Over 60 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder. And as many as 1 in 6 of those use potentially-addictive prescription sleep medications with harmful side effects, which are associated with a threefold increased risk of cancer and death.
Research from Harvard University has shown that the average worker loses 11 days of productivity each year due to insomnia. Meanwhile several studies over the past decade have correlated poor sleep with dementia, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart disease and stroke.
Billions of dollars a year are spent on direct medical costs associated with sleepiness, including missed work days, doctor visits, prescriptions and hospital services for car crash injuries -- all due directly to individual sleep deprivation.
Why is sleep such an issue for us? Is this problem inherent to humanity or is it something we have created?
Lately the impact of sleep on health has been getting more and more attention from scientists who are realizing that sleep is an active and dynamic state. The most recent focus has been on the importance of adequate sleep for the brain's physiological maintenance. Turns out while you sleep a plumbing system called the glymphatic system opens up between the brain cells and literally flushes out toxic molecules involved in neurodegenerative disorders.
This wealth of science can be overwhelming, and for many it only adds to the anxiety of "not getting enough sleep." The good news is resetting your sleep is actually not that hard.
Here are five simple ways to troubleshoot poor sleep today:
1. Avoid blue light before bed
The screens of tablets, smartphones and some computers emit a blue wavelength light that affects your Suprachiastmatic Nucleus (SCN), a pinhead sized structure that contains 20,000 neurons and controls your sleep cycle, and decreases melatonin production causing sleep disruptions. If you absolutely must look at your phone before bed, get the F.lux app. It's an app that filters the light emanating from your device so that in the morning it is blue/black predominant and in the evening it is red predominant, mimicking sundown and reducing your exposure to blue light at night.
2. If you wake up, get up
In his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch explains that historically humans slept in two shifts: one for a few hours when the sun went down, and another from the early hours of the morning until dawn. In between, they woke up, often for a couple of hours, to tend the fire, have sex or pray, and this was completely normal. It was only after electricity widely extended daylight well past sunset that patterns changed.
So if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep, don't toss and turn and cultivate anxiety -- get up and get out of bed, stretch, meditate, make love, or do something else that doesn't require turning on the lights.
3. Quit caffeine
I have many patients who don't sleep well but who claim that there is no way coffee is the culprit. Research shows that even just one medium cup of drip coffee can disrupt sleep even if taken early in the day. And if you are one of the millions of people who have a genetic variant of an enzyme called CYP1A2, you many metabolize caffeine more slowly than others, which not only puts you at greater risk of interrupted sleep, it also puts you at greater risk of having a heart attack if you're a caffeine drinker.
Also keep in mind that sodas are the No. 1 reason for American's increased caffeine intake since the 1970s and that a piece of dark chocolate can have up to 30 mg of caffeine!
4. Take magnesium glycinate before bed
Magnesium is an essential mineral that up to 70 percent of the population is deficient in. It has many important uses including muscle, brain and nervous system function. Taking magnesium clycinate before bed can relieve anxiety and naturally support deeper sleep.
5. Face your anxiety head on
In 2011 over 74 million prescriptions were written for two medications, Xanax and Valium, a fact that says Americans have a serious problem with anxiety.
To me this is no surprise. Often when I work with people on sleep, we start by taking care of the basics, like sleeping in a cool room, cutting caffeine, and avoiding screens and the blue light they radiate, but this process is often like peeling back an onion, revealing the deeper anxiety that drives sleep disruption at the core.
If anxiety is causing you to toss and turn or have difficulty falling asleep, try developing a meditation practice before you turn to sleep aids. A scientific review of 47 studies looking over 3,500 people has shown that meditation can reduce anxiety, depression and pain, and while there are natural non-addictive sleep aids like magnesium, getting to anxiety at the core is much better than a pill -- even a natural one.
At Parsley Health we work with our members for as long as it takes to get their sleep quality to where it should be. The thing that surprises people most is how certain foods they're eating every day could be keeping their brain wired, via irritation in their gut. The recent widespread attention on the gut-brain axis has shed much needed light on the brain's sensitivity for whatever's happening in the gut, and vice versa. It's a good time for root-cause personalized medical care.