Farewell insomnia: 7 scientific tricks to fall asleep

Insomnia

If you have days off during the holidays, you could take care of yourself by really improving your life – just fix your sleep schedule. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

In our fast-paced, always-on world, 40% of people sleep less than the recommended 7-9 hours a night. And, in fact, almost half of the adults worldwide suffer from insomnia at some point in their life. Worse than that, this inability to fall asleep is constant in more than 15% of people, to the point of causing severe stress. Yet there is a dim hope: according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, it is possible to cure insomnia without medicines or so-called “natural” remedies, such as melatonin and valerian derivates.

Some types of insomnia derive from external factors, such as a hostile sleep environment or an addictive substance abuse problem, and these are called “secondary insomnia”. They can be addressed simply by solving the external factor. But in cases of “primary insomnia”, which is not caused by a secondary source, not being able to sleep can trigger a vicious circle where lack of sleep makes you angry or frustrated, making it even more difficult to sleep. In these cases, it is essential to break the cycle. There is no best strategy, but there are seven sleep aid strategies recommended by experts.

The three strategies below have had positive results in randomized controlled trials


Stop getting mad about bad quality or lack of sleep

Chronic inability to sleep is tremendously frustrating. Those who face the night with fear and watch the alarm clock until it is time to get up begins to develop negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger associated with trying to fall asleep. Stimulus control therapy tries to break this association, to associate sleep only with bed and not all this extra burden. Doctors who recommend this approach may advise you not to keep your alarm clock in your bedroom and not to stay in bed if you can’t sleep. The Ohio Sleep Medicine Institute recommends that “on a ‘bad night’ patients don’t ‘catastrophize'”. Instead of worrying about how bad your day will be because you are tired, think about how good you are going to sleep the following night.

Practice relaxation 

When the inability to sleep makes you anxious, your body produces stress hormones that make it harder for you to get rid of this anxiety. It can be helpful to practice relaxation. Use a technique to gradually relax the muscles (focusing on sequentially relaxing each part of the body) or meditation.

Change your way of thinking about sleep 

This is a two part strategy. The cognitive part includes the change in one’s beliefs about insomnia. In many cases, those who are stressed by their inability to sleep tend to exaggerate the problem, thinking they have slept less than they actually did. Changing these negative thoughts can relieve stress. To change this behavior, experts recommend combining exercise with relaxation and stimulus control therapy described above. Creating a sleep-friendly environment, such as a quiet, dark room, can also help.

The following strategies have been proven but not as thoroughly tested as the previous ones

If you can’t sleep, get out of bed. It’s a simple strategy – if you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed trying to fall asleep. If you’ve been trying for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and go do something else. But don’t use a computer, telephone or television, they can only worsen your problem. Experts say getting out of bed when you can’t sleep helps break the cycle that associates bed with negative emotions. Also, the sweet sleep deprivation that is induced could make it easier to sleep the next day.

Change your behavior 

Just following the stimulus control therapy described above, adding exercise to relaxation and a better sleep environment, can be effective. Give it a go.

Stop trying too hard 

As ridiculous as it sounds, the trick to falling asleep might be to try to stay awake. It has been shown that if they stay in bed content with being awake and not worrying about falling asleep, insomniacs actually fall asleep faster and sleep better. According to experts, this happens because (without looking at the phone or computer but just doing nothing) the anxiety that can be experienced while trying to fall asleep is removed.

Learn to recognize stress 

Psychologists often use biological feedback to help patients manage stress, and it can also work with insomnia. You must learn to recognize the symptoms: for example, high heart rate, muscle tension and wheezing. Then try to bring these stress symptoms back to a normal level. If you have trouble falling asleep, do something for yourself and in the next few days by trying one or more of the suggested strategies. 

How to find out how much sleep you really need

In theory, sleep takes up about 8 hours every 24 hours, a third of our life. But many of us actually sleep less and are tired the rest of the time – more than a third of Americans can’t get the seven to nine hours of sleep a night that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends. 

We spend a lot of time worrying about our sleep. According to research by the National Sleep Foundation, more than a third of Americans say their sleep quality is “poor” or “barely adequate”. But how much sleep do we really need?

First, let’s start with the bad news: there is no single model that fits all needs – the need for sleep really varies from person to person.

You might be one of those incredibly rare people who can actually get enough sleep a night (you almost certainly aren’t), or you might be on the other side of the fence, what doctors call “big dorms”, who might need 11 hours a night.

But there are a few things we know about sleep that can help you figure out how much sleep you actually need – and what is the best way to rest at night.

Here are five facts that will help you understand what your personal sleep patterns are and how they relate to those of the rest of the population

  • 1. There is a reason why doctors recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep

The amount of sleep people need falls into what is a bell curve, with the vast majority of the population needing between seven and nine hours of rest each night to feel refreshed.

  • 2. You have a natural chronotype, or body clock, that determines when it is most comfortable for you to sleep and be awake.

“The way we call ourselves owls or larks is really arbitrary,” says Dr. David Welsh, an associate professor who studies circadian rhythms at UC San Diego. Welsh states that if you look at large population surveys, you get a normal distribution of chronotypes: most people have fairly “medium” chronotypes, some prefer to get up a little earlier or a little later, and small groups naturally get up very early or very late. There is no line that distinguishes the different chronotypes.

But we all have internal planning that makes us feel more awake or more sleepy at different times of the day. Due to factors such as hormone levels, genetics and light exposure, some of us are more focused in the morning, while others prefer times later in the day.

If your schedule doesn’t align with your chronotype, you feel tired and out of sync.

  • 3. The amount of sleep needs to change over the course of your life

The seven to nine hour recommendation is standard for adults, but children need a lot more sleep, while older people tend to need less.

In addition to changes in sleep length needs, chronotypes also change over time.

According to Roenneberg’s book, young children naturally tend to be more early risers. Around puberty, they are more likely to transition to a night owl chronotype, which then tends to revert to an earlier riser chronotype after age of 20.

  • 4. There are some things you can do to adjust your natural chronotype

Although your sleep needs (both chronotype, when you are awake, and length, how much sleep you need) are mostly genetic, there are some things you can do to adjust your schedule and at least make it easier for you to get up early in the morning.

Our bodies respond to light, especially the powerful natural light of the sun. Being exposed to that light in the morning tells our body it’s time to wake up and get a move on. At night, sitting in the dark stimulates the production of the melatonin hormone, which helps us relax and fall asleep (we disturb this process by looking at the light coming from smartphone screens).

But we can change this to a certain extent by controlling our exposure to light. This process, called “entrainment”, is what our bodies have to do when we go to a different time zone – that’s why we suffer from so-called jet lag. But we can also use it to train our bodies to get up and go to sleep earlier, by exposing ourselves to natural light in the morning and avoiding excessive light at night.

This will not make you a morning person, but it can make getting out of bed a little less painful.

  • 5. Your sleep needs are personal. Try to understand what works for you

It will happen that new research will come up, and people will say things like “studies have established that seven hours is the optimal amount of sleep, not eight”.

But as interesting as sleep research is, we know that people are different and have different needs. The results of one study do not translate into one-size-fits-all advice. In the case of sleep, experts recommend understanding what works best for you.

If you can naturally indulge in sleep for a couple of days or a week, going to bed when you are tired and waking up when you feel like doing it naturally, preferably by limiting alcohol and caffeine, you will then have a better idea of your individual needs. Get some sun during the day, and do some physical exercise.

If after doing all of this you are still having trouble falling asleep, it may be time to address a doctor. You may be part of the large percentage of the population with undiagnosed sleep apnea, especially if you snore. Or you may have some other ailment that can be treated.

However, it is worth taking the time to understand what can be done to sleep better. Not doing it enough raises some serious health concerns.

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