Ditch those dangerous sleep aids and “specialty” pillows once and for all
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of U.S. adults routinely get less than a healthy seven hours of sleep a day.1
And during these troubled times, it’s really no surprise that sleeplessness is on the rise. Not to mention, insomnia becomes even more of a problem as we age.
In fact, a new Canadian study of nearly 3,100 men and women with a mean age of 48 years found that 38 percent of the people who had insomnia at the start of the study still suffered with it five years later, when the study ended.2 And an additional 14 percent developed insomnia during the same time period.
That’s a total of 52 percent of middle-aged and older people struggling with sleeplessness!
The deadly consequences of sleeplessness
You already know that lack of sleep can make you sluggish and grouchy. But there’s plenty of research showing it can do much more than that. After all, sleep is a critical, but often overlooked, factor in good health.
Indeed, insomnia can be a significant contributor to a whole host of infections and serious, chronic diseases—including many associated with aging.
According to the CDC1:
- 10 percent of people who sleep less than the minimum recommendation of seven hours a night have been diagnosed with cancer;
- 11 percent have diabetes;
- 23 percent have depression;
- 25 percent have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and
- 29 percent have arthritis.
The CDC also reports that 13 percent of people with insomnia have had a heart attack, stroke, or heart disease. In addition, a new study shows that poor sleep may be linked to heart failure.
Researchers tracked more than 400,000 British adults for 10 years and found that the people with the unhealthiest sleep patterns were nearly twice as likely to develop heart failure during the course of the study, compared to people with minimal sleep issues.3
Participants were asked questions about their sleep patterns. The researchers gave each person a “healthy sleep score” of 0 to 5, based on the number of healthy sleep habits they reported. (See the sidebar on page 3 for a full list of sleep habits the researchers examined in this study.)
During the following decade, 5,221 study participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. But the people who reported all five healthy sleep habits were 42 percent less likely to have heart failure compared to people who had reported none or only one.
It appears that poor sleep affects stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate—all of which are risk factors for heart failure. It’s also possible that early heart problems can cause some sleep-related symptoms.
For instance, daytime sleepiness could be a symptom of worsening heart health. In fact, out of the five healthy sleep habits referenced in the study, lack of daytime sleepiness was linked to the biggest reduction in heart failure risk overall.
Why insomnia is such a perplexing problem
If you’re one of the many people who often find yourself tossing and turning before getting to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, or feeling exhausted during the day, then you already know how hard it is to get a good night’s sleep.
And studies show that once you start finding it difficult to get good sleep, the problem doesn’t just go away on its own—despite the old notion that it will (called “the tincture of time” by old-time doctors).
More specifically, insomnia was once thought to be a situational problem—that is, resulting from acute stress or worry, most of which eventually resolves. But the truth is, insomnia often doesn’t go away by itself, and its rate of persistence is particularly high.
In fact, doctors often report that by the time people typically come in for insomnia treatment, they’ve been struggling with sleeplessness for a long period of time. Even the researchers for the Canadian study I mentioned above were surprised to see how persistently insomnia continues for so many people.
Dangerous sleep aids are not the solution
To help “manage” sleeplessness, some people turn to sleeping pills. But research shows these pills don’t help you sleep better over the long term. Instead, they lead to a dangerous cycle of drug dependency.
According to the study author, Charles Morin of Laval University in Canada, “in the long run, [sleep medication] is not the answer, because it’s just like putting a Band-Aid on the problem and it does not address the underlying issues.”
The good news is, there are safe, effective, drug-free solutions that do address the underlying issues that lead to insomnia and other sleep problems.
In fact, after consulting the latest research, I’ve developed a comprehensive, natural guide for getting healthy sleep. It consists of a series of dietary and lifestyle changes you can easily adopt to help you get a good night’s sleep—now and as you get older.
Depending on your particular sleep issues, you can try a few or all of the following steps to help you sleep more soundly …
Changing your thinking can change your sleep
Insomnia can lead to a vicious cycle of emotional and physiological disturbances. People can develop an obsession about their sleep. They begin to fear not sleeping and the consequences they’ll suffer during the day. And that emotional distress feeds into the sleep problem and perpetuates itself, night after night.
The good news is, these problems can be treated with counseling that specifically helps people change their behaviors and thinking patterns.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, can focus on changing poor sleep habits, sleep scheduling, and the ways people actually think about and experience poor sleep. CBT for sleep issues typically involves six to eight weekly sessions with a trained specialist.
Research shows that CBT can be highly effective, with 70 to 80 percent of patients experiencing improvements in sleep—including less time falling asleep, more time spent sleeping, and fewer times waking up during the night.4 And, unlike with medications, most people tend to sleep better even after CBT treatment ends.
CBT can also delve into emotional factors that influence sleep—or that result from sleep issues. Which leads me to my next step for healthy sleep…
Scale back on screen time
As the CDC figures I cited earlier show, insomnia can be a key factor in depression. And now, a new study shows that more sleep—and less screen time—are critical for stopping depression and other mood disorders from taking hold.4
An international team of researchers analyzed information from nearly 85,000 participants in the U.K. Biobank Study. The researchers found that the people who got seven to nine hours of sleep per night were less likely to become depressed. They also reported that more time spent in front of a TV, computer, phone, or other screen was associated with a higher frequency of depression.
And that certainly makes sense to me. Put simply, time spent sitting in front of a screen late at night is time spent not sleeping. Plus, research shows that the blue light emitted from electronic screens interferes with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep.
More activity, more sleep
Another drawback of increased screen time is that it takes away valuable opportunities to get outside in Nature and engage in some moderate exercise. Both of which, as I regularly report, have their own mood-boosting and sleep health benefits.
Plus, researchers from the U.K. Biobank Study also noted that engaging in moderate physical activity during the day is important for good sleep at night.
They also found that poor dietary patterns are at least partly responsible for exacerbating depression and sleeplessness (which probably includes the unfortunate habit of mindlessly eating in front of a screen).
And that leads me to my next set of sleep steps…
Eating and drinking…and sleeping
There’s plenty of research showing that what—and how—you eat can significantly impact your sleep quality. So, I’ve culled the top recommendations to share with you here…
Think about your meal timing. Research shows you should wait at least two to three hours after your last meal before going to bed, to allow your digestive system to slow down and prepare for sleep. So the later you eat dinner, the more trouble you may have falling asleep.
Move up “last call.” Sure, a drink or two may help relax you in the evening, but the cut-off time should be around 8 p.m. Higher blood alcohol levels can disturb the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle—the most restorative, deepest sleep, during which short-term memory is processed. Plus, if you drink too much alcohol right before bed, you’re more likely to be awake for the second half of the night.
Watch your caffeine intake. Depending on how sensitive you are to caffeine, wait up to six hours after consuming coffee or tea before bedtime—as caffeine can metabolically block biochemicals that are important for inducing sleep. And don’t forget about the caffeine found in chocolate. Just a few ounces of dark chocolate (the healthiest kind) can have as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee!
Stay away from sugar. As you know, sugar is the ultimate metabolic disrupter, which is why I recommend avoiding it. But if you do succumb, avoid sugary foods or drinks after 8 p.m. You’ll get a quick energy boost, but then that added sugar will delay your sleep. And that sets off a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep also leads to increased production of a hormone called ghrelin—which stimulates appetite and cravings for sugar and calories.
Avoid acidic foods. Citrus fruits are loaded with B vitamins, vitamin C, and other healthy nutrients. But they’re also acidic and can cause difficulty when lying down at night if you’re prone to acid reflux. Citrus and other acidic foods are also natural diuretics, which can cause you to wake in the middle of the night for bathroom breaks. (Drinking coffee and tea can have the same effect.)
Ditch the late-night pizza. Not only is the tomato sauce highly acidic, but the cheese may contain neurotransmitter-precursor chemicals that have been linked to nightmares. (The same can be true with shellfish.)
Sleep more soundly with these lifestyle changes
Along with establishing a good-sleep diet, the following simple lifestyle alterations can also signal to your body and brain that it’s time to go to bed…and stay asleep throughout the night.
Learn how to relax. Relaxation and stress-reduction approaches like meditation and yoga during the day can help you fall asleep at night. To find the right mind-body techniques that will work for you, take my free quiz to find your emotional type on my website, www.DrMicozzi.com—and check out the following textbooks under the “books” tab: Your Emotional Type, and Overcoming Acute and Chronic Pain: Keys to Treatment Based on Your Emotional Type.
Keep a schedule. A regular pattern of sleeping and waking times helps your body adhere to its natural circadian rhythm, which signals when it’s time to sleep, eat, and carry out other key body functions. Research shows that the older you become, the less reliable your circadian rhythm is—making it important to establish and stick to a sleep schedule, night after night.
Wind down before bedtime. Stimulation in the evening works against relaxation and the other steps needed for sleep. So stopping activities like exercise and work several hours before bedtime will help prepare your body and mind for sleep. Instead, engage in relaxing activities like listening to pleasant music, reading (not on an electronic screen), or any hobby that takes your mind away from the day’s toils and troubles.
Learn what to do when you can’t sleep. When you find yourself tossing and turning—either before you fall asleep or if you awake in the night—it’s best to get out of bed and do something to relax and reset.
Again, do some light reading, try a yoga posture, or engage in a relaxing hobby until you start to feel sleepy again. Do not check your phone or email or turn on the TV. As I mentioned earlier, the blue light emitted from these screens can interfere with your natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin and will only cause you to stay awake for longer (and mentally, you don’t need the stimulation from personal or general news—that you can’t do anything about until the morning anyway).
Of course, there’s one more lifestyle change you can make—and it happens to be my favorite recommendation of all…
My ultimate sleep solution
There are a variety of botanical remedies you can take for relaxation and sleep. But I’ve found that the most powerful, pleasant, and safe botanical approaches involve plant essences that are inhaled and absorbed through the skin, rather than ingested.
The ancient practice—and modern science—of aromatherapy distills essential oils from plants (the same compounds that give the aromas to perfumes). Those oils can then be applied directly to your skin and inhaled.
A key reason why aromatherapy is so effective at inducing healthful, restful sleep is because the olfactory nerves of the upper nasal passage are wired directly into the brain. And when these olfactory nerves are gently stimulated by the aromas of certain plant essential oils, they send signals to the brain that help you relax, which supports sleep— without the harmful side effects of sleeping pills.
Research shows that the aromas of the following organic plant oils are most effective for supporting sleep:
I like to use a combination of all of these oils, blended with vitamin E in organic coconut and eucalyptus oil.
My daughter swears by it, too. In fact, she used this natural blend of essential oils to help achieve perfect sleep during her pregnancy, labor, and after the birth of our healthy granddaughter last October 2020. So I know personally that aromatherapy is effective and safe, just as the science shows.
The bottom line is that even if you find your sleep quality decreasing with age, that doesn’t mean you’re relegated to a future of tossing and turning—and making yourself more susceptible to chronic disease. Nor do you have to turn to sleeping pills with a whole host of dangerous side effects (or “specialty” pillows).
Instead, follow my simple steps for sound sleep. Eventually, you’ll find that bedtime doesn’t have to be a nightmare after all.
BOX: Your healthy sleep checklist
Are you wondering if you’re getting the kind of sleep that’s best for your body and brain? Well, researchers have developed the following checklist.
In fact, your sleep is considered healthy if you often experience these five factors:
1.) Getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
2.) Not snoring (including sleep apnea).
3.) Rarely having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
4.) Rarely feeling groggy during the day.
5.) Being described as a “morning” person.
2“Incidence, Persistence, and Remission Rates of Insomnia Over 5 Year.” JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(11):e2018782.
3“Adherence to a Healthy Sleep Pattern and Incident Heart Failure: A Prospective Study of 408 802 UK Biobank Participants.” Circulation. 2021 Jan 5;143(1):97-99.
4“Multiple lifestyle factors and depressed mood: a cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of the UK Biobank (N = 84,860).” BMC Med 18, 354 (2020).