If you have insomnia, you may need to answer this question for yourself.
A recent paper presented at the Associated of Professional Sleep Societies annual meeting revealed that adults who regularly sleep less than 6 hours a night have about a 450% higher risk of stroke. The study was based on almost 5700 people 45 years and older(1). About 30% of adults who work generally get less than 6 hours of sleep a night – so insomniacs are not the only ones at risk. From my intakes with numerous patients, I believe the number of people getting inadequate sleep is likely much higher.
Most unfortunately for people who have sleep problems, the go-to treatment is sleep medication
. The problem here is that sleep medications may actually be more dangerous. A large study of 30,000 people published in the February 2012 issue of the British Medical journal found a 300% increase in death in people who took fewer than 18 sleeping pills a year (that’s less than 2 a month). Higher doses were linked to a greater than 500% increase in death. The authors of this study concluded that these sleeping drugs ‘may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the USA alone.’
So, it seems taking medications may not be any safer than stroke risk. Not sleeping enough increases stroke by 450% and sleep medications taken 2 or more times a month increase all causes of death by 300 – 500% percent. Not a good choice either way.
What Can You Do for Sleep?
Firstly, I like to remind my patients that the body is naturally made to sleep. As someone who endured pretty severe long-term insomnia myself a number of years ago, I know that when you are going through it, it feels as if it will never get better. Not sleeping is one of the worst feelings a person can have. The evening into night becomes a most dreaded time, knowing that you need to face another night. I learned during that process that inability to sleep is often the body’s way of saying things are unbalanced.
Natural remedies are likely the best way in most cases to balance the body. Natural medicines can help sleep, avoid stroke and avoid side effects of sleep medications. With very little in terms of side effect profile, using natural remedies to help this common health problem makes perfect sense. With my patients, I employ a combination naturopathic approach which I find most helpful:
(1) exercise in the morning sun: getting morning sun and exercise has been shown to help promote a quality sleep by strengthening its own sense of daily rhythm
(2) pick a healthy bedtime: I highly recommend being in bed by 11PM at the latest. Chinese medicine has a saying: an hour before midnight is worth 2 hours after midnight. This is because healthy detoxification and repair happens best when we get to bed before midnight.
(3) dim all the lights: close the computers, TV’s, cell phones and tablets at least a half hour before bedtime. If you wish, purchase an amber light to read by, and read something calming
(4) don’t go hungry: hunger and low blood sugar can keep you up by stimulating the stress response. You can eat a little slice of apple and some peanut or almond butter, or a slice of turkey on a rice cracker. Don’t have a big meal, just a little something. Other foods that help with sleep can be found here.
(5) chamomile tea: An old favorite that helps immensely - especially when insomnia comes with digestive problems. I recommend the brand Sleepytime, for it is a beautiful mix of chamomile which includes other herbs like hawthorne and linden. These helps calm the spirit, and is good for the cardiovascular system
(6) a to do list: oftentimes, people cannot get to sleep because they are ruminating/worrying about what is coming up the next day, or they are processing what happened earlier that day. I have found it personally useful to write a quick bullet point ‘to do list’ that organizes my thoughts about what came up, or what is coming up. Then I put it to the side and say to myself ‘OK, everything I need to think about is ready for tomorrow.’
(7) the right supplement: there are a number of supplements I find very valuable to help restore proper sleep architecture once the above are in place. These include melatonin and valerian to help fall asleep and tryptophan to help stay asleep. Passion flower is excellent for circular and obsessive-type night-time thinking. There are a few others to that are calming such as GABA, theanine, California poppy, and magnesium. Which supplement is best will depend on your needs. Consider working with a naturopathic doctor to figure out which would be specifically helpful to you.
(8) Consider food allergies and eating patterns: I learned for myself, and a number of my patients, alcohol and certain foods can make the heartrace, cause palpitations, and keep us awake. Also, dehydration and eating large meals too late may have the same effect.
Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc practices in New York, and authored Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Therapies His new book How Come They’re Happy and I’m Not? will be out in the fall of 2012. He can be reached by visiting InnerSourceHealth.com.
(1) Ruiter, et al. SLEEP 2012: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 26th Annual Meeting. Abstract #0829. Presented June 11, 2012.
(2) Kripke DF, Langer RD, Kline LE. Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study. BMJ Open. 2012 Feb 27;2(1)