Get back to sleep with these innovative fixes…
In the world of sleep disorders, having difficulty staying asleep is just as troubling as having difficulty falling asleep.
Both sleep problems rob us of the consistent, high-quality rest that helps protect against high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, stroke and depression.
Plenty of people who have nighttime awakenings turn to a prescription sleep aid, such as zolpidem (Ambien). But these pills are only a temporary fix and can cause prolonged drowsiness the next day or, in rare cases, sleepwalking or sleep-eating within hours of taking them.
A better option: Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, known as CBT-I, is now recommended as a first-line treatment for chronic sleep problems.* With CBT-I, you work with a specially trained therapist (typically for six to eight sessions) to identify, challenge and change the patterns of thinking that keep you awake at night. A 2015 study found CBT-I, which is typically covered by health insurance, to be more helpful than diazepam (Valium), commonly used as a sleep aid, in treating insomnia.
But if you are not quite ready to commit to a course of CBT-I—or even if you do try it—there are some simple but effective strategies you can use at home to help you stay asleep and get the deep rest you need.
Best approaches to avoid nighttime awakenings…
Get more omega-3 fatty acids. While the research is still preliminary, a new study published in Sleep Medicine found that the more omega-3–rich fatty fish adults ate, the better their sleep quality.
My advice: Eat fatty fish…and to ensure adequate levels of omega-3s, consider taking a fish oil supplement (one to two 1,000-mg capsules daily).*
Avoid “blue light” at night. Exposure to blue light—the kind emitted by smartphones, computers, tablets and LED TVs—disrupts sleep patterns by blocking the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Even if you do fall asleep fairly easily, blue light exposure may come back to haunt you in the form of a middle-of-the-night wake-up.
If you can’t force yourself to power down your electronics within two hours of bedtime, try positioning handheld devices farther away from your eyes than usual.
In addition, consider various apps that filter blue light on your smartphone or tablet. Some operating systems are automatically programmed with this feature—Apple’s iOS 9.3 offers Night Shift, for example. Using your device’s geolocation and clock, the colors of your display are automatically shifted to the warmer end of the spectrum (which is less disruptive to sleep) around sundown. Free apps for Android devices include Night Shift: Blue Light Filter and Twilight.
Use special lightbulbs. If you wake up in the middle of the night and make a trip to the bathroom, the glare of the bathroom light tells your brain “It’s morning!” What helps: Use low-blue lightbulbs in your bathroom and bedroom that don’t block the release of melatonin. A variety are available from Lighting Science (LSGC.com). Or look online for night-lights designed to emit low levels of blue light.
IF YOU DO WAKE UP
Even if you follow the steps described above, you may still have occasional nighttime awakenings with trouble falling back asleep (meaning you are awake for at least 25 minutes).
Experiment with the following strategies to see what works best for you…
Resist the urge to check e-mail or do anything else on your phone. Even short exposures to blue light are enough to suppress melatonin. Mentally stimulating activities, such as loud TV, are also best avoided. (However, a TV at low volume with the setting adjusted to dim the screen can be a great distractor for an active mind at night.)
My advice: Choose a relaxing activity like reading, listening to soothing music or knitting. If you read, use a book light or a bedside-table lamp that has one of the special bulbs mentioned earlier.
Don’t look at the clock. If you do, you’ll start doing the mental math of how many hours you have left until you need to wake up. This will cause anxiety that will spike your levels of cortisol and adrenaline, sleep-disrupting hormones that make you feel wide awake!
My advice: Turn your clock around, and try counting backward from 300 by threes to distract yourself and promote drowsiness.
Also helpful: Try the “4-7-8 method”—inhale for four seconds…hold your breath for seven…and exhale slowly for eight. Breathe in this manner for up to 15 to 20 minutes or until you fall asleep. Inhaling and holding in air increases oxygen in the body, which means your body doesn’t have to expend as much energy. The slow exhale helps you unwind and mimics the slow breathing that takes place during sleep, which will help you fall asleep.
Turn on some pink noise. The well-known “white noise”—used to mask conversations and potentially startling sounds—is comprised of all frequencies detectable by the human ear. Pink noise, on the other hand, has a lower, softer frequency. Pink noise is generally considered more relaxing and has a steady sound like gentle rain.
Sleep experts believe that our brains respond better to the lower spectrum of pink noise than to the fuller spectrum of white noise. The result is a more peaceful and sleep–conducive feeling.
My advice: Search for a free app that contains pink noise, and listen to it with earphones on your smartphone, laptop or tablet if you wake up in the middle of the night. Just be sure to glance only briefly at the screen when turning on the device, and turn off the screen light while listening. You can set the pink noise to play for a set amount of time, such as 30 minutes. As an alternative, you can purchase a pink-noise generator online.
*To find a CBT-I therapist, consult the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, BehavioralSleep.org. You can also try the free CBT-i Coach app, available at iTunes or Google Play.