For example, trials have shown that lavender can help bring on sleep, partially due to its ability to reduce anxiety. Other natural products like lemon balm have somewhat similar effects (though with less clinical evidence).
White noise is another popular approach for those who can’t handle falling asleep to silence. It’s a viable option to dissipate racing thoughts, but can also be used in other ways. Take the concept of binaural beats, for example. Preliminary research shows that listening to these two concurrent sounds of similar frequencies through earphones can help reduce anxiety and possibly bring on sleep.
Sleep Snatcher #4: An Uncomfortable Environment
Many external factors that disrupt sleep are not partner-related, but environment-related. People will go years waking up before their alarm due to the rising sun, only to lie in bed trying to get back to bed. This is one problem that can have fairly simple solutions. Many window coverings let in enough light to disrupt sleep, even when fully closed. Replacing these with so-called “blackout curtains,” designed to fully block out the sun, will allow you to get those precious few minutes — or hours — of additional sleep your body needs.
Temperature is another under-appreciated factor when it comes to catching zzz’s. Our circadian rhythms are regulated by a variety of cues that suggest to our body what time it is, and how our body should respond. These cues are called zeitgebers, which in German literally means “timegiver.” Temperature is a zeitgeber due to the sun regulating daily temperature cycles — it’s warmer in the daytime when the sun is out, and cooler at night. If we don’t turn down the thermostat, or cover ourselves with too much bedding or clothing, it may be difficult to sleep due to the warmer temperature. Luckily this is easily fixed with a thermostat, although personal preferences may vary. Wearing breathable clothing (or nothing at all!) in addition to using natural bedding can provide for a cooler sensation than using synthetic materials.
RELATED: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
Sleep Snatcher #5: Waking Up Mid-Slumber
This is the bane of some people’s existence. While others get a full night of sleep, or wake up to use the bathroom on occasion, others get up several times a night. When combined with some of the above issues, this can be a serious obstacle. Imagine having racing thoughts and finally falling asleep after an hour or two, only to wake up and return to those same racing thoughts.
First things first, if you wake up often, talk to your doctor about it. It could very well be due to a medical condition like sleep apnea, or potentially a medical issue causing excessive urinary frequency. If medical issues are not the cause, consider alternative approaches.
Melatonin is a hormone involved in bringing on sleep and keeping us there. If you take supplemental melatonin and find that it helps you fall asleep but also causes you to wake up in the middle of the night, consider taking an alternate form. Sustained-release melatonin can help people for whom a quickly-released dose of melatonin leads to disrupted sleep.
Alternately, you can enable your body to produce melatonin naturally by staying away from light at night. This is harder than it sounds, since even the light from one bulb can curb melatonin production. Light intensity is important though, so foregoing computer and TV use, and reading with dim bulbs or dimly front-lit e-readers can help. If you’re careful about fire safety, reading by candlelight is also an option.
One admittedly wacky-looking alternative is to pick up a pair of amber-colored blue light blocking glasses, which greatly help melatonin production due to blocking the blue part of the light spectrum that halts melatonin production. Downloading a free computer program such as f.lux can automatically turn down the blue portion of your computer’s color spectrum as the day progresses, mimicking the setting sun. This type of program is also available in app form for mobile devices, for the growing numbers of people who fall asleep with smartphones in hand.
Sleep Snatcher #6: Everything Else
These are by no means not the only sleep issues people have. Sleep conditions are increasingly prevalent, as evident by recent headlines on “sleep drunkenness,” a condition that leads to waking up in an extremely disoriented state. And nocturnal issues don’t necessarily have to be caused by medical conditions. Just ask a new parent who has an especially hard time dealing with crying infants — that can be just as difficult to overcome as any clinically diagnosed sleep disorder.
Similarly, we only covered a fraction of possible treatments. A wide array of approaches exist, including widely-studied techniques like meditation. We have however seen that there are some simple, natural tactics to combat sleep issues other than the typical advice to “set a bedtime and stick to it.” If you have trouble sleeping, just remember that there is a world of research out there, and there is hope.
Originally posted October 2014. Updated October 2015.