We inherit many things from our parents — and their predecessors.

Some — like a fast metabolism, an easy sense of humor, or a great singing voice — are wonderful and very welcome.

But others — like allergies, anxiety, or insomnia — are downright disappointing and debilitating.

For as long as I can remember, my mother and grandmother complained about not being able to sleep — a problem that afflicts more women than men.

For my grandmother, the issue was falling asleep, while my mother’s particular problem is staying asleep. And for me, it’s always been a bit of both.

It turns out that we’re far from alone. Some 40 million Americans suffer chronic sleep disorders, while another 20 to 30 million report occasional sleep issues.

The causes of insomnia are many and varied.

Stress and anxiety are two of the most common, followed by unbalanced hormone levels, poor diet, and caffeine or alcohol.

And the toll that poor sleep takes on health can be quite serious.

What goes on when we sleep?
Together, the salutary effects of sleep keep all systems performing at their peak.

Until the mid-1950s, scientists believed that the brain and body shut down during sleep, presumably to recover and rest.

But we now know that the brain — and certain bodily processes — are even more active when we’re asleep and that these activities are critical to health.

You can think of sleep as the night-shift maintenance crew in an office building.

Sound sleep helps us take out the metabolic trash, repair tissues, and refresh overworked organ systems.

And, during sleep, brain functions critical to learning and memory get busy sorting and storing information.

The health impacts of insomnia
There’s plenty of evidence that sleep and health go hand in hand.

Lack of sleep, or sleep disturbances, raise blood pressure and heart rate.

Problems with sleep also promote two damaging, mutually reinforcing processes: oxidative stress (an increase in free radicals) and inflammation.

This dangerous, intertwined duo raises your risk for heart attack, stroke, oxidation of cholesterol (a risk factor for arteriosclerosis), and high blood pressure.

Almost all people need 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and those who don’t get enough suffer problems that include these:

  • Weight gain
  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased inflammation
  • Impaired immune function

And people who get substantially less than seven hours a night are likely to die younger than their well-rested peers.

The stages and cycles of sleep
Sleep consists of two basic phases: REM and non-REM.

(The famous indie rock band from Georgia took their name from the former phase.)

The brain repeatedly cycles through four stages of REM and non-REM sleep. Lack of sleep disrupts these stages and the ability to cycle through them.

Serious disruptions in the stages and cycles of sleep can mess with your physical and mental health.

Let’s take a quick tour through the slumber landscape.


Rapid eye movement or REM sleep:
As well as side-to-side eye movements, REM sleep is characterized by muscle twitches, irregular breathing, and rises in blood pressure and heart rate.

These signs of REM sleep stem from your sympathetic nervous system, which controls internal organs.

Over the course of the night, we spend increasing amounts of time in various stages of REM sleep.

Rapid eye movement doesn’t occur constantly during REM sleep, and it may be related to dreaming, most of which occurs during this phase.

When you remember a dream, it’s likely that you were engaged in REM sleep when you awoke.

Non-REM sleep:
This phase of sleep is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, which primarily governs rest and digestion.

Non-REM sleep is marked by drops in heart rate and systolic blood pressure, and increased variations in heart rate.

7 Secrets to Sound Sleep
A few simple, natural steps can help you to start sleeping more quickly, consistently, and soundly.

1) No exercise or food within three hours of bed.

Working out too close to bedtime can stimulate rather than calm you.

Instead, research shows that exercising either in the morning or late afternoon can help you get to sleep at bedtime.

Likewise, eating too close to bedtime — especially spicy, sugary, or high-fat fare — can impair your ability to fall and stay asleep.

2) Make sure your bedroom is dark.

Total or near-total darkness stimulates natural production of melatonin, which is your body’s “sleep hormone”.

3) No TV, smartphones, or tablets in the bedroom.

Over the course of evolution, the circadian rhythms of our minds and bodies adapted to the daily light/dark cycle.

Even minimal amounts of artificial lighting suppress nocturnal production of melatonin, and can make it harder to fall asleep.

The blue light spectrum emitted by digital screens — such from a TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone — is the worst offender.

So keep digital devices out of bed, and stop using them about an hour before you retire.

4) Try a white-noise machine.

The rhythmic humming of an air filter, dehumidifier, white noise machine, or a natural sounds machine can block outside noise and help you fall asleep faster.

5) Luxuriate in lavender; Seek help from sleepy herbs.

Lavender boosts the alpha brain waves associated with relaxation, and is clinically proven to help induce sleep.

Add lavender oil to your bath, rub it into your feet, spread lavender essential oil with a diffuser, or mist your bed linens lightly with a lavender spray.

Not a fan of lavender? Other essential oils, such as bitter orange, have been shown to promote relaxation and sleep.

In addition, extracts of certain herbs — including valerian, hops, chamomile, passionflower, and kava kava — seem to safely promote sleep for some, although the clinical evidence is thin.

Valerian may cause residual sleepiness upon waking, but the other herbs in our list don't appear to share that drawback. 

6) Get mellow with melatonin.

As noted above, melatonin is the hormone that guides the circadian rhythms of the body, telling the brain when to shut down for sleep.

As we age, the body produces less melatonin, and may make inadequate amounts. This may explain why some older folks have trouble falling or staying asleep.

Clinical studies show that supplemental melatonin hastens sleep, lengthens sleep time, and improves overall sleep quality.

If you have trouible falling asleep, try taking 2mg of melatonin about 30 minutes before bedtime. 

Note: Long-term nightly use of melatonin — more than two to three months —  is not recommended, because it can reduce the body's own production of melatonin, impair metabolic functions, and reduce production of reproductive hormones.

7) Try L-tryptophan.

Tryptophan is a dietary amino acid that the body uses to make proteins and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is the metabolic precursor to melatonin.

Compared with melatonin, it enjoys less support from clinical trials, but appears safer for long-term use.

There aren't many clinical studies that tested supplemental tryptophan as a sleep aid, but the results were generally positive, and population studies link higher intakes of food-source tryptophan to better sleep.

These are some of the top food sources of tryptophan:

  • Fish
  • Poultry*
  • Egg whites
  • Beef and lamb
  • Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, and cheese)
  • Sesame seeds, cashews, and walnuts
  • Whole grain oats, brown rice, corn, and quinoa
  • Legumes, including beans, chickpeas, and green peas

*Turkey is often touted as a source, but has less tryptophan than chicken does.

The University of Michigan Health Department recommends trying 1–4 grams of supplemental tryptophan just before bedtime, and notes that it may take several nights of use before its sleep-promoting effects take hold.

Note: “Serotonin syndrome” is a rare but serious condition caused by excessive serotonin production. Supplemental L-tryptophan does not cause serotonin syndrome, but it can be triggered by combining L-tryptophan with antidepressants or migraine drugs that raise serotonin levels.

Combining supplemental L-tryptophan with St. John's wort could increase the risk adverse reactions from St. John's wort.


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