An exploration of sleep and insomnia, with a single destination in mind:
a good night's sleep.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Do Pets in the Bedroom Help You Sleep Better?

By Ken Mallows

Maybe. Researchers are not quite sure, because pet owners love their pets and are reluctant to blame them for their sleeping woes. 

A recently published study by Mayo Clinic researchers found that more than half of pet owners, about 56 percent, allowed their dogs or cats to sleep in the bedroom. Of those, 20 percent said the pet disrupted their sleep, and 41 percent perceived their pets at unobtrusive or even beneficial to sleep.

The research is particularly important because pet ownership is at its highest level in two decades with dogs being the most popular at 36.5 percent of households and cats, 36.5 percent. The authors note: "High levels of pet ownership raise questions of where pets sleep and the implications for their owners' sleep." They also note that literature searches did not yield any published reports about pets and sleep so more work needs to be done.

On the plus side, pets in the bedroom provided security, companionship and relaxation for some people.  The report noted:

"A single 64-year-old woman commented that she felt more content when her small dog slept under the covers near her feet. One married woman described her 2 small dogs as 'bed warmers.'  One 50-year-old woman did 'not mind when my lovely cat' slept on her chest and another described her cat as 'soothing.' Patients volunteered that they deliberately acquired a dog or cat to help them relax. People sleeping alone, not always single but sometimes with a partner who travels or works some nights, more often spoke of the beneficial companionship stemming from a pet in the bedroom or on the bed."

On the negative side, some pet owners were disturbed by their pets who wandered around, snored, needed to go out, whimpered and even had seizures. "A single 51-year-old woman kept a parrot in her bedroom that consistently squawked at 6 am."

One drawback of the study was that of the 150 patients from the Mayo Clinic in Arizona Center for Sleep Medicine who answered a questionnaire, many may have been reluctant to bad mouth their beds and blame them for sleep problems. The report stated: "Some pet owners described an intense loyalty to their companion animal. Respondents appeared eager to disclose whether they owned a companion animal and where it slept but seemed more reluctant to reveal any undesirable consequences. This response bias may have resulted in these data underreporting the frequency of disrupted sleep."

The researchers suggest that patients with sleep problems should tell their healthcare provider or sleep specialist about their pets' sleeping conditions as it may be a factor. "People should be counseled to prioritize their sleep over the needs of their companion animal," the report stated. "The decision to bring a pet or pets into the bedroom or bed should come only after a close examination of the implications for their sleep environment. Future research in this area could include looking at whether patients who own pets who were counseled subsequently slept better, as well as using more objective measures of sleep for people with a companion animal in the bedroom."

The study titled "Are Pets inthe Bedroom a Problem?" was published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, October 15, 2015.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

If You Can't Sleep, Stand Up

By Bill Adler

It's normal to have insomnia every now and then. Every living human being has nights where sleep doesn't tumble in, where our eyes are exploring the cracks in the ceiling, and in which there seem to be an infinite number of sheep to count.

The first important thing to know about occasional insomnia is not to worry about it. Like many other temporary maladies such as headaches, stomach aches, colds and sore backs, it's going to happen. And just as with a headache or a cold, you'll recover fully.

Photo by Anne Marthe Widvey. Licensed under
Creative Commons. 
But what should you do about that temporary insomnia? Should you continue to count sheep until you reach a number higher than you've been taught? Should you work? Watch late night television?

There are a number of possible tools that you can employ to try and get back to sleep. You could drink a glass of warm milk. Take a bath. Listen to relaxing music.

Or, you could stand up. Here's how. Stand in your dark bedroom. Face your bed and under no circumstances allow yourself to get back into bed for five minutes. That's key: No matter how much you want to, you may not return to bed for a full five minutes.

Here's what's going to happen while you stand.
  • First, you're going to become bored. And while boredom is the enemy of many things, boredom is your friend when you're trying to get to sleep. The more bored you become, the fewer distracting thoughts there will be to keep you awake. When you finally return to bed, your mind will be more receptive to instant sleep. 
  • Second, you're going to covet your bed. You can look at your bed, but you can't get into it, and that's going to make you want to get into bed. But you can't. Not for five minutes, five very long minutes. The more you want to get into bed, the faster you'll fall asleep when you finally do. 
  • Third, you will get tired. Standing is tiring. Your legs will get weary. Your feet will feel like they're liquefying. You will ache to lay down. But not yet. You have to wait and wait. After five minutes, you can lay down, you can close your eyes, you can let your mind and body fall asleep.
Where does this grand sleeping tip come from? It's from you, human beings in desperate need of a good night's sleep. It's from trial and error and its foundation is rooted in the notion that the best ideas for getting a good night's sleep often come from people who stumble upon that idea as they pursue the path to sleep.

For those nights when occasional insomnia strikes, add standing and staring at your bed to your supply bag of sleep tricks and tips.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Two Simple Ways to Cut Sleep-Stealing Blue Light From Your Devices

By Ken Mallows
 Sleep scientists are raging against blue light, the specific wavelength emitted by our smartphones, computers, tablets and even some Kindles.

As you know from this blog, blue-enriched light is an enemy of sleep. Research has shown that exposure to this specific color of light can delay sleep time by as much as one hour, maybe more. Although all wavelengths of light suppress melatonin production (which helps you sleep), the pineal gland is particularly sensitive to light in the blue range (460-480 nanometers) but the opposite is also true. Blue light makes people feel energized and awake.

That's why sleep experts suggest turning off your devices several hours before you hit the sack. If that's not possible, if you must read your Kindle in bed or check Facebook on your tablet while getting ready for sleep, the next best thing is to cut back on the blue light they emit.
There are several ways to do this. In an article published in frontiers in Public Health titled Bigger, Brighter, Bluer-Better? Current light-emitting devices – adverse sleep properties and preventative strategies the authors tested two methods to reduce the blue. You can try both of them on yourself.

First, software. The authors tested an app called f.lux which promises to help reduce the blue light. The app developers claim the program "makes the color of your computer's display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. It's even possible that you're staying up too late because of your computer. You could use f.lux because it makes you sleep better, or you could just use it just because it makes your computer look better." The download is free.
Second, the researchers tested orange-tinted 'blue-blocking' glasses. These are available from Amazon and elsewhere. This also work to cut the blue.

The authors of the study pronounced that "Both the orange-tinted glasses and the 'sleep-aware' app significantly reduced short-wavelength emissions."

While the glasses and app reduced blue light, the researchers did not study their effect on actually helping people get to sleep. It was not part of this study. The authors noted that testing would be challenging because there are so many other environmental factors that keep people from getting a good night's sleep.

As for helping the most people, they cite a study from the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America Poll suggesting that nine out of ten American used a technological device in the hour before bed. With so many people using these devices, large-scale public health interventions would be expensive and difficult to implement. A much better approach, they say, is for manufacturers to offer hardware with an automatic 'bedtime mode,' that shifts blue and green light emissions to yellow and red as well as reduce backlight and light intensity during evening hours.

They add: "Ideally future software design could be better optimized when night-time use is anticipated, and hardware should allow an automatic 'bedtime mode' that shifts blue and green light emissions to yellow and red as well as reduce backlight/light intensity."

In the meantime, have you tried either of these fixes – the blue light-reducing app or yellow-tinted glasses? If so, let us know about it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Some Like it Hot: What To Do If You and Your Partner Like Different Sleeping Temperatures

By Bill Adler

It would be great if there was a perfect target temperature for sleeping. If all we had to do is dial our thermostats down to 67 degrees and, like magic, we’d be whisked away into a perfect dream state.

But despite what you may have read about there being one ideal temperature for sleeping, the best temperature for sleeping varies by individual. Citing of H. Craig Heller, PhD, professor of biology at Stanford University and Ralph Downey III, PhD, chief of sleep medicine at Loma Linda University, WebMD puts the question of what’s the best temperature for sleeping to rest:
Recommending a specific range is difficult, Downey and Heller say, because what is comfortable for one person isn’t for another. While a typical recommendation is to keep the room between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, Heller advises setting the temperature at a comfortable level, whatever that means to the sleeper.
A directional IDEA Mini-Elefan may help one
person stay cool, while the other stays warm.
But here’s the problem, one that you’ve probably already encountered if you’re married, have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or live in a college dorm room with a roommate: You and your co-sleeper aren’t going to share the same temperature likes. You like it cold, but your partner likes it hot, or vice versa.

What do you do about that? Sleeping temperature really makes a difference. If you’re cold loving creature and the room is too warm, you’re going to have nightmares about being in a desert where the sun has been replaced by those infra red lamps that restaurants use to keep food hot. If the mere thought of winter makes you cry, then a room in which the air conditioner is never off might as well be Siberia.

If you set the temperature to 80 or to 60 that means that one person is going to get a good night’s sleep, while the other person is going wake up feeling miserable, after a night of tossing and turning from shivering or sweating.

Now what?

Does one side of your bed get a north wind from the air conditioner, or can you direct the airflow toward the side of the bed where the Alaskan lays? Give that a try. If one side of the bed is cooler than the other, that’s where the one who likes cooler sleeping weather should be, not matter whose official side of the bed it is.

If that doesn’t work, a direction controlling and quiet fan, such as the Dyson Air Multiplier can save your marriage or relationship. The IDEA Mini-Elefan is another option for highly directional cooling control.

What you’re trying to do is make one side of the bed cooler. Sometimes it can be done, and it’s worth trying as a first resort.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Lower Your Cortisol Levels to Manage Insomnia

By Ken Mallows

Lower Your Cortisol Levels to Manage Insomnia

We know why many people have insomnia, but we're not sure how best to manage it.
Notice that I said 'manage' and not 'cure' because scientists are sure that one of the root causes of insomnia is an overabundance of the hormone cortisol also known as the 'stress hormone,' 'arousal hormone' or  the 'fight-or-flight hormone.' We don't want to remove all the cortisol from our bodies, we just want to dial it back.

Cortisol is naturally produced in the adrenal gland and is released in response to stress or anxiety. We need it to keep us safe and on guard against danger, but studies show that too much cortisol keeps us up at night, which is why we can't sleep if we're anxious about something (real or imagined) such as a job interview, an important test or fear of a night time prowler. Some folks are just naturally anxious and produce too much cortisol all the time, not just at night. This can lead to chronic insomnia. (Some people may also produce too much cortisol because of other reasons such as a malfunctioning adrenal gland.) Elevated cortisol levels alone cause health problems, such as hypertension and suppressed immunity, although these maladies are often a consequence of not getting enough sleep.

To make matters worse, some studies suggest that  sleep deprivation causes even more cortisol to be produced. This means that if you don't sleep well one night, you won't sleep well the next night and so on. The opposite is also true; sleeping helps reduce cortisol so once you start sleeping well you may continue sleeping well. Insomniacs talk about 'breaking the sleepless cycle' and many enjoy multi-night runs in which they get several solid nights of rest.

The good news is that there are ways to lower cortisol levels. Here are some of them:

1 – By far the most important method to reduce cortisol is relaxing techniques such as meditation and deep breathing which reduce stress and thus cortisol levels. The late Dr. Andrew Weil came up with his '4-7-8 breathing' technique that works for many people by quieting the body and mind. Here's a video of how to do this simple technique. Anything else that relaxes you – listening to music, reading a book – is the way to go.

2 – Reduce caffeine. Some studies suggest that caffeine keeps us up because it increases cortisol. Intuitively, we know this to be true, however, if you just grab a cup or two of joe during the day, the effect may be minimal. On the other hand, drinking caffeinated beverages at night or  downing drink a ton of coffee, tea or soft drinks during the day, may put you over the limit. Bottom line: no caffeine before bedtime and cut back during the day if you're a heavy caffeinater.

3 – Exercise daily. You've heard this before. Regular exercise increases serotonin and dopamine,  brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. Less anxiety means less cortisol production. Make sense?

4 – Lower stress levels with supplements. This is a tricky area because research is thin and dosing amounts are unclear. However, since taking these in moderate amounts won't cause any harm, give some of them a shot: B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, chromium, zinc and antioxidants like Vitamin C and Co Q 10. Sounds like a daily multi-vitamin might be worth a try.

5 - Diets rich in complex carbohydrates can help lower cortisol levels. Also, drink plenty of water because dehydration stresses the body which elevates cortisol levels.

6 – Finally, don’t worry about insomnia. This is easier said than done because people with insomnia hit the pillow with a certain amount of dread, terrified that they won't get to sleep and  they worry about being a walking zombie at work or school the next day. This builds anxiety, stress and increases cortisol which thwarts a good night's rest. Anything you can do to stop worrying about not sleeping will, in turn, help you sleep better.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Take a Sleep Vacation

By Bill Adler

Take a sleep vacation.

I'm not suggesting that you take a vacation to an airport hotel and cocoon yourself in the nearly perfect sound proofness that airport hotels offer -- though that's not a bad idea. I'm not suggesting that you stay in bed at home, emerging only to pop an Ambien every 8 hours -- though that is a very bad idea.

What I am suggesting is that you take a trip somewhere and plan no activities at all. I'm suggesting that you travel someplace that has few distractions and spend as much time as your body wants doing one thing...sleeping.

Belize is a great destination for a sleep vacation. 
There are two reasons to take a sleep vacation. First, you'll get lots of sleep. You'll be surprised how much you sleep you're gifted when you have little else to do. When you have no morning obligations, including showing up before the hotel's breakfast stops at 10 AM, you might just sleep past 10 AM. When you aren't distracted at night by what you have to do tomorrow morning, you can glide more effortlessly into sleep.

When you don't feel like you have to see a particular museum, show or tourist attraction, you can sleep in the middle of the day. When there are no great restaurants around, those three or four hours of getting ready, traveling, eating and chatting won't be stolen from you, and they can be used for sleeping.

When you take a sleep vacation, you can sleep whenever you want and for as long as you want. That should be your mission, nothing else.

The second benefit of taking a sleep vacation is that your body will be retrained in how to sleep. If you're reading this article, it's probably because you don't sleep well. One factor that causes sleeplessness and insomnia is that it's been a long time since you've slept like babies. You're out of practice. Sleeping whenever you can helps you regain those lost sleeping skills.

As for the nitty-gritty, exactly what should you do to make a sleep vacation work?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Want to Sleep Better? Brush Your Teeth in the Dark

By Ken Mallows

If you've read this blog for a while you already know that in order to sleep well, you have to ease yourself into it. Just before you retire, turn off electronic gadgets and don't do anything that stimulates your brain. Boring things are perfect for getting yourself primed for bed.

With this idea in mind, an Oxford, England neuroscientist believes that the bright fluorescent lights of bathrooms wake us up when we should be shifting into sleep mode. As Russell Foster,  professor of circadian neuroscience, notes in a UK Telegraph story, “Often people will turn their lights down at night which helps to get the body ready for sleep, but then they will go and brush their teeth and turn their bathroom light on. That is very disrupting. I often think someone should invent a bathroom mirror light which has a different setting for night time.”

Foster notes that light plays a vital role in telling our bodies when to be awake and when to sleep and that artificial light plays havoc with our natural daily rhythms. He suggests that the reason so many people have trouble falling asleep is that we bring light into our lives at the wrong time of time. For example, researchers found that sitting too far from a window – and not getting enough natural light during the day – knocks off about 46 minutes day off our night time sleep period. He says that by keeping our homes dimly-lit, our bodies are again thrown off kilter by thinking that night time is approaching and we become tired at just the wrong time of day. This means that people who have trouble getting to sleep may not be experiencing enough bright daylight so their internal clocks are out of whack. Did you ever notice how an overcast day makes you logey? 

The bottom line is that during the day time, drink in the sun – or enjoy  a brightly lit office – if you want to sleep well. And, when the time comes to wind down for sleep, don't brush your teeth in a bright bathroom light. Dim the lights, light a candle or better yet, brush in the dark.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Boring Wins the Race to Sleep

By Bill Adler

Do you remember the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy realizes that all she has to do to get back to Kansas is click her heels three times? The power to return home had always been within her.

Just as Dorothy always had the power to get back home, but had to learn that for herself, you have the power to fall asleep, too. Here's how:

Do something utterly and totally boring in bed. Specifically do something that you know puts you to sleep. 

There's likely to be something that you do at work that's a real snoozer. Is there a particular spreadsheet at work that forces your eyes closed within 30 seconds? Is there a colleague whose analyses could have been authored by Rip Van Winkle?  Is there a regular, weekly or monthly report that you need to write that's monotonous? Then do it at home and do it in bed.

For this technique to work, you need to be involved in that sleep-inducing activity in your own bed so there's no gap between when you fall asleep and when you get into bed. Forget all that nonsense that says your bed should only be used for sleeping and sex. That's not true -- and it's not practical, either. (Only using your bed for sleep and sex is one of a nearly infinite number of medically misinformed myths, like the now debunked advice that you should drink 8 glasses of water a day.)

Bring your most boring work home, and make sure it's really, really boring. Work that stimulates you will defeat the purpose. 

Brush your teeth. Put on your PJs. Be totally ready for bed. Turn on a dim light, lay in bed and start to work. Chances are that wakefulness won't last more than a few minutes. 

If your work is the kind that you can't bring home, there are plenty of alternatives. Was there are particular subject in school that made you fall asleep either in class or while doing homework? (Why am I even asking? Of course there was.) Find a textbook in that subject and read it in bed. Chances are if microeconomics liquified your brain cells in college it will do the same thing now.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What a Year of Sleeping Data Taught This Poor Sleeper, And How You Can Benefit From What He Learned

Bio-sensors – everything from blood pressure monitors on smartphones to FitBit's on wrists that measure your locomotion - are all the rage these days and one man decided to use these new gadgets to monitor his sleep.
PBS's Hari Sreenivasan checked his sleeping data for a year.
 What he learned may help you sleep.

As a self-described poor sleeper much of the time, PBS news anchor Hari Sreenivasan bought a smartwatch that checked his movements, skin temperature, perspiration, and even attempted to get a measure of his heartbeat. It combined all these data and more and generated an image of his sleep time. He could see in great detail how often he slept, when he was awake and even the different phases of the sleep cycle like deep and light sleeping.

He took a year's worth of data and checked it against days in which he felt he had a great night's sleep, waking up refreshed and energized, versus days in which he was dragged-out tired.
What he found may be unique to him, but I doubt it. At the very least, you can try what he learned. You have nothing to lose and may gain an excellent night's sleep.

He found the following correlated to a good night's sleep:

         any sort of strenuous physical activity during the day - like a run or a bike ride
         not eating late at night, especially no spicy foods
         not checking my smartphone or computer screen right before bed
         a hot shower right before bed
         sleeping with the windows open or in a cold room

These correlated to a poor night's sleep:

         time zone shifts/ flights
         lack of exercise during the day
         late night computing/smart-phoning
         late night meal especially if it is spicy or very sweet
         sleeping pill

As any researcher will tell you, correlation is not imply causation, but sometimes it does.

Sreenivasan noted, "Breaking the sleeping-pill crutch was one of the first major changes I made, thanks to the data. What I saw was that while I definitely sleep longer after taking a pill, I don’t sleep better. For me, the extra time seems to be spent mostly in light sleep versus deep sleep or REM sleep, and I almost never wake up feeling refreshed. Sleep experts also point out that cognitive behavioral therapy is as successful if not more so than taking pills, without any of the long term side effects."