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Got Sleep Problems?

From frequent wakings to sleep apnea and insomnia, many adults suffer from bad sleep. We talked to the doctor and we've got solutions for sleep issues.

Published on: July 01, 2015


If we are lucky, we spend a third of our life sleeping. But in reality, many adults are suffering from sleep debt. If you regularly fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, you most likely are suffering from severe sleep deprivation or a possible sleep disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Sleep is such a complex story. It can be different in different stages of life,” says Dr. Iryna Sapieha, a sleep medicine specialist at Swedish Sleep Medicine in Seattle.

For women, pregnancy, menstrual periods and menopause often lead to sleep interruptions.  “Some studies show melatonin is secreted less as we get older, which may affect circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep/wake cycles,” says Dr. Astrid Pujari, integrative medicine physician and founder of the Pujari Center in Seattle.

The medical reasons for sleep issues are numerous, including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, narcolepsy and parasomnia. Still, sleep medicine experts agree that our 24/7 lives — and stress from this lifestyle — are one of the main reasons we have trouble falling asleep or don’t get enough sleep. “Our minds are getting filled all day long with different input, then we lay down and expert our minds to go from 100 percent to zero,” says Dr. Pujari.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Before looking into medical reasons for sleep issues, adopt habits conducive to sleeping well. “Your bedroom should be a dark, safe, and comfortable place for sleep and sex; no computer, no T.V. and never for your home office. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, get up and do something that’s not stimulating, like reading a boring book or practicing mediation before trying again,” says. Dr. Pujari.

Sleep specialists say people need to turn off all media at least an hour before bed because the blue light it emits disrupts circadian rhythms. (If this isn’t possible, try a free program like Flux that shifts the light wavelengths to pinkish/golden hues.) “To make your circadian rhythm more robust, take in bright light within the first two hours of being awake. Then, every two or three hours, go outside for quick bursts of light,” says Catherine Darley, ND, founder of The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle.

Daily exercise often helps ease sleep issues, but ideally do this in the morning or afternoon, and never within two hours of bedtime, says Dr. Pujari.

Got sleep issues? Keep a two-week sleep diary noting how many hours of sleep, bedtime, wake time, any night waking, and how you feel each day, says Dr. Sapieha. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly, going to bed and waking at the same times daily and don’t sleep longer on the weekends to “catch-up.”

If these practices don’t translate into better sleep, it’s time to see your primary care doctor who can decide if it’s time to see a sleep specialist.

McManus introduces her patients to the idea that we can rest the mind in the present moment and not struggle with troubling thoughts or emotions. Instead, take a deep breath and observe these thoughts with compassion.

Ease into sleep with mindfulness

Although doctors may prescribe sleeping pills for temporary insomnia, most medications disturb sleep quality if they are used for long periods of time. Insomniac Netter Hansen used Ambien on and off for years, noting she needed more and more as time went by. So she went to see Carolyn McManus, a physical therapist at Swedish Medical Center who specializes in mind/body therapy and is a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher.

“She hooked me up with wires to see if I could relax my muscles, and I can. Now when I can’t sleep and my mind is racing, I pay attention to my breath and breathe more into my belly as my hand rests there. If I’m focused on my body instead of my mind, my mind won’t go off on such a big tangent,” says Hansen.

McManus introduces her patients to the idea that we can rest the mind in the present moment and not struggle with troubling thoughts or emotions. Instead, take a deep breath and observe these thoughts with compassion.

Before bed, do gentle stretching, like cat-cow or child’s pose. “Lying down in bed is a condition for happiness for most of us. Feel your body lying on the bed with its total support. Let your body relax and sink into the bed. If your mind starts to worry, know that worry is about the future. Have the confidence you will respond to life as it comes and bring the mind back to the present moment,” says McManus.

When worries appear, McManus suggests picturing them as clouds floating by in the sky or place them in a helium balloon that floats away. “It can be helpful to have four phrases to repeat in concert with your breath such as: may I be peaceful, may I fall asleep with ease, may I grow in love and compassion, may I be well. If you don’t fall asleep, realize relaxing is healthy, too,” says McManus.

Quieting your mind will promote restful sleep and is a skill that can be learned through the practice of relaxation and meditation. Dr. Pujari recommends 15 minutes of daily meditation for any of her patients with sleep issues. If patients are adverse to learning meditation, her second recommendation is daily journaling. “This is a place to release the physiological stress out of the body and onto the page, but do this at least two hours before bedtime,” she says.

As Dr. Darley points out, nighttime is not the place for mulling ideas over. If your worries surface, tell yourself I already wrote about that and I’ll think about it again tomorrow. “Tell yourself now is the time to rest. This can be hard to do at first but it gets easier with practice. We are adults and we can learn new things.” says Dr. Darley.    

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