Counting Sleep

Ten surprising remedies for sleepless nights.

If you’re lying awake at night, you’re not alone. One in three of us gets fewer than seven hours of shut-eye each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and chronic sleep disorders impact 50-70 million Americans. 

Research proves that a lack of sleep can leave you “sleep drunk”—impaired as if you were tipsy. And over time, sleep deprivation can impact your physical and mental health, promote weight gain, and increase your risk of developing dementia. So what to do?

You’ve heard the advice—skip afternoon caffeine, keep the bedroom cool and dark, and shut off screens two hours before bedtime. But here are some surprising tips and insights from sleep experts including Jessica Riggs, M.D., pulmonary critical care and sleep specialist with the Virginia Heart Sleep Center in Arlington. 


By Day:

Get out. A regular hike or walk during the day will pay big dividends at night, reducing inflammation and engaging the body’s systems for rest and digestion. “We have this complex nervous system that regulates whether we are in ‘rest and digest’ mode or ‘fight or flight’ mode,” Riggs explains. “The parasympathetic nervous system promotes the rest and digest cycle, the slowing down necessary for quality sleep. Getting outside in fresh air and bright light, even for a few minutes each day, is very helpful in promoting this calm, restorative state.”

See the light. Research has found that the production of melatonin—the hormone that regulates your sleep—is regulated by exposure to sunlight. “Bright, natural sunlight is the motivator for our circadian rhythm,” says Riggs, “It’s the regulator of our master clock. So the best thing we can do in the morning is get exposure to that light to get your day going, and then at night, avoiding it, both natural light and the screen light we get from phones and laptops—otherwise we are suppressing our own natural circadian rhythms.”

Magnesium. “Magnesium can reduce leg cramping and blood pressure and make for a more restful sleep,” says Riggs. Check labels for a “Current Good Manufacturing Practice” (cGMP) certification, to ensure you’re getting a high quality product. It’s best to get magnesium from your diet, but if needed, supplement with 200-350 mg daily. 

But maybe not melatonin supplements. Once a go-to for the sleep starved, melatonin supplements are okay for short-term use. But because long-term use could suppress the body’s ability to produce its own melatonin, experts are not recommending it for chronic insomnia. A recent New York Times piece suggests that melatonin is most effective when combined with behavioral therapy and lifestyle changes. “The data shows that short term use of melatonin at a low dose—between 1 mg and 3 mg—is safe, but the problem is that it’s hard to know the exact amounts in the pills,” adds Riggs, “and we’re learning that high doses could be problematic.” Better choices may be valerian, chamomile, and kava kava.

Get help for prolonged sleep problems. Riggs advises getting help when sleep problems persist for weeks. “As humans, we tend to work very hard to play hard, and we come up with reasons it’s okay to feel sleepy,” she says. “But sleep deprivation can have long-term effects that are significant, and if it’s an issue, seeking out help from a sleep medicine physician can be really helpful.”

Inadequate sleep tied to dementia. Research for the National Health and Aging Trends Study done at Harvard Medical School found that participants (all over 65) who reported sleeping fewer than five hours per night were twice as likely to develop dementia and twice as likely to die, compared to those who slept six to eight hours per night.

Sleepy cravings. Poor sleep habits make it harder to lose weight, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “When you are sleep deprived,” says Riggs, “your hormone levels are not regulating as they should be, and you are not getting that restorative protein synthesis during the night, which in turn affects your energy, your metabolism, your ability to process glucose, and your ability to exercise.”


By Night:

Be honest about your routine. Are you trading bedtime for me-time? There’s a name for delaying sleep to binge Netflix: it’s “revenge bedtime procrastination.” Sadly, the only thing you’re getting away with is self-sabotage. “Even though we’re adults,” says Riggs, “we are essentially big babies when it comes to sleep routines. So turn off electronics two hours before

bed, try to take away any stress, and maintain a set bedtime as best you can.” 

Try a little reverse psychology. “‘Go to bed earlier’ is common yet horrible advice for insomniacs,” says Diane Macedo, an ABC News correspondent and author of The Sleep Fix, which grew out of her own search for insomnia relief. Macedo swears by the “reverse curfew.” Instead of turning in early, she challenges herself to stay up until a certain hour. For rebellious types like revenge bedtime procrastinators, this is one “rule” that’s meant to be broken.

You can work out at night and still sleep well. Forget what you’ve heard about evening exercise. New research reported in Sports Medicine found that as long as the workout was spaced more than an hour before bedtime, evening exercise helped subjects fall asleep. For most people, it’s still best to exercise early in the day, but evening exercise can still promote good sleep. 

The big O. Matthew Walker, Ph.D., author of Why We Sleep, says that having an orgasm flushes the body with sleep-inducing hormones such as prolactin and can bring on a good night’s sleep for men and women alike. And there’s more good news: even cuddling can promote good sleep.

Walker’s research also found that sleep—or a lack of it—can have a profound effect on relationships. “For every hour of sleep a woman gets, her interest in sex increases by 14 percent, he says, adding that a warm bath can pull warmth from your core to your extremities, signaling your body to sleep.

Riggs agrees: “A cuddle, a hug, a weighted blanket, all boost oxytocin and put us into a relaxed place where we can rest and digest.”

Walker notes that young men who sleep just five hours a night for one week will have a testosterone level equal to someone 10 years their senior. So a lack of sleep will age a man by a decade when it comes to certain aspects of wellness and virility. 

Time your snacking. Eating too close to bedtime is not a good idea; it’s best to leave at least 90 minutes between a snack and sleep. But if you must, choose a high-protein snack (cheese or turkey)—amino acids such as tryptophan, may help you go to sleep and stay asleep. “You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night starving,” explains Riggs. “But going to bed full means your body is working on digestion, and you might not get good restorative rest. A glass of warm milk will soothe you and also give you a dose of calcium, which can be helpful for sleep as well.” 

Skip the nightcap. While alcohol might help you fall asleep, it may interfere with all-important REM sleep, during which your body rejuvenates and processes events into memories. “When you drink, you impede the natural systems meant to occur during sleep,” asserts Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter. “When you stop drinking, your body tries to get back into the cycle, but the alcohol has blunted its ability to do so.” The answer? “Exercise,” Stevenson says, and suggests starting your day with a routine of jumping jacks, pushups, or kettlebell squats. 

Don’t get cold feet. Even though keeping your room cool will help you sleep, you might need to wear warm socks; studies show that cold extremities could cause sleeplessness. 


This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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