You might have read in our previous article how sleep deprivation is a serious health concern with devastating consequences. Sleep is an essential function of many animals, and without it, studies have shown that it can result in impaired memory, immune functions, and even death.
Chronic insomnia, or the recurrent inability to sleep, is a prevalent disorder afflicting ten percent of the general population in the United States, totaling to 30 million people. At least 30% of the people in the United States report having disturbed sleep, and 50% of patients under clinical care in hospitals report sleep disturbance.
What steps can we take to sleep better? Sleep medications such as Ambien operate by targeting specific receptors in your central nervous system, particularly GABA receptors. GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain, and through targeting its receptor, sleep medications can sedate you and help you fall asleep. For many years, sleep medications were the first line of treatment against insomnia.
This doesn’t mean that the solution to our sleeping dilemma is to go to the doctor and ask for an Ambien prescription – that’s actually far from the case. In fact, sleeping pills result in reduced non-random eye movement slow wave sleep (NREM SWS) compared to natural sleep, including a slew of side effects such as memory problems, daytime hangovers and drowsiness, drug tolerance, and an insomnia rebound effect when discontinuing the drug. Furthermore, studies have shown that taking sleep medication also results in less brain plasticity that occurs naturally during sleep. The consequences of sleep medication can be just as severe as having sleep deprivation in the first place, as you are 4.6 times more likely to die over two and a half years if you are taking sleeping pills.
If reading this exacerbates your sleeplessness, worry not. Many physicians are turning to psychological and behavioral treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapists work closely with their patients to alter their habits and environment to facilitate healthy and natural sleep. Here are some techniques they suggest, which you can do at home yourself with a little discipline:
Establish an electronic curfew: staring at screens can “trick” your brain into thinking it is daytime. Make it a habit to avoid electronic devices before bedtime
Sleep regularity: establish regular times where you sleep and wake up
Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon and evening: these chemicals can interfere with the processes in your body which tell you to go to sleep
Devise a wind-down routine before bed: relaxation techniques such as meditation can put you in a frame of mind more conducive to sleep
Sleep in a comfortable bed and maintain optimal sleeping temperature (~65 degrees F)
Dim lights before sleeping and use blackout curtains
Turn on bright lights when you wake up
These techniques have been shown to be just as effective, and in many cases, more effective than Ambien when it comes to treating insomnia. Since this is natural sleep, you’re also getting all the associated benefits, as opposed to the chemically induced sleep caused by sleep medication. The most important thing is to be consistent (which is the same for reaping the health benefits of other activities such as exercise) and to listen to your body by always being aware of how you’re feeling. Counting sheep, of course, is optional. Sleep well friends.
Source: Matthew Walker, Psychology of Sleep, UC Berkeley