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Sleep! The sweet embrace of bed after a long day at work. The very thought of it brings calmness and relaxation to mind. A good night’s sleep not only relaxes your brain and senses but also rejuvenates you for the next day.

It might interest you to know that an average person spends nearly one-third of their life sleeping. But, have you ever wondered what exactly sleep is? Fundamentally, sleep is a condition when certain neurons start sending some specific neurotransmitters to the body and switch off the signals that keep you awake. Without sleep your brain won't be able to form memories, to concentrate and respond. Quality sleep and an adequate amount of sleep are as important as air to breathe. Probably the guy who invented the snooze button in alarms knew this secret to a healthier life.

Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy the luxury of deep sleep. There are many who struggle to even fall asleep. Well, if you are one of those having trouble sleeping, read the full article to help yourself to a good night’s sleep.

  1. Causes of sleeplessness
  2. How much sleep is enough?
  3. How to get good sleep?
  4. Ways to overcome insomnia and sleep better

As important sleep is for the health, it is often difficult to fall asleep as soon as you put your head on a pillow. The most common culprit behind sleeping difficulties is anxiety and stress. Since it is the only time you have nothing else to focus on, the mind keeps on finding things for itself. The more you think about them the more new thoughts keep on pouring until it becomes a loop and your mind is too active to fall asleep. So, the best way to let you sleep is to leave the day’s rush and worries behind and let your brain calm itself down. Some simple yoga techniques may help you do that.

Anxieties and worries aside, if you still can’t go to the dreamland easily. You might need to check in with a doctor to rule out insomnia. Insomnia is a condition characterised by sleeping difficulties or being unable to sleep once woken up at night. People with insomnia also feel tired after waking up and suffer from a lack of focus. An insomniac (person suffering from the condition) may experience sleep deprivation for a spell of a few days in acute cases or continued sleep deprivation for at least 3-4 weeks in chronic cases. But even if you are diagnosed as an insomniac there is no need to worry. Almost 10 to 15% of the general population suffers from this. Insomnia is more commonly seen in older ages and females but can affect anyone.

Insomnia is categorized, based on the fundamental cause, into:

  • Primary Insomnia: Independent of any other health issue.
  • Secondary Insomnia: Caused by some other health condition like asthma, depression etc or substance use such as alcohol.

(Read more: Sleep disorder causes)

Before searching for quick solutions for your insomnia, you should know how much sleep you exactly need? Are you getting adequate amounts? Sleep duration varies from person to person and according to age. On average it is as follows:

  • Infants aged 4 to 12 months: 12 to 16 hours per day including naps
  • Children aged 1-5 years: 11 to 13 hours per day including naps
  • Children aged 6-12 years: 9-12 hours per day
  • Teens aged 13-18 years: 8-10 hours per day
  • Adults aged 18 years or older: 7 to 8 hours per day

Once you have determined the cause of your sleep problems and how much sleep you actually need, let's see how can you find some. To reverse your insomnia and help yourself to a good night's sleep, try the things listed below.

Change in lifestyle for good sleep

Establish and follow regular sleep patterns
You may have heard of “help yourselves, God will help you”. So, the first step towards a solution should always come from you. Set a regular and definitive sleep schedule with a fixed time for waking up and going to bed. Follow it religiously, even on weekends or your free days. Don't alter your sleep-wake cycle by more than 1 hour. This will help your body to develop and maintain its sleep-wake rhythm.

The Indian Academy of Neurology recommends a simple strategy to help you fall asleep easily. It is known as “sleep restriction”. To make it simpler, let's assume you spend 8 hours in bed but you get only 5 hours of sleep. In this therapy, you are advised to spend only sleep hours (that is 5 hours as assumed) in bed initially. You can increase it by 15-20 minutes every week, if your sleep efficiency increases by 90% but if it does not, decrease it by the same until it does.

Additionally, avoid taking naps during the daytime. Hopefully, you will accumulate better sleep at night.

Developing a bedtime ritual

  • According to the National Sleep Foundation, developing certain habits before bedtime and avoiding some of them can help you get better sleep. It will also help you fall asleep faster. For this-switch off bright lights, get away from all electronic gadgets at least one hour before your bedtime. Use blacked-out curtains, eye shades and ear plugs. This will help you maintain a buffer from activities that cause excitement, anxiety and stress. This should induce deep and sound sleep.
  • Another thing that you can do is start using an alarm clock for waking you in place of phone alarm. Even if you are using the phone’s alarm, keep it in another room. This has an additional benefit as you will have to walk to another room in order to switch off the blaring alarm. Physical movement will help you to wake up.
  • Your bedroom should only be for sleeping. Avoid doing any other activities like eating or working in there. Do some stretching and take hot water baths before going to bed in order to relax your body. You can also try reading a book but ensure that it is a physical book and an e-book on your electronic device.

Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine
It is a well-known fact that consumption of caffeine, nicotine or alcohol can interfere with your sleep. Alcohol may induce sleep initially but later it will disturb your sleep cycle leading to poor quality sleep. Caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants and increases alertness making it difficult to sleep. If you cannot end your use of these two, try to avoid consumption before or close to your bedtime.

Stress management
Stress acts as a stimulus, in response to which, our body releases hormones that keep us awake. To avoid this, try the following stress management tips:

  • Make time for yourself. Keep your work and “me” time separate. Try not to think about work or other things after going to bed. Focussing on your breath or counting your breaths may help with this. It gives your wandering mind something to concentrate on so it doesn’t think of the worries of the day. 
  • Try to calm and relax your mind at night. Making a night time routine or reading a book may help de-stress you. Do what you enjoy and distract you the best but don’t push yourself so much to make this a work too.

Avoid heavy dinner
You may have read, ‘eat dinner like a beggar’. This adage is undeniably true because if you eat too much at dinner, it can make you feel uncomfortable while sleeping. Your stomach may grumble, and suffer from indigestion. Ultimately, this will hamper your sleep.

Avoid strenuous physical activity before bedtime
Exercise stimulates secretion of adrenalin and heightens your alertness. This makes it hard to relax and nearly impossible to sleep. Therefore, it is best not to work out close to bedtime. Restrict any strenuous physical activity at least 2-3 hours before hitting the sack.

Don't take naps during the day time
If you are one of those who finds it difficult to fall asleep at night, it may be your daily daytime naps that are to be blamed. Sleep fits naturally at night time as dictated by our circadian rhythm. Therefore, avoid taking long afternoon or evening naps. If you have to take a midday nap, limit it to 20 minutes only.

Avoid taking sleeping pills
Don't use sleep medication regularly. Sleep medication may help you in the short term but in the long run, you may develop a dependency and addiction to it. Avoid over the counter (OTC) drugs as their prolonged use has also shown adverse effects like memory loss, irritable behaviour and heightened aggression. There is some research that suggests taking melatonin supplements (a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycle) for insomnia but it should be done under strict medical supervision. Consult your doctor before taking any type of medication for sleep.

Home remedies for good sleep

Sound sleep is contingent on a healthy body and relaxed mind. Any form of physical distress or anxiety can make it hard to relax. But do not worry. Here are some easy techniques you can use within the cosy confines of your home to find that elusive sleep.

Massage
A relaxed body and mind is a prerequisite for getting a good night sleep. Ayurveda offers massage with medicated oils if you are looking for relaxation. Massages are of various types ranging from full body massage to a foot massage or head massage. Human physiology makes massage a great way to solve your sleeping issues.

Herbal medicated liquids
Ayurveda has a range of herbs that can help treat insomnia. You can consume herbal preparations like ashwagandha churna, jatamansi churna, brahmi churna and mandukaparni chura with milk etc.
Dosages are:

  • Ashwagandha churna: 3-5 grams with sugar or ghee before meals for 7 days
  • Jatamansi churna: 500 mg to 1 gram with milk after meals for 7 days
  • Brahmi churna: 1 to 2 gram with milk for 7 days
  • Mandukparni churna: 1 to 2 gram with milk for 7 days

Yoga practice
Regular practice of Yoga can help you reap numerous health benefits including the ability to relax and get quality sleep. Mentioned below are some easy yoga techniques that may aid you with a sound sleep:

  • Pranayama: It is also known as anuloma viloma. This is basically a practice in breathing. It cleanses and relaxes your system. You start by slowly inhaling through your right nostril and closing your left nostril. Hold your breath for a few seconds and then exhale through your left nostril by closing your right nostril. Do the same but start with left nostril this time. Repeat the whole process 7-8 times. It should not take more than 5 minutes of your day.
  • Meditation: History is full of evidence when it comes to the powers of meditation. It helps to coordinate the body with the mind and with your soul if you are lucky. The most important step for meditation is finding a quiet place away from any distraction. Once you are there, lie down or sit. Shift your focus from the outside world and relax your breathing. This should help you de-stress yourself and be the precursor to a good night’s sleep.
  • Yog Nidra: It is a form of yogic sleep or in simple words conscious form of sleep. In this, you lie comfortably on your back but instead of falling asleep you are guided by a voice (on headphones etc.) to concentrate on your body, thoughts and psyche. It is a mind-body therapy, which claims to relax the body as well as the mind and give psychological relief from stress. This helps you get sound sleep and restores your whole body functions.

Aromatherapy
Here is one more thing to help you sleep a bit better and easier. Aromatherapy involves the use of various essential oils that calm the mind, body and spirit. You can use these oils by putting some drops in a diffuser or just by sprinkling some of it to your pillow. Some essential oils that can be used for aromatherapy are lavender, valerian and bergamot.

Sleeping snacks and green tea
Research suggests using light snack 30 minutes before your bedtime. Foods containing magnesium are prescribed as magnesium plays a pivotal role in sleep and mental recovery.

Here you will get to know what all the foods you can freely snack on before going to sleep:

  • Banana: Banana is one of the best fruits that can help you induce sleep. It is loaded with several micronutrients which help in inducing sleep like magnesium and tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid which acts as a precursor of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin aids in elevating your mood and relieving stress, which, in turn, promotes good sleep.
  • Milk: Mothers always insist on their kids to have a glass of milk before going to sleep; she may have known the sleep-inducing secrets of this drink long before you. Just like banana, milk also contains a fairly good amount of tryptophan. But it is also enriched in another important chemical known as melatonin. Whereas tryptophan acts as a stress buster, melatonin aids in maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. This means you would be able to maintain a better sleep-wake schedule. So, now onwards, always have a glass of lukewarm milk right before bedtime if you are keen to enjoy a good night sleep.
  • Green Tea: Green tea is yet another drink that can help to reduce stress and bring relaxation. It contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has strong anti-anxiety effects. Remember not to load yourself on sugars as it will raise your insulin levels too much and make it difficult to fall asleep.

When to consult a doctor?

Sometimes no matter how many strategies and techniques you try it is just impossible to get good quality sleep. In such cases, consultation with your doctor should be the ultimate repose.

There are some conditions like restless leg syndrome, sleep apnoea, gastrointestinal reflux syndrome (GERD) and Alzheimer's disease which affect sleep. Never hesitate to approach your doctor to rule these out before you try any remedy at home.

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References

  1. American Sleep Association. WHAT IS SLEEP? WHY IS IT NEEDED?. [Internet]
  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke [Internet] Maryland, United States; Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.
  3. Sahoo Saddichha. Diagnosis and treatment of chronic insomnia . Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2010 Apr-Jun; 13(2): 94–102. PMID: 20814491
  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [Internet]: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency
  5. National Sleep Foundation. Healthy Sleep Tips . [Internet]
  6. healthdirect Australia. 10 tips for healthy sleep. Australian government: Department of Health
  7. Health Harvard Publishing. Harvard Medical School [Internet]. 8 secrets to a good night's sleep. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  8. National Health Portal [Internet] India; ANIDRA(Insomnia)
  9. National Institute on Aging [internet]: US Department of Health and Human Services; A Good Night's Sleep
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