Sleep is one of the cornerstones of our health. It impacts most basic bodily functions, including muscle and tissue growth. Cellular repair and communication occur. Toxic waste is removed from the brain. Parts of the brain that regulate emotion are active, functioning to help our body’s emotional state remain stable when we are awake, rather than reactive. Adequate sleep can help you maintain a healthy weight, and also protects against insulin resistance. A restful night’s sleep can also help reduce inflammation and pain, as the body repairs and restores the wide variety of systems.
These are just a few ways that sleep impacts our overall wellness. It might not seem like a huge deal to get inadequate sleep occasionally, but over the long term your body will start to feel the impact. In fact, in studies regarding how sleep (or lack of it) impacts pain levels, researchers found that normal, healthy, sleep deprived participants “reported more musculoskeletal symptoms” and “a significant increase in muscle tenderness.”. Sleep-deprived subjects had a whopping “24% decrease in their musculoskeletal pain threshold.” That’s means they felt more tenderness specifically in their muscles. They showed an increased sensitivity to any touch or “mechanical” stimulation.
Another sleep-deprivation study of nine men in 2001 showed that pain sensitivity increased 8% with a “sleep debt” of 40 hours (40 hours of lost sleep with no opportunity to recover). Even more interesting, letting them catch up actually had a much greater pain-relieving effect- “greater than the analgesia induced by level I (non-opioid) analgesic compounds”. Getting an adequate amount of sleep, 7-9 regular hours per night, can make a significant difference in how you feel.
It’s no wonder that people yearn for a way to get better sleep. Different sleep positions, total darkness, total silence (or not), the “perfect” mattress, the right pillow, pets on the bed (or off), it goes on and on. People anguish over getting better sleep because it can make or break their day.
A new report released by the National Center for Health Statistics (part of the CDC) shows that 18 percent of U.S. adults use some type of medication to help them sleep. This includes those who say they take sleep medication most nights (6 percent), every night (2 percent) or some nights (10 percent). More women than men take sleep medication, and usage overall increases with age, the report finds.
Despite their prevalence, experts warn against any long-term use of medications to improve sleep as they can lead to dependency and interactions with other medications.
Sources share that are three types of sleep aids:
- Melatonin-receptor agonists such as ramelteon (Rozerem) leave the body quickly. They target melatonin receptors in the brain and are not thought to be habit-forming.
- Benzodiazepines, such as lorazepam (Ativan) and temazepam (Restoril), target a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that reduces nerve activity and promotes sleep. Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming and may cause daytime sleepiness. The drugs are also associated with a potentially deadly side effect when taken with prescription painkillers, as we reported last month. “And there is concern that using benzodiazepines may contribute to the development of dementia. It’s under investigation,” says Dr. Epstein. He also notes the risk of falling if you wake up groggy when using these drugs.
- Nonbenzodiazepines , such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) target GABA as well. However, they don’t last as long in the body and have fewer side effects compared with benzodiazepines. But they still put you at risk for sleepwalking and daytime sleepiness.
So, what is one to do if they struggle to get restful sleep?
First, start with the basics. Focus on your sleep hygiene. A few of those improvements might include:
- Establish a regular sleep schedule- getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night is crucial, but making sure it’s the same 7-9 hours is key.
- Decrease exposure to light as the evening goes on. Avoid using electronics an hour before bedtime.
- Reduce fluid intake the hours before bedtime to avoid interrupted sleep to use the restroom.
- Reduce ambient light- use heavy curtains, blackout shades, or an eye mask to block light, a powerful cue that tells the brain that it’s time to wake up.
- If you get hungry later in the evening, eat light. Heavy meals get your digestion going, which isn’t meant to be functioning during sleep.
- Add white-noise or use earplugs to limit any distractions once asleep.
To read more tips on how to improve your sleep with easy adjustments at home, read here.
Another route is a well-studied therapy called CBT-i (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia). It involves talk therapy to change unproductive thinking patterns, along with changes in sleep habits. CBT-i also uses relaxation therapy, stimulus control, and established sleep and wake patterns. A typical course of CBT-i lasts six to eight weeks. If changes you make to your sleep routine aren’t helping you get better sleep, speak to your provider about what additional resources may help.