Dear Ms. Angel,
You always have such good info so I hope you can help me. I am having trouble sleeping and I’m afraid it is starting to affect me at work. Sometimes it takes hours to fall asleep because my mind just won’t stop thinking about all of the stuff I have to take care of. Other times I conk out, then suddenly I am wide wake in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. I hardly ever sleep for more than a few hours at a time and never can seem to get enough. I am so tired during the day that I have to pound coffee and energy drinks just to stay awake. I think my hands are starting to shake now and that totally freaks me out. What should I do?
Thanks much, F.
You’re right to be concerned! A lack of sleep could negatively affect your performance at work, which carries increased risks for both you and your clients. Like the air we breathe and the food that nourishes us, sleep is crucial to survival—so a shortage of it is no joke. Sleep deprivation has been described as being similar to alcohol intoxication,(i) and no ethical piercer would work while inebriated.
You’re certainly not alone. Approximately 35% of adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the CDC. As they put it, “Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic.” An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep-related problems, and chronic insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep) affects at least 10 percent of Americans.(ii) The effects of sleep loss can accumulate, even from a shortage of as little as an hour nightly, resulting in diminished attention span and focus, delayed reaction time, and problem-solving difficulties.(iii)
Sleep deprivation can also impact overall health and longevity. Too little slumber weakens your immune system so you’re more likely to get sick. The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss are associated with a wide range of serious health consequences including an elevated risk of depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke,(iv) and even early death!(v) Sleep disorders are also linked to obesity and diabetes as they cause dysfunctions in metabolism, hormone production (including insulin), and blood sugar levels.(vi)
Most adults require seven or more hours of shut-eye a night for optimal health and wellbeing. The amount you get is important, but good sleep quality is also essential. High quality sleep includes the following:(vii)
• Sleeping at least 85 percent of the total time you’re in bed
• Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less
• Waking up no more than once per night
My advice is that you work to improve your “sleep hygiene,” the habits and practices that are conducive to fostering slumber. Below are some dos and don’ts:
• Avoid stimulants like nicotine and caffeine, especially after the morning. They can worsen sleep deprivation by making it harder to nod off at night. (And may be responsible for your shaking hands, at least in part.)
• A nightcap might help you to fall asleep faster, but too much liquor can disrupt the second half of your night as your body begins to process the alcohol. Moderation is key.
• Steer clear of rich, fatty, or heavy foods in the hours before bed. They can tax your digestion and be disruptive to sleep.
• Prioritize sleep and schedule it like any other important activity. Stick to the same timetable, even on weekends.
• Use a sleep-tracking phone app or fitness watch to monitor your nights. This will provide a realistic picture of how much you’re actually sleeping and the quality of your slumber.
• Create a sleep-friendly environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool. If necessary, use blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, a “white noise” machine, humidifier, fan, or any device that makes your bedroom more amenable.
• As little as ten minutes of daily aerobic exercise such as walking or cycling can drastically improve sleep quality. Most people should avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime.
• Keep a pen and paper right by the bed to jot down notes and to-do lists when thoughts come whirling through your mind as you’re trying to sleep. By putting your ideas on paper, you may be able to get them out of your head. This analog method also avoids the use of a phone to record or type in notes, as the light is not conducive to sleep.
• In fact, you shouldn’t use electronics before bed. The light can interfere with your circadian rhythm—the body’s internal clock. If you watch television at night, be sure you’re at least six feet away from the screen.(viii) Turn off bright overhead lights too. Adequate exposure to natural light in the day and darkness at night helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
• Practice a relaxing evening ritual to help your body recognize that it is bedtime. This could include taking warm shower or bath, reading a book, or doing some gentle stretches.
• Drink a caffeine-free tea such as chamomile(ix) or an herbal sleepy-time blend.
• Use a diffuser or directly inhale soothing essential oils such as lavender, ylang-ylang, or lemon, which have shown positive effects in scientific studies.(x)
• Meditation is highly recommended. At its most basic, you can simply bring your attention to your breath. Focus on inhaling and exhaling. When you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back to your breath, over and over again. Additionally, there are various meditation apps—my favorite is Insight Timer. It contains over 20,000 free guided meditations and lots of them are specifically for sleep and relaxation. All you need to do is listen.
• You can try to make up for some lost rest with naps. Taking two naps that are no longer than 30 minutes each (morning and afternoon) has been shown to help decrease stress and offset the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system. At the very least, try grabbing a 20-minute siesta on your lunch break, but do not nap too late in the day.
• Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles. Some studies suggest that taking it as a supplement helps to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, increases the number of hours you sleep, and boosts daytime alertness.(xi) Valerian root is a natural herbal sleep supplement that may help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by 15 to 20 minutes while also improving sleep quality. Other types of drugstore sleep aids may be worth trying if your insomnia is short term, but they may leave you feeling groggy and hungover in the morning. Note that they’re not intended for long-term use or as a comprehensive fix. Take these for up to a few weeks only.
If you can’t find relief with these tactics, you’ll need to visit a doctor; a sleep specialist is ideal. He or she might suggest other treatments, and possibly prescribe something stronger for you. Again, you wouldn’t be alone: approximately 9 million Americans take prescription drugs to help them fall asleep.ai
Hopefully, you will find this to be a temporary issue. Try not to rely too heavily on medications, as that’s a slippery slope. Remember that sleep hygiene is the key to sweet dreams, so apply yourself to creating habits that will help to ensure successful slumber on a regular basis.