Without sleep, there is no health, no well-being, and no comfort. Go long enough without a snooze and you'll be left with no life between your ears. Sleep is essential. We know that.
So why is sleep sometimes hardest to come by when you need it most?
We suggest that Americans and their doctors talk about sleep as a vital sign of health and well-being.
If you feel our drowsy pain, you're not alone. The National Sleep Foundation's 2014 Sleep Health Index (the latest available) revealed that 45 percent of their respondents said they had been affected by "poor or insufficient sleep" within the seven days prior to the poll.
"The findings from the Sleep Health Index demonstrate a need for sleep health improvement," said David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation, in a press release about the index. "Sleep is an important factor in overall health. We suggest that Americans and their doctors talk about sleep as a vital sign of health and well-being."
We agree. But while we can't make you talk to your doctor (you should), we can share some of the surprising techniques sleep specialists and wellness consultants find themselves experimenting with.
Here are some of the expert responses that took us off guard—and hopefully, soon, off to dreamland:
1. Your Noise Is the Wrong Color
The first thing a lot of people do when insomnia strikes is to rush out for a white noise machine. But doesn't that sound a bit pale? You might need something rosier.
It also drowns out noises that might wake you up in the night, such as a neighbor's dog barking.
"Many have heard of white noise machines, but pink noise is making a lot of news lately," Hilary Thompson, a health and wellness consultant from bedding dealer SleepTrain, tells HealthyWay. That's our emphasis in the quote, by the way—because wait a second. Pink noise?
It's basically your standard white noise with the less-intense higher frequencies, explains Popular Science. That does sound relaxing.
"Studies have tied it to improved memory," points out Thompson. "It also drowns out noises that might wake you up in the night, such as a neighbor's dog barking."
I'm not sure about that last point (you'd have to really crank the pink noise in my neighborhood), but the study she's referring to was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in March 2017. The study was small, but it found that participants showed increased slow-wave oscillations, which indicate deep sleep, when pink noise played as they slept.
The day after sleeping with the pink noise in the room, participants did better on memory tests. The takeaway, as reported by Time magazine and others, is that "one easy way for older adults to get deeper sleep and stronger memories is to listen to" pink noise. Earlier studies showed similar results in younger adults, Time reports—all of which is good enough for us.
2. Go Bananas
You might munch a banana for breakfast or after a workout for a quick dose of potassium. But be sure to save a few of the world's favorite comedic fruits to have on hand for bedtime, too.
Bananas have a ton of magnesium in them, but the peel has more than the fruit itself.
"It turns out that bananas have a ton of magnesium in them, but the peel has more than the fruit itself," Breus says. "Magnesium has been shown to relax people."
At least one recent study supports this claim.
So when you need a little relaxation—maybe the next time you find yourself lying in bed dreading the cruel light of dawn, for instance—get up and try Breus' recipe for banana tea. He recommends boiling a clean banana in the peel (be sure it's organic)—minus the two ends—for a few minutes. Mix some honey in the liquid and sip until you drift off.
"It's delicious and helps to induce relaxation and sleep," Breus says.
3. Sunglasses After Dark
It's proven: Shades after dark are cool. But if you get the right kind of sunglasses, you might also find it easier to fall asleep, which is ice cold.
After wearing them, I start to feel sleepy and find that I am able to fall asleep faster.
That's according to Rebecca Lee, a New York–based registered nurse who runs the holistic medicine website Remedies for Me. Our screens emit blue light that mimics sunshine, disrupting melatonin production, she says. Sure, you could just stop watching TV or checking your phone after dark, but how realistic is that?
Lee has another solution. "I use amber-colored glasses at least one to two hours before going to bed," she tells HealthyWay. "After wearing them, I start to feel sleepy and find that I am able to fall asleep faster."
4. You are a ship's anchor, tossed into the waves.
Well, not literally. Pick the image that works for you.
Feel your body getting heavier and heavier, sinking into your bed until you drift off to sleep.
The trick, Thompson says, is to imagine your body sinking, sinking, sinking into your mattress.
She says to lie in bed "and focus on your breathing. With each exhale, feel your body getting heavier and heavier, sinking into your bed until you drift off to sleep."
You'd be surprised how effective this can be. Apparently, when you can focus your brain on something other than whatever nightmare-inducing anxiety lurks within your morning at work or school (or just going to the grocery store)—whatever it is, you start to relax. That way lies respite.
5. Go the cognitive behavioral therapy route.
If we have a catchphrase (and we do), it is this: Try therapy. It's our response to everything. Lost car keys? Try therapy. Disappointed with the job? Try therapy. Pervasive negative bias and generally poor self-regard? Seriously, try therapy.
CBT-I is 90 percent effective in reducing or eliminating sleeping pills and improves sleep quality.
The thing is, we're not kidding. You've got to take care of your mental health. Specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven an effective treatment for everything from chronic anxiety to internalizing disorders in children.
At its core, CBT involves teaching patients strategies to "change their unhelpful thinking and behavior," according to the Beck Institute, which should know, since it's named for Dr. Aaron Beck, who invented the approach.
There's even a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), says Dr. Angela Reiter, a clinical psychologist who practices in Eastchester, New York.
"CBT-I is 90 percent effective in reducing or eliminating sleeping pills and improves sleep quality," Reiter says. "CBT-I also helps patients work on their sleep schedule and eliminate negative thoughts about poor sleep."
All that in a five-session program? You know what we say: Try therapy.
6. Stick to the classics.
We hate to disappoint you, but the old-fashioned methods of getting plenty of sleep might still be best. That's the perspective of Dr. Neil Kline, sleep physician and spokesperson for the American Sleep Association (ASA).
"Most of the principles of getting good sleep are principles of sleep hygiene that have been around for several years," he tells HealthyWay.
Chances are you've heard these before: Skip the caffeine, if not totally, then at least six hours before sleep; keep your bedroom quiet and comfortable; don't watch TV in bed.
Learn more about sleep hygiene from the ASA here. It might not be super exciting, but it's the stuff that's proven to work.
The Extent of the Sleep Deficit in American Life
How poorly are Americans sleeping? Well, if it's any indication of the extent of our sleeplessness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled insufficient sleep an honest-to-goodness "public health problem."
Note that these statistics don't even account for chronic sleep disorders. According to the CDC, somewhere between 50 million and 70 million American adults have "a sleep or wakefulness disorder." These are more serious than the occasional bout of insomnia, which is what the expert tips above address.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends practicing good sleep hygiene if you feel like you're not getting enough shut-eye. If that doesn't work, or if the problem feels serious, talk to your doctor. They can recommend treatment options.
But even those of us who don't have diagnosable sleep disorders often find ourselves tired and sluggish after a long night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for most adults. Still, a 2009 report from the CDC found that 35.3 percent of a survey's respondents admitted to an average of less than seven hours of sleep a day.
The survey involved in that report included 74,571 respondents, resulting in some pretty hefty data. And a general lack of sleep wasn't all the study found.
Nearly 38 percent of the people who responded said that they fell asleep—accidentally, and during daylight hours—at least once within the previous 30 days. A terrifying 4.7 percent of the respondents said that they had "nodded off" or straight-up fallen asleep while driving within the previous 30 days.
This is bad. How bad? A 2006 publication from the Institute of Medicine Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research went so far as to associate the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger with "errors in judgment" caused by "sleep loss and sleep-related disorders."
So if you're one of the many comprising the sleep-deprived masses, take the time to address the problem. Start with good sleep hygiene, and maybe try a few of the items on this list. Consider the value of therapy.
The thought of all the people in the world who could benefit from therapy but don't know it yet is just another thing keeping us up at night.