In a groundbreaking study released in February, Scripps researchers revealed a statistical link between sleep medications and increased risk of premature death from such causes as cancer and other ailments.
“Obese patients appear particularly vulnerable, perhaps through interaction with sleep apnea,” says study co-author Daniel Kripke, MD, a psychiatrist with Scripps Clinic’s Viterbi Family Sleep Center in San Diego, noting that sleeping pills were previously associated with more and longer pauses in breathing in people with sleep apnea. Additionally, among patients who received sleep medications, men were about twice as likely to die as women, after accounting for other factors.
The study’s conclusions were widely reported in national media, leaving many patients who have difficulty sleeping to wonder how they can get a safer night’s sleep.
Dr. Kripke suggests several non-pharmaceutical ways to achieve restful, restorative sleep without resorting to common sleep medications, by working with natural circadian rhythms that regulate sleep and wake cycles.
Reduce time in bed
“Many adults don’t actually need eight hours of sleep per night,” says Dr. Kripke. In fact, studies at the sleep center show most adults are only really asleep between six and seven hours per night. If you find you can sleep between five and seven hours per night and feel rested, don’t try to sleep more than that. Make the most of those extra hours of healthy wakefulness instead.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Once you discover your optimal amount of sleep, do your best to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and don’t try to make up for “lost” sleep by staying in bed later on weekends. That tends to throw off the body’s natural clock, making it harder to get to sleep later that night.
Only go to bed when you are sleepy
Lying awake trying to fall asleep when you aren’t tired can create a counterproductive self-reinforcing loop, creating frustration that makes it harder to get to sleep. If you aren’t tired at your normal bedtime, try structured relaxation (a few techniques are outlined below). And if you wake up fully in the middle of the night, get out of bed and don’t return until you are tired again.
If these don’t help, consult a sleep specialist. Some problems, like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, require medical diagnosis and treatment for their core causes. In these cases, sleeping pills only mask the underlying conditions.
Sometimes the environment can affect how easy (or difficult) it is to fall asleep. Light, sound and other factors can help.
If you’re a night owl, try melatonin
This supplement is a hormone that may help re-set circadian rhythms that are “off,” making it easier for people whose natural cycle is to go to bed late at night and get up late in the morning. Talk to you doctor about an appropriate low dose to try at bedtime to help you get to sleep earlier.
Keep the light out
Room-darkening draperies not only insulate your room from the cold or heat outside, they also dampen sound and light, creating a more restful space.
Drown out distracting noises
If traffic, voices, neighbors, barking dogs or other outside noises are making it difficult for you to drop off, try white noise. There are dedicated machines that create soothing background sounds, apps for your smartphone and even such simple interventions as running a fan or humidifier to mask sudden bursts of annoying outside noise that could otherwise startle you awake.
Meditate or pray
Evidence suggests that mindfulness practices like prayer and meditation can help get rid of unwanted thoughts and set the stage for a good night’s sleep.
Learn progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis
Structured exercises like these can be beneficial in the first few minutes after you go to bed.
If you’re looking for a doctor to help you get better sleep, contact Scripps Clinic’s Viterbi Family Sleep Center.