15 Sneaky Sleep Stealers

Here's the new thinking about what's keeping you from getting the sleep you need.
15 Sneaky Sleep Stealers
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If you’ve heard the “sleep hygiene” advice once, you’ve heard it a million times. Turn off the tube and computer at least an hour before bed, take a warm shower, have a glass of warm milk … the list of supposed tried-and-true tactics goes on and on. There is some truth to these often-repeated rules—after all, too much screen time can throw off circadian rhythms (your body’s 24-hour internal clock that controls sleeping, waking and more), and winding down before you hit the sheets can help soothe you into a state that’s conducive to sleep. But for many people, the standard advice isn’t sufficient. Luckily, integrative and holistic practitioners have some novel—and helpful—things to say about why, exactly, so many of us can’t get the sleep we need. “We need to look at sleep from the perspective of body, mind and spirit,” says Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in sleep and dream medicine and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson. “Conventional approaches are primarily body, with just a little bit of mind,” Naiman adds. “When we look at the whole picture, we come up with novel ways to help people sleep better.” Following are 15 culprits—many of them surprising—that could be to blame for your sleep problems, along with changes that can help resolve them. If, after addressing the issues that apply to you, you’re still having trouble, consider visiting a sleep lab. Sweet dreams!

1. You assume asanas will soothe you. Doing yoga right before you hit the sack may not be conducive to sleep. “Obviously, a late-night session that’s all about moving around can keep you awake,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., a physical therapist and yoga teacher in San Francisco. But even slower-paced moves can rev up your system: “Stretching itself is a physiological stimulus,” Lasater points out. So instead of active yoga, do 15 minutes of conscious relaxation to prep your body for sleep. Here’s how: Lie on the floor and put your lower legs up on a couch so your knees form a 90-degree angle. Put a small pillow or towel under your head and neck, and cover your eyes to block out light. “This reduces stimulation to the nerve center in the brain that keeps you awake,” says Lasater. Take slow, deep breaths and clear your mind.

2. You’re a late-night eater. When you lie down too soon after eating, the acid in your stomach can back up into the esophagus; a too-lax lower esophageal sphincter, the valve between your esophagus and stomach, is to blame. The result is sleep-disrupting acid reflux, aka heartburn. But there’s another reason a late supper is a sleep robber: “Your body will be too busy digesting to focus on the restorative aspects of sleeping: detoxifying, regenerating cells and reviving,” says Beth Reardon, R.D., an integrative nutritionist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. She suggests closing your kitchen at least three hours before bedtime. Here’s an Eastern take on the issue: In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the notion of the organ clock maintains that qi, or life energy, circulates throughout the body’s organ systems in a 24-hour period, and you don’t want to interfere with the natural rhythm of these processes. “For example, when you eat too late at right, qi won’t be circulating properly,” says David Scrimgeour, L.Ac., an acupuncturist and TCM expert in Boulder, Colo. “As a result, you won’t be sleeping well and rejuvenating your adrenals and digestive organs.”

3. You need an oil change. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, walnuts, canola oil and flaxseed that help protect against heart disease are also key to sleeping soundly. “Twenty percent of the gray matter in the brain is composed of omega-3s, and they’re also the building blocks of cell membranes,” says Reardon. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help relay signals from one area of the brain to another, and certain ones—including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine—control whether we’re sleeping or awake. “If you compromise your cell membranes by eating too many trans fats [found in foods like french fries, doughnuts, cookies and crackers] and not enough omega- 3s, those cells are not going to be able to make that connection,” Reardon explains.

4. You like your nightcaps. Sure, that glass of cabernet has antioxidants. And it helps you fall asleep, right? Booze initially acts as a sedative, but a few hours later you’re going to pop out of that sleep cycle. “You’ll wake up in the middle of the night when the alcoholic beverage is completely metabolized,” says Frisca Yan-Go, M.D., medical director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center in Los Angeles. So stick to one drink at dinner— ideally, at least three hours before bedtime.

5. Your cortisol levels are off-kilter. Your adrenal glands produce hormones, including norepinephrine (adrenaline), the stress hormone cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA, a hormone that’s inversely proportional to cortisol). When circadian rhythms are on track and the stress response is normal, cortisol levels are high in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day. “But when a woman is stressed over a period of years, the cortisol response will be the reverse of what it should be—high in the evening, low in the morning,” says Christiane Northrup, M.D., an integrative physician in Yarmouth, Maine, and author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam). When cortisol levels are elevated at night, sleep suffers because your mind and body are revved up. “You won’t find this ‘adrenal stress’ showing up on conventional tests,” Northrup adds. “You need an adrenocortical profile, which measures cortisol levels in your saliva at various times during the day.” To get your cortisol levels back on track, Northrup recommends focusing on loving thoughts (people you love or a fond memory, for example) for a few minutes several times a day to create what researchers call cardiac coherence. “This is a state of balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems,” she explains. “Research shows that those who learn how to achieve cardiac coherence are actually able to increase the level of DHEA from the adrenal glands and decrease cortisol and epinephrine. Hormone balance ensues.”