In the mid-2000s, a fascinating book called The Family that Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery was published. Science writer D.T. Max had caught wind of a story about an Italian family that suffered from an extremely rare disease called fatal familial insomnia (FFI).
Over a period of several months, the unfortunate members of this family lost the ability to sleep.Within only nine months of the onset of the disease, these people died. Their brains lost the ability to send themselves into REM sleep. Complete lack of crucial repair and rest proved ultimately fatal.
FFI sufferers quickly descend from worsening insomnia to panic, hallucinations, sweating, and rapid weight loss, to dementia, total unresponsiveness and then death.
The good news (if you can call it that) is that only about 40 families across the entire globe carry this disease. And it isn’t contagious. It continues to be a medical mystery, although researchers are discovering similarities to mad cow and Alzheimer’s disease.
Now FFI, of course, depicts the absolute extreme of what happens when sleep is lacking. However, it’s possible that health-related symptoms you experience could have to do with not getting enough sleep, disruptions in sleep, or poor-quality sleep. In other words, you may have a touch of insomnia and not even know it. Knowledge is power, so let’s consider whether an improvement in your sleep might help take you to a new level of energized health.
The classic notion of the insomniac involves someone who lies awake for hours, tossing and turning. But even a mild sleep deprivation or lack of quality sleep can have powerful impact on your waking hours. If you’re cranky, lethargic, anxious or sleepy during the day, or you feel less than refreshed after what you thought was a full night’s sleep, you may want to consider taking steps to improve the quality and quantity of your beauty rest.
Here are categories of poor sleep:
• Difficulty falling asleep
• Waking up in the middle of the night; difficulty falling back asleep
• Waking too early in the morning
• Feeling tired or un-refreshed despite what you thought was a full night’s rest
• Daytime sleepiness, irritability, or anxiety
Here are some easy and effective sleep solutions that Ageology physicians recommend to their patients:
Take clear, active steps to reduce stress. The biggest culprit in lack of sleep is stress. Unresolved life stresses can create a biochemical situation in the body that makes deep sleep all but impossible. When you are chronically aroused—not the fun kind of arousal, but the kind where you’re ready to fight or flee at any moment—sleep disruption is pretty much guaranteed.
Avoid light at night. We are not nocturnal. The human body’s sleep system is designed to work with the natural circadian rhythms of light (awake time) and dark (rest and sleep time). Darkness causes the body to produce a hormone called melatonin. Light at night reduces melatonin production. That means keeping environmental lighting dim after dark, and having the bedroom completely dark when trying to fall asleep. Even an LED light can be enough to reduce melatonin production. And anything with a lit-up screen, including your computer, tablet, or cell phone, should be avoided within an hour or two of bedtime.
Minimize noise at night. Some of us can sleep through thunderstorms without even twitching; others are very sensitive to nighttime noises. Whether it’s a snoring partner or a busy street, block it out with earplugs or a white-noise generating machine like this one.
Don’t lie in bed tossing, turning, and getting frustrated if you can’t sleep. Get up and do something peaceful and relaxing. Read a book or listen to a podcast. Try a few relaxing yoga poses (see below). Then, when you begin to feel sleepy, go back to bed and try again.
Keep the bedroom cool. Your body needs to cool down to get good sleep. Don’t work out late in the day (that can cause your body temperature to stay higher than optimal when bedtime comes). Invest in an air conditioner for your bedroom if necessary. For women suffering from hot flashes, keeping cool at night might require bioidentical hormone balancing therapy.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day. Don’t consume caffeine after 3:00 pm. Alcohol might help conk you out after a long day, but it makes mid-night wakening much more likely as its effects wear off.
Check whether medications are playing a role. Cold and allergy medications, heart disease medications, thyroid replacement therapy, and drugs used to treat pain, asthma, hypertension, and depression can all make good sleep hard to achieve. Try to minimize your use of these medications if you are having difficulty sleeping.
Honor your natural sleep rhythms. There is no magical number of hours of sleep that each person needs. Some of us require only seven hours, while others have to catch nine hours of Z’s to feel functional the next day. Pay attention to your body’s need for sleep and make it a priority to give it what it needs. If you crash at 3:00 pm every day, plan for a brief nap at that time instead of trying to wake up with caffeine. If your body naturally winds down early in the evening, don’t push to stay up—go to bed early and rise with the sun.
Use nutritional support to aid sleep. Melatonin is available as a supplement, and can be used occasionally to relieve insomnia. It’s especially useful for jet lag: by taking melatonin at bedtime when you arrive in a new time zone, you help reset your circadian clock for the rest of your stay. Relaxing herbs like chamomile, valerian, and passionflower can be sipped in tea form to unwind at the end of the day.
Try yoga. Yoga can be extremely helpful for sleeplessness due to stress and physical tension. Huffington Post columnist Riddhi Shah’s list of seven yoga poses for insomnia is a good place to begin. Instead of lying in bed not sleeping, cycle through all the poses, taking deep, slow breaths. Then, try hitting the hay again to see whether you’re relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Consider natural hormones. Women who lose sleep due to perimenopause or menopause symptoms will benefit from bioidentical progesterone given in tablet form. It induces sleep, and so it should only be taken at bedtime. If you think this might be an option that works for you, see an integrative metabolic medicine physician near you for evaluation and prescription.
Photo credit: Bettersleep.org