When sleep defies you, it can be tempting to reach for a sleeping pill. While hypnotic drugs such as Ambien (zolpidem) can provide a quick fix for insomnia, they may cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects. Prescription sleep aids can also be habit-forming, and people who suddenly stop using Ambien may experience rebound insomnia worse than their original sleeping problem. Fortunately, there are safer and more effective alternatives to prescription medications to help someone get a good night’s sleep.
Insomnia is a common condition that can manifest in many ways. People may have difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, or they may suffer from early morning awakening. Approximately one-third of adults have experienced the symptoms of insomnia at some point in their lives, and 10 percent suffer from chronic insomnia, which occurs at least three nights a week for a month or longer.
While Ambien might seem like an easy solution to a vexing problem, prescription sleep aids come with their own set of problems. Side effects of Ambien, for instance, can include symptoms such as daytime drowsiness, stomach discomfort, dizziness, weakness and feelings of being “drugged” or light-headed. Some Ambien users have also reported strange nocturnal behaviors, including sleepwalking, sleep-eating and even sleep-driving.
Long-term Ambien use can lead to physical dependence and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as rebound insomnia when the drug is discontinued. Hypnotic sleeping pills could even shorten your life: A 2012 study published in Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that use of hypnotics such as Ambien and Restoril is associated with a nearly five-fold increased risk of early death.
Insomnia can wreak havoc on the body. The human body typically requires at least seven hours of sleep every night to function optimally. Not getting the requisite hours of restful sleep can cause daytime tiredness and fatigue, as well as irritability, depression and difficulty concentrating.
A lack of sleep can also be dangerous. Studies have shown that insomnia is a major contributor to motor vehicle crashes and other unintentional fatal injuries. Other research has shown that persistent insomnia lasting for six years or longer is associated with an increased risk of death.
Dangers aside, Ambien and other hypnotics don’t necessarily provide you the kind of sleep your body actually needs. In his book, “Why We Sleep,” Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the sleep people get from taking hypnotics doesn’t have the same restorative quality as natural sleep. In an interview with New York Magazine, Walker explains that drugs like Ambien simply “switch off the top of your cortex, the top of your brain, and put you into a state of unconsciousness.” The drugs actually sedate you, he says, and “sedation is not sleep.”
The good news for those who desperately crave sleep is that a variety of techniques and methods can help you achieve a blissful state of slumber without prescription medications. Here’s a look at some good ways to reboot your sleep cycle.
Purposely restricting sleep might sound like the last thing an insomniac should do. But sleep restriction is actually one of the primary components of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, a method the American College of Physicians recommends as the first-line treatment for adults with insomnia. The goal of the therapy is to limit the amount of time spent in bed to consolidate and optimize one’s sleep. This serves to strengthen the mind-body connection between the act of getting in bed and falling asleep quickly.
Here’s how CBT-I works: First figure out how many hours you typically sleep in a night. Tack 30 minutes onto that number and spend only that amount of time in bed. It’s important to set an alarm and get up at the same time every morning, regardless of the amount of time you actually slept the night before. If you’re sleeping relatively well after two weeks of this regimen and feel good during the day, stick to the schedule. If you’re tired during the day, simply add another 15 minutes to your allotted time in bed.
While it may take some time to achieve a completely normal sleep pattern, most individuals see an improvement within four to five weeks, and the results are usually long-lasting.
Stress is one of the most common underlying causes of insomnia, and unhealthy levels of stress also increase the risk of relapse after substance abuse treatment. Chronic worrying about health, work, relationships and other matters affects us physically by causing the release of stress hormones that increase heart rate, body temperature and muscle tension. Unfortunately, this heightened state of arousal can make sleep difficult, if not impossible.
Making matters worse, many people also tend to ruminate over their inability to sleep. They may even develop a fear of being unable to sleep that exacerbates the problem, creating a vicious cycle that contributes to long-term insomnia.
Practicing various relaxation techniques can help break this negative feedback loop and put you in a more restful state of mind. Taking a hot bath or shower a couple of hours before bed, for instance, is a good way to wind down and release stress. Deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation techniques can also calm the nervous system and prepare us for sleep. If you have trouble doing these techniques on your own, try listening to one of the many sleep hypnosis videos available online to help you doze off.
Healthy sleep habits can go a long way in promoting a good night’s rest.
Simple measures that can improve sleep include:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends, and avoid late-day napping or exercising.
If you can’t seem to shut your mind down, try cracking open a good book. Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that reading for as little as six minutes can reduce stress levels by nearly 70 percent, putting us in a better frame of mind to sleep. Be sure to choose a book that’s engaging, and don’t do your reading on any sort of electronic device.
Research shows that breaking a sweat 150 minutes a week — or at least 20 minutes a day — can significantly improve sleep quality. That said, try and get your exercise in at least three hours before bedtime so your body has adequate time to cool down.
If all else fails, there are a number natural sleep aids that may help your slumber. Melatonin supplements are synthetic versions of the hormone naturally produced by the brain’s pineal gland that help regulate the body’s sleep and wake cycles. Studies have shown that melatonin can help people fall asleep faster, and it can be especially useful in helping to regulate the sleep cycles of individuals who do shift work or experience jetlag.
Experts recommend taking as low a dose as needed, usually between 1 and 3 milligrams two hours before bedtime, and suggest you stop using melatonin if you don’t see any improvement in a week or two. Other natural remedies that may enhance sleep include: L-tryptophan, valerian root, magnesium and chamomile. Before taking any supplement, talk to your doctor.
As you discover what methods work best for you, remember that refreshing sleep needn’t be elusive. Our bodies were designed to sleep without the aid of powerful hypnotic drugs. By practicing healthy sleep habits, learning how to relax and following other methods described above, you can retune your sleep cycle and get the rest your body craves.
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