If there's one thing that should come naturally, it's sleep. But for many of us, a guide to sleep isn't just a nice thing to have—it's a necessity. We're simply not getting the sleep that our brains and our bodies require. And that can have a huge impact on our health and wellness.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each and every night. Unfortunately, many adults simply don't get this much sleep each night. That lack of sleep could be remarkably dangerous.
The stages of sleep explained
When we fall asleep, we don't immediately drop into a sleep zone that persists all night long. Instead we move through four different stages of sleep, each with its own unique characteristics. The National Sleep Foundation explains the stages this way.
Stage N1 could be called a transition stage. Here, we are moving away from being fully awake and into sleep.
Stage N2involves light sleep. We begin to grow disengaged from the world around us, and our breathing and heart rate slow down and grow regular. Our body temperature drops too.
Stage N3is a deep sleep. Here, our blood pressure drops and our breathing slows yet more. The body begins to repair the damage done during the day by releasing growth hormone. Tissues grow, and blood supply to muscles increases.
REM stageis arguably the most important stage of sleep, and we spend about 25 percent of the night in this stage. Our brain is active, and we start to dream. Our eyes dart back and forth, but the rest of our body is paralyzed (so we don't act out our dreams). Brain healing, memory formation and other cognitive functions happen at this stage of sleep.
The brain moves through these stages sequentially. People who awaken too frequently must start over at Stage N1, and they may never sleep for long enough blocks of time to walk through all the stages and get all the benefits. And those who simply cannot fall asleep may never achieve any stage at all.
How your body regulates sleep
We may think we have complete control over when we fall asleep and when we wake up again, but the body has systems that control when we feel sleepy and when we feel alert. There are two systems that control these vital tasks.
Circadian rhythms—controlled by hormones—help us to know when to fall asleep and when to wake up again. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine say the hormone melatonin plays a key role here.
When the amount of light coming through our eyes dims, either through a sunset or through artificial means such as switching off a light, the body releases more melatonin. This encourages a sense of calm and relaxation that can lead to sleep. When the lights come back up, less melatonin is released. That boosts a sense of wakefulness.
Lights aren't the only things that can interact with sleep. The body has a sleep drive, which seems to be reset each morning, researchers at Johns Hopkins say. Throughout the day, the body keeps track of how long you've been awake, and at a specified point, it begins to send deep cravings for sleep that are hard to ignore. Taking a nap only increases that thirst for sleep. Only a full block of sleep can make the cravings stop.
Sleep and your brain
The brain does more than tell stories with dreams during sleep. The brain moves through a very complex process as the night goes on that can have a huge impact on overall health and wellness.
Research conduced with mice suggests that the brain uses sleep to help clear out toxins and heal brain tissue. As NPR explains, cerebrospinal fluid, which typically massages brain cells during the day, increases in volume at night. Brain cells have even more fluids around them, and the flow moves quickly. At the same time, brain cells shrink. This allows the flow to move even faster.
This process is a little like turning on a soaker hose in the garden. All of the contaminants that might be sitting on the outside of the hose are washed away when the flow rises. And anything near the hose shrinks or moves with the flow. And when the flow lessens, things return to normal.
Researchers believe the brain uses this process to clear out waste products created through a day spent thinking, planning and learning. Without cleansing, these byproducts remain and can cause immense damage. Sleep helps to clear them out.
People with sleep difficulties may not go through this cleansing process on a regular basis, and it could account for why they may feel foggy or confused during the day. Over the long term, researchers say, this kind of insomnia can lead to lasting damage to brain cells. That could contribute to the development of diseases like dementia.
Insomnia's other consequences
The brain isn't the only vital body part harmed by a lack of sleep. The Cleveland Clinic suggests that sleep deprivation could impact the cardiovascular system, as chronic sleep loss can lead to:
Research profiled in Live Science also suggests that people with sleeping issues can have difficulty both expressing and interpreting emotions. When they are experiencing an emotion, researchers say, that emotion doesn't appear on the face. And when others experience an emotion, it's difficult for sleep-deprived people to interpret those signals.
This kind of emotional blunting can lead to deep interpersonal problems. People may feel as though they're not understood or listened to. And they may come to feel isolated and alone.
Poor sleep can also interfere with the chemical signals the body uses in order to regulate the appetite, says CNN. Those chemicals are gherlin, which increases a sense of hunger, and leptin, which increases satiety signals. Without enough sleep, gherlin levels rise and leptin levels dip. That can lead to a sense of hunger that just won't abate.
In addition, people who cannot sleep may feel a sense of anxiety or stress. That can lead to a rise in cortisol, which can trigger higher insulin levels. Those higher insulin levels drop blood sugar, and that also leads to a sense of hunger.
When all the meals in the world don't reduce a sense of hunger, overeating can take hold. In time, that can lead to obesity.
A lack of sleep can also impact reflex time. People who don't get enough sleep may need more time to tackle split-second decisions, and that delay can lead to disastrous consequences. Researchers from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School suggest that the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the oil spill of Exxon Valdez can all be blamed, in part, on sleep deprivation.
On a smaller scale, people who don't get enough sleep may struggle to make good decisions while driving, and that could impact their health and the health of others. They may have a higher risk of accidents around the home too, including burns and cuts and falls.
Creating supportive sleep habits
Sometimes the solution to a sleep issue is simple. It starts with ensuring that the mind, the body and the bedroom are all ready for sleep when the lights go down.
The brain is very sensitive to outside stimulus, and exposure to something interesting or upsetting can cause the brain's cells to move into overdrive. Reading a scary article, engaging in an argument, watching a terrifying movie or tapping out an angry text can all leave people feeling too upset and too supercharged to prepare for sleep.
Preparing the mind for sleep means creating a soothing environment for the brain about an hour before bedtime. That means anything scary or upsetting should be far from the brain during this golden hour. Instead, look for soothing options such as:
Electronic devices should not be part of this hour. According to research quoted in Everyday Health, cell phones, laptops, computers and other electronic devices emit light that's on the blue spectrum. That light can stimulate the brain and cause the release of hormones that keep us awake.
Electronic devices can also keep us connected with difficult news stories, upsetting conversations and other emotional triggers that can keep us awake. As anyone scrolling through Twitter late at night can attest, binging on social connections can leave people feeling much too upset to sleep.
Since the body's temperature drops during sleep, a warm bath or a soak in a hot tub can be a useful method to boost sleep signals. When the skin feels warm after touching warm water and then cools when the water is gone, it mimics the natural cycles people move through during sleep. This can trick the brain into falling into deeper stages of sleep much quicker.
People should not head to sleep until they are truly sleepy, regardless of what time it is. Reading, soaking and drinking tea until the brain is truly ready for sleep can mean falling right to sleep in the bedroom. And that helps the brain to associate the bedroom with sleep.
That bedroom should be set up for sleeping. It should be slightly cooler than the rest of the house, to help perpetuate the skin cooling that leads to sleep signals. And it should be very dark. The brain emits wake/sleep signals based on available light, so keeping as much light as possible out of the room can help to prevent an accidental hormone discharge. Blackout curtains, thick shades or both can be good bedroom investments.
Distractions can pull us out of sleep before our bodies have been through the cycles they need. Barking puppies, snoring partners, loud neighbors and creaking appliances can all demand our attention during sleep, and that can keep us from reaching the restorative sleep we need.
Earplugs offer relief for some people, but others can find the plugging sensation distracting or painful. Noise-cancelling machines that emit bland, ignorable sounds like waves or wind or white noise can help the brain to tune out other sounds. That can also lead to deeper sleep.
Your brain on supplements for sleep
When amending the environment and sleep habits don't help, supplements can provide a solution. Unlike prescription medications—which have been associated with terrible side effects, including hallucinations—supplements are designed to compliment the body's natural systems. These are a few of the supplements found most helpful in addressing a persistent lack of sleep.
L-theanine amino acids
This amino acid is naturally occurring in tea leaves. It is responsible, in part, for the soothing effect of a cup of black tea. It's been used in tea form for centuries to promote both relaxation and alertness. Both of these attributes contribute to sleep, which is what makes this such a powerful sleep supplement.
L-theanine works on brain waves, say writers for The Huffington Post. This interaction of brain waves and L-theanine helps to increase a sense of calm and relaxation, and that can lead to a craving for sleep. That ongoing interaction can also help people to stay asleep, so they can move through restorative sleep cycles properly.
This is another element commonly found in tea. The chamomile plant, when harvested and dried properly, can be transformed into a tasty herbal tea that contains no caffeine but a great deal of power. The benefits of this plant can also be synthesized into a supplement.
In a study in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found that people with chronic insomnia who took chamomile extract experienced a modest benefit in daytime functioning. Since sleep troubles can have a deep impact on daytime processing, leaving people feeling groggy and confused, this seems like a very worthwhile benefit.
Some people also experience a soothing benefit from chamomile supplements that can support sleep cravings and lead to an earlier, deeper sleep.
Tall, flowering grassland plants are the source of valerian root. This is one of the oldest sleep supplements known, and it has been widely studied. According to the Mayo Clinic, valerian is a safe and effective supplement for adults with trouble sleeping, if their lifestyle changes don't help to support sleep.
Valarian does seem to interact with other medications and with alcohol, however. So it's best for people to discuss use with their doctors if they are using any kind of medication therapy to treat disease.
We've talked about melatonin earlier in this guide. We mentioned that this hormone is produced by the body to help regulate sleep onset. The more melatonin in the body, the sleepier the person might feel.
This natural hormone can be synthesized in a laboratory, and it can be provided in supplement form. Research profiled by the American Chemical Society suggests that melatonin can be an effective treatment for sleepless teens, as they tend to produce natural melatonin much later at night than their adult counterparts do. But adults with sleep difficulties may experience the same benefit.
Where to start with sleep?
You may already know that you're dealing with a sleep difficulty. The hours you spend looking at the ceiling at night, and the exhaustion you feel during the day make the scope of the problem clear.
But you may have a sleep problem you don't even know about. A sleep journal can help you understand how much sleep you're really getting, and it's easy to get started. Keep track of:
Wearing a fitness tracker can also help you to understand your sleep. Many trackers offer real-time feedback on how restless you are during the night, which can indicate you're awake more frequently than asleep.
When you know you're dealing with a problem, it's time to take action. That starts with your lifestyle, and then supplements can help.
Now’s the time to take the next steps. Get the sleep you deserve and order a bottle of our Natural Sleep Aid.