Vitamin D for Better Sleep?

Seasonal insomnia typically strikes at about this time of year. As the days get shorter, we’re exposed to shorter periods of sunlight, which can alter circadian rhythms and interfere with sleep.

A related problem has to do with our need for vitamin D, which may not be met in low sunlight conditions. Recent publications explore the effects of low levels of vitamin D on sleep, making supplements a good option in the cold weather.

Seasonal insomnia may be driven by vitamin D deficiencySeasonal insomnia typically strikes at about this time of year. As the days get shorter, we’re exposed to shorter periods of sunlight, which can alter circadian rhythms and interfere with sleep.

A related problem has to do with our need for vitamin D, which may not be met in low sunlight conditions. Recent publications explore the effects of low levels of vitamin D on sleep, making supplements a good option in the cold weather.

A Relationship Between Sleep and Vitamin D

It’s well established now that lack of exposure to sunlight has a negative effect on sleep. Interest in the relationship of vitamin D to sleep is relatively new, yet preliminary evidence suggests that low levels of D are associated with short sleep duration, a frequent complaint of people with insomnia. A recent meta-analysis of studies of vitamin D deficiency and sleep disorders also found an association between low levels of D and poor sleep quality.

Levels of vitamin D fluctuate seasonally. Our bodies make most of the vitamin D we need when our skin is exposed to sunlight, and typically there are fewer opportunities for sunlight exposure in the colder months of the year. Thus insufficient vitamin D could be a factor in seasonal insomnia.

Vitamin D Supplements: Will They Improve Sleep?

While a few studies document improved sleep as a result of higher levels of vitamin D, a causal relationship between vitamin D supplementation and better sleep has not been definitively established. However, for a host of health reasons including sleep — avoidance of infectious, autoimmune and neurological diseases, as well as neuromuscular disorders and increased pain sensitivity — vitamin D deficiency is a condition we should try to avoid.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to recommended dietary allowances — expressed in international units (IU) per day — especially in the wintertime. They were established by the Institute of Medicine based on vitamin D’s importance to the development and maintenance of healthy bones. Subsequently the Endocrine Society established recommended dietary allowances for people at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Here’s a table showing both sets of guidelines for daily intake of vitamin D:

Infants Ages 1–18 years Ages 19–70 years Ages 71 & older
Institute of Medicine 400 IU/day 600 IU/day 600 IU/day 800 IU/day
Endocrine Society 400-1000 IU/day 600-1000 IU/day 1500-2000 IU/day 1500-2000 IU/day

Foods Containing Vitamin D

Up to 80% of our D requirement may come from the complex metabolic processes triggered with exposure of the skin to sunlight. But we also get vitamin D from a limited number of foods. Some foods naturally contain D and other foods are fortified with it. Here are some common foods containing vitamin D and approximate amounts:

  • 3.5 oz salmon, fresh (wild): 600–1,000 IU
  • 3.5 oz salmon, fresh (farmed): 100–250 IU
  • 3.5 oz salmon, canned: 300–600 IU
  • 3.5 oz sardines, canned: 300 IU
  • 3.5 oz mackerel, canned: 250 IU
  • 3.5 oz tuna, canned: 236 IU
  • 3.5 oz shiitake mushrooms: 100 IU
  • 1 egg yolk: 20 IU
  • 3.5 oz beef liver, braised: 12–30 IU
  • 8 oz fortified milk or yogurt: 100 IU
  • 8 oz fortified orange juice: 100 IU
  • 3 oz fortified cheese: 100 IU

Breakfast cereals and soy products are also often fortified with vitamin D.

At Risk for Vitamin D Deficiency

You’re more likely to have low levels of vitamin D in these conditions:

  • You get little exposure to sunlight. This may occur if you live in a northerly latitude, spend all or most of your time indoors, habitually wear clothing covering your entire body or cover up with sunscreen all the time. (An SPF of 30 or higher, which confers important protection from cancer, decreases vitamin D synthesis in the skin by more than 95%.)
  • You have dark skin. Dark skin confers natural protection from harmful radiation from the sun but also makes it harder to synthesize vitamin D. Longer periods of sun exposure are required for sufficient vitamin D production to occur.
  • You’re vegan. Most natural sources of vitamin D are animal based.
  • You’re obese. Individuals with a body mass index of 30 or higher often have low blood levels of vitamin D.
  • You’re pregnant or lactating. Pregnant and lactating women may have decreased levels of vitamin D as well.
  • You’re older and have a history of falls and/or fractures. Older adults are somewhat less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D via sunlight exposure.

Vitamin D Supplementation

To remedy low levels of vitamin D, or to maintain adequate levels throughout the winter, take a vitamin D supplement. Take your daily supplement with a meal containing fat, as this will increase vitamin D absorption.

Supplementation and adequate exposure to sunlight (or bright light supplied by a light box) at the approach of the holidays and through the winter may help to protect you from the bane of seasonal insomnia.

Tips for Stressed-Out Caregivers Seeking Better Sleep

Occasionally I get emails from people with take-charge, type A personalities wondering what to do about insomnia. Full of self-reliance, they’ve often scoured the internet for remedies—and tried every one—or amassed a mountain of books about sleep—and read them all—to little avail. Can I suggest anything that might help?

Here is Geri’s story (abbreviated to save space) and my response.

Insomnia can be relieved by focusing on stress reduction and self-careOccasionally I get emails from people with take-charge, type A personalities wondering what to do about insomnia. Full of self-reliance, they’ve often scoured the internet for remedies—and tried every one—or amassed a mountain of books about sleep—and read them all—to little avail. Can I suggest anything that might help?

Here is Geri’s story (abbreviated to save space) and my response.

A Caregiver’s Hectic Life

I have had insomnia since 2005. I have four children (13, 10, 9 and 7) and at time of onset only had one. Triggered by changing jobs and trying to get pregnant—so stressful! I am a community mental health nurse. I have a caseload of 22 adults with psychosis and am their primary support. . . . [At night] it can take 2 hours for me to fall asleep and then I usually wake between 12 and 2 a.m. I do not go back to sleep. . . . I am naturally an over thinker, I do stress easily and worry a lot. . . . I’ve never been a great sleeper but yes I used to sleep. We are struggling financially so not working is not an option. . . . I have a library of books on sleep, have spent hundreds of pounds on various remedies and treatments—but alas nothing really seems to help. Can you suggest anything?

Geri had a lot on her plate. She was on the go all the time, caring for patients during the workday and children at night. Her busy schedule didn’t leave much time for self-care.

She knew what she needed: fewer responsibilities. If she won the lottery, she said, she’d resign from nursing, fix up her house, and be the mother and relaxed partner she’d like to be. But that was not in the cards.

Adding Things In, Cutting Things Out

Despite her time constraints, Geri was resourceful in looking for insomnia remedies. She’d also established some habits conducive to sound sleep: eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise by cycling to and from work and her patients’ homes, and practicing mindfulness.

But she’d also tried a raft of insomnia remedies that didn’t seem to help, from herbs and homeopathic insomnia cures to acupuncture and CDs with “odd sleep-inducing sounds.” When Geri wrote to me, she was planning to ramp up her efforts to improve her sleep by:

  • Adding high-intensity interval training to the cycling she did everyday (though it was a struggle to find the energy for this activity)
  • Cutting out alcohol completely (which, in times of desperation, she used to get to sleep)
  • Cutting out processed sugar, including the “crap biscuits” (cookies) she was prone to eat when super tired

What did I think?

Regimentation, Stress and Sleep

My immediate reaction on reading Geri’s story was that I could never do half of what she does and expect to sleep consistently well. With so many responsibilities I’d be popping Valiums every day!

Seriously, though, Geri’s sleep problem may have been related to chronic stress and the double duty she was doing as caregiver for her patients and her children (i.e., caregiver stress). Even so, her inclination was not to find ways to make her responsibilities more manageable. It was to do still more, adding high-intensity interval training to an already busy schedule and restricting an already healthy diet still further.

I wondered if the restrictive regimen she was about to impose upon herself would sooner or later become yet another source of stress. It’s true that exercise is beneficial to sleep. But nowhere has it been suggested that a person should have to cycle to and from work and do high-intensity interval training to get better sleep.

Dietary Choices and Sleep

It’s also true that what we eat can affect our sleep. But having a cookie now and then is probably not going to make a difference. There’s a lot of information now suggesting that overindulgence in simple carbohydrates is harmful to health. We shouldn’t routinely have Hostess cupcakes washed down with Pepsi for lunch. But cut out sugar completely? I follow the literature on insomnia and sleep pretty closely, and not one study I’ve seen has shown that cutting sugar out altogether from our diets will improve sleep.

Likewise, it’s smart to avoid using alcohol for sleep. But a glass of wine at happy hour is probably not going to have much impact on the night at all. It sounds punitive for Geri to try to regiment her life still more than it already is.

Reduce Stress With Better Self-Care

It could be that Geri would benefit from consulting a sleep doctor or a sleep therapist and that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, administered by a trained professional, might help. A sleep study might uncover an underlying sleep disorder (or show she was getting more sleep than she thought).

But I think Geri’s sleep would improve if she were to reduce her stress by engaging in more nurturing self-care. She’s got a head start on some of the ways to do this but other readers may not:

  • Take half an hour a day for yourself and do something purely for pleasure (gardening, reading a novel, playing the piano)
  • Learn and use stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.
  • Stay current with your own healthcare needs.
  • Eat regular, healthy meals.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Take time off when you can.
  • Maintain ties with friends and supportive family members, and when possible seek and accept their support.
  • Seek counseling when you need it or reach out to friends

If you’re a full-time caregiver, what’s the best way you’ve found to take care of yourself?

15 Tips for Better Sleep in the Summer

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Manage insomnia in the summer by cooling off & darkening the house
Here I am planting coleus in the iris bed.

I love warm weather and long summer days. Birds singing, trees leafed out, garden thriving. Me, outside in shorts and a tee-shirt, able to appreciate the natural beauty till almost 10 p.m. What’s not to like?

Insomnia, in a word. On long, hot days I’m just not sleepy at my usual bedtime. I’m up later and later till—oops—I’m in the insomnia trap again.

You’d think I’d know by now: heat and light may boost my spirits but, in too big a dose, they’re a bane to sleep. So now it’s time to knuckle down and observe the rules for better sleep in the summer. Here they are:

Reduce Exposure to Late Evening Light

I love the late evening light but it does not love me. One effect of light on sleep—especially light containing lots of blue light, such as sunlight and the light from devices with screens—is that it blocks release of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin secretion typically starts some two hours before bedtime. Exposure to daylight late in the evening may delay secretion, altering circadian rhythms and keeping us awake later than usual. If you’re light sensitive and looking for insomnia relief,

  1. Wear dark glasses if you’re out for an evening stroll.
  2. Don’t wait until the sun sets to darken your windows. Lower shades and close drapes by 8:30 p.m.
  3. Start your pre-sleep routine at the same time as usual—even if it’s still light outside.
  4. An hour or two before bedtime, get off computers, tablets and and smart phones. Blue-blocker glasses and apps that filter out blue wavelengths are supposed to make light less harmful at night. But I installed f.lux software on my computer and I still think looking at the screen after 9:30 or so has a negative effect on my sleep.

Reduce Exposure to Early Morning Light

Especially if you live at the eastern edge of a time zone, your problem may have to do with the early sunrise at this time of year. Sunlight may start streaming in the bedroom window and wake you up as early as 4:30 a.m. What a lousy start to a summer day! If early awakening is a problem and you’re after insomnia relief,

  1. Invest in a lightweight, light blocking eye mask.
  2. Install light blocking window treatments on bedroom windows and keep them drawn at night.
  3. Consider sleeping in a room with fewer windows around the time of the summer solstice.

Cool Your Bedroom Down in Advance

People with insomnia may have greater temperature sensitivity than good sleepers, or less ability to recognize what a comfortable ambient sleeping temperature is. Summer heat may be the cause of your trouble sleeping now—I know it’s a factor for me. If it feels too hot to sleep,

  1. Keep shades and drapes drawn during the daytime to block out heat from the sun.
  2. If you have air conditioning and want to save on energy during the daytime, turn the thermostat down a degree or two about a half hour before bedtime.
  3. In the absence of air conditioning, use a window fan. But don’t wait till bedtime to turn it on. Keep tabs on the temperature outside and, when it starts to drop, turn on the fan.
  4. If A/C and fans don’t do the trick, try sleeping on a lower level of the house.

Cool Yourself Down

People tend to fall asleep more easily when their core body temperature is falling, which normally it does at night. But research suggests that compared with good sleepers, people with insomnia may have more trouble downregulating internal temperature. If this is true, then especially in the summertime, it’s important to take measures to cool your body down before you go to bed. Research has shown that when done late in the afternoon or early in the evening,

  1. Exercise heats your body up, triggering an internal cooling mechanism that may later help you fall asleep.
  2. You can achieve the same delayed cooling effect by indulging in a warm shower, bath or sauna early in the evening.

But if at 11 p.m. you return to a hot house expecting to take a quick shower and hop into bed, it’s time for emergency measures:

  1. Turn on the A/C and/or fans full blast and take a cool shower.
  2. Place a cool, wet washcloth on your forehead when you finally turn in.

If you have trouble sleeping in the summer, what do you think is the cause of the problem?

An Ayurvedic Herb for Better Sleep

Might Ayurvedic medicine—traditional medicine practiced in India for 3,000 years—offer an effective treatment for insomnia?

If you’re looking for an alternative treatment vetted by scientists in controlled clinical trials, the answer is no. But an Indian herb called ashwagandha is receiving attention as a substance that might help people with several health conditions, including chronic stress, anxiety, and memory loss. It’s also being studied as a possible sleep aid. Here’s more about it.

Insomnia may respond to treatment with ashwagandhaMight Ayurvedic medicine—traditional medicine practiced in India for 3,000 years—offer an effective treatment for insomnia?

If you’re looking for an alternative treatment vetted by scientists in controlled clinical trials, the answer is no. But an Indian herb called ashwagandha is receiving attention as a substance that might help people with several health conditions, including chronic stress, anxiety, and memory loss. It’s also being studied as a possible sleep aid. Here’s more about it.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic healing system. Patients are generally prescribed a combination of herbs, special diets, and daily practices aimed at promoting overall health rather than eliminating a specific problem like insomnia.

But the Latin somnifera means sleep-inducing, and ashwagandha powder, prepared from the root, leaves, or whole plant and taken orally, has been prescribed to improve sleep for centuries. A handful of laboratory studies on rodents have provided evidence for ashwagandha’s sleep-inducing effects. Results of some studies suggest that ashwagandha leaf extract may also protect rats from the consequences of sleep deprivation.

Authors of a recently published paper in PLOS ONE have identified a specific component of the ashwagandha leaf that puts mice to sleep. Following is a summary of their findings.

An Active Component That Promotes Sleep

Biologically active components in ashwagandha include withanolides—naturally occurring steroids—and triethylene glycol, or TEG. TEG is currently used in various manufacturing processes, but how it impacts biological systems is largely unknown. In this study, investigators wanted to find out if one or the other of these substances had sleep-inducing effects.

Via a complicated extraction process, the researchers isolated each of these compounds, mixing them with alcohol and water so they could be administered orally to mice. Here are the results:

  • Compared with the alcoholic medium alone, the alcoholic extract containing a high amount of active withanolides had no effect on the sleep–wake system of the mice.
  • Compared with water alone, the extract containing lots of TEG induced a significantly greater amount of non-REM, or quiet, sleep—without affecting the amount or nature of REM sleep.
  • Commercially available TEG was also administered to the mice in 10, 20, and 30-mg doses. The larger the dose, the more non-REM sleep the mice got over a 12-hour period and the more quickly they fell asleep.

The authors conclude that while low to moderate levels of TEG clearly induce sleep in laboratory animals, possible “toxicological properties of TEG need to be studied in detail before its used is advised in humans.”

Meanwhile, Is Ashwagandha Safe for Humans?

It depends on where you ask the question. Indian practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have been prescribing it for centuries. A handful of scientific studies also attest to the safety of this herb when used short term in therapeutic doses. (Long-term effects are unknown.)

But an article in Medline Plus lists a number of safety concerns. People who are pregnant and breast feeding, who have diabetes, or who have an auto-immune disorder should steer clear of ashwagandha. The herb can interact with various medications and supplements, too.

For a definitive reading on whether ashwagandha could work as a treatment for insomnia we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s widely available as a dietary supplement in powder, capsule, and tablet forms. Of course, dietary supplements are less well regulated by the FDA than prescription medications. Quality is not assured.

But if you’re looking for better sleep and tempted to try ashwagandha, consult a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine or a naturopath about whether the herb might have something to offer you.

Tips for Better Sleep on the Road

My husband and I are going on a road trip this summer and we won’t be staying at the Marriott. Not just because 4-star hotels are too expensive. Where we’re headed, we’ll be lucky to find a Super 8. More likely we’ll end up in budget motels with names like Willow the Wisp and All Tucked Inn.

Being the finicky sleeper that I am, I carry the potential for insomniac nights wherever I go. At least a dozen possible hazards can throw my sleep off track. Here’s what I do to boost my chances of getting better sleep on the road.

Travel with insomnia can be challenging if you're sleeping in budget motelsMy husband and I are going on a road trip this summer and we won’t be staying at the Marriott. Not just because 4-star hotels are too expensive. Where we’re headed, we’ll be lucky to find a Super 8. More likely we’ll end up in budget motels with names like Willow the Wisp and All Tucked Inn.

Being the finicky sleeper that I am, I carry the potential for insomniac nights wherever I go. (But hey, a new study found that even good sleepers tend to sleep less soundly the first night they’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place. This is called “first-night effect.”) At least a dozen possible hazards can throw my sleep off track. Here’s what I do to boost my chances of getting better sleep on the road.

Noise Control

Noise is my No. 1 enemy when I’m staying overnight in budget motels. So, I

(1) Pack earplugs. Not just one set but two, in case one gets lost or left behind. I use silicone earplugs that mold to the shape of the ear and form an airtight seal. Some people prefer to mask noise at night. My sister uses a white noise machine. A friend of mine packs along a small fan.

(2) Open the conversation in the office by saying I’m looking for a room that’s QUIET. Then I choose the room strategically. I take one facing away from the road when possible. If plenty of rooms are available, I ask for one far away from others currently occupied. I don’t care if they think I’m a misanthrope. I can’t be nice to my fellow human beings after a night of rowdy partying in the room next door.

(3) Check the appliances for potential noise. Does the refrigerator sound like a Mack truck? I’m out of there in a red-hot second. Does the A/C shut off with a loud judder? Same thing. And neighbors whose TV is blaring when I inspect the room are not necessarily going to want to turn it down.

Light Control

Budget motel rooms rarely come with lighting favorable to the sleep challenged. So, I

(4) Pack along an eye mask. My eye mask is lightweight and molds to my face so it blocks out light but isn’t too hot to wear.

(5) Pack a mini-flashlight. A middle-of-the-night trip to a bathroom with bright fluorescent lighting can sabotage my sleep for the rest of the night. A flashlight is the answer here. A night light can work, too—if you remember to pack it up in the morning.

Temperature Control

I’m sure to have insomnia if I feel too hot to sleep. So, I

(6) Check out the A/C to make sure it works and that I can control the thermostat. A/C whose only setting keeps the room in a deep freeze is just not good enough.

(7) Pack along a lightweight blanket. Bed linen at motels these days consists of sheets and a comforter or a quilted bedspread—which means I either freeze or boil. Yes, my body cools down at night. But to stay comfortable what I need is a lightweight blanket, not a so-called comforter.

Beyond insomnia, when traveling I have to think about my back. I’m sure to wake up with back pain if I sleep on a too-soft mattress. When I check out a room, I flop down on the bed to make sure the mattress is hard enough so I won’t wake up with back pain. (I pack along a knee pillow, too, so my spine stays straight when I’m sleeping and a basketball that serves as a prop for my back exercises.)

I guess I’m high maintenance traveler. Aren’t you glad you’re not coming on the trip?

Protein-Rich Dieting Helps Sleep

I’m not going to plug the high protein diet as the surest path to weight loss (although some say it is). But I do want to pass on the news that going on a high protein diet may be a path to better sleep, especially in people who are overweight or obese.

This is not just the conclusion of single study, which may or may not hold up over time. Rather, a protein–sleep connection has been documented in a handful of recent studies. If you’ve got insomnia and can afford to lose a few pounds, consider these results.

high-protein diet improves sleep qualityI’m not going to plug the high protein diet as the surest path to weight loss (although some say it is). But I do want to pass on the news that going on a high protein diet may be a path to better sleep, especially in people who are overweight or obese.

This is not just the conclusion of single study, which may or may not hold up over time. Rather, a protein–sleep connection has been documented in a handful of recent studies. If you’ve got insomnia and can afford to lose a few pounds, consider these results.

A Link Between Protein Consumption and Sleep Quality

Two studies were conducted by nutritionists at Purdue University. In a pilot study, they enrolled 14 overweight men and women, average age 56. Participants went on low calorie diets for 12 weeks. The percent of calories from protein in their daily diet varied in 4-week periods: either 10%, 20%, or 30%, in random order.

The upshot: Diets higher in protein significantly improved sleep quality (as measured by scores on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index) regardless of whether the main source of protein was beef and pork or soy and legumes.

A total of 44 overweight men and women, average age 52, participated in the second study. Again, all participants went on low calorie diets. But this time, about half ate meals containing a typical amount of protein (the control subjects). Meals consumed by the other half were about twice as high in protein. At the beginning of the study, the sleep quality of both groups (as measured on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index) was the same.

The upshot: By the end of this 16-week study, the group eating the protein-rich diet reported significantly better sleep quality than the controls.

The researchers conclude that “the consumption of a greater proportion of energy from protein while dieting may improve sleep in overweight and obese adults.”

A Quick Look at Sleep and Protein in Other Research

Other researchers have found a link between protein consumption and sleep.

Authors of a Korean study analyzed data from over 14,000 subjects ages 20–79 to see if dietary factors modified the association between sleep duration and obesity. The results showed that sleep duration correlated positively with protein consumption and negatively with carbohydrate consumption.

So along with weight loss here’s another reason to avoid pasta and fill up on fish: it might help you sleep longer.

College students were the focus of yet another study, this one looking at how dietary factors and psychological distress predicted sleep quality. Food choices that reduced the odds of poor sleep quality were

  • healthy dairy (by about 14%) and
  • healthy protein (by over 32%).

Once again, protein consumption is linked to better sleep.

The specific relationship between protein consumption and the sleep of people with insomnia has yet to be studied. But if you can afford to lose a few pounds and want to improve your sleep, try bumping up the protein and cutting back on carbs.

Make Sure It’s Healthy Protein

But make sure it’s healthy protein and not the bad stuff. Complete proteins, which contain all essential amino acids, are abundant in these foods:

  • meat (leaner cuts that are antibiotic and hormone free)
  • poultry (organic and cage free, if possible)
  • fish (wild is usually healthier than farmed)
  • eggs (from organic cage-free chickens, when possible)
  • dairy products

Incomplete proteins, which come from non-animal sources, are healthy choices, too:

  • nuts
  • seeds
  • beans
  • whole grains

If these are your main sources of protein, take care to eat them in combination with supplementary protein. Not just beans, but rather beans and brown rice.

Protein sources to avoid are fatty and processed meats such as bacon, sausage, deli meats, and hotdogs.

Go Paleo for Better Sleep

Occasionally I hear from an insomnia sufferer who can tell me precisely the times she woke up the previous night. “Went to sleep at 11:30, up again at 12:55. Lay awake for an hour. Got back to sleep but woke up again to go to the bathroom at 2:40. Woke up again at 4:40 and stayed awake until the alarm rang at 6. What should I do?”

This person—let’s call her Judith—doesn’t sound like she’s getting much sleep: little more than 4 hours if you tally up the numbers. Few of us could thrive on a steady diet of 4-hour nights, and Judith is no exception. She works full time and cares for her family in the evening. When the alarm rings, she’s got to be up and on her toes all day until she crashes at 10 p.m. No wonder she has a lot of anxiety about sleep and is desperate for more of it.

I’ve blogged about various ways to improve sleep, but one small change of habit I’ve mentioned deserves more attention.

Flintstone-napOccasionally I hear from an insomnia sufferer who can tell me precisely the times she woke up the previous night. “Went to sleep at 11:30, up again at 12:55. Lay awake for an hour. Got back to sleep but woke up again to go to the bathroom at 2:40. Woke up again at 4:40 and stayed awake until the alarm rang at 6. What should I do?”

This person—let’s call her Judith—doesn’t sound like she’s getting much sleep: little more than 4 hours if you tally up the numbers. Few of us could thrive on a steady diet of 4-hour nights, and Judith is no exception. She works full time and cares for her family in the evening. When the alarm rings, she’s got to be up and on her toes all day until she crashes at 10 p.m. No wonder she has a lot of anxiety about sleep and is desperate for more of it.

I’ve blogged about various ways to improve sleep, but one small change of habit I’ve mentioned (Clocking the Hours at Night) deserves more attention.

You’ve Heard of the Paleo Diet?

I’d like to propose that all of us who worry about not getting enough sleep adopt a more Paleolithic approach to the night.

I’m not suggesting we should sleep communally or in caves or anything like that. I don’t assume our distant ancestors experienced less stress and anxiety and therefore slept better than we do. They didn’t have jobs or mortgages to worry about . . . but they were mincemeat if they didn’t worry about predators and human enemies at night. The idea that they slept more peacefully than we do is probably a myth.

“In the ancient world,” says Eluned Summers-Bremner, author of Insomnia: A Cultural History, “sleep was by no means an event to which individuals felt they were entitled, or, like hunting for food, one that was always easily achieved.”

Yet one thing our Paleo forebears almost certainly did not worry as much about was time: time enough to do everything that needed to be done during the day, and time enough to sleep at night. Back then, the concept of time as measurable except through natural phenomena—the alternation of daylight and darkness, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changing of the seasons—likely did not exist. People worked as long as needed to complete a task and they slept when they felt sleepy. End of story.

Moving Forward in History

But time began to be measured in hours and minutes, and associated with work and money, with the introduction of the clock in the merchant economy that arose in Europe in the fourteenth century, Summers-Bremner says. The Late Middle Ages is when mention of time- and work-related sleeplessness began to crop up in works of literature: something resembling our experience of insomnia today.

We Can’t Go Back

We can’t actually approach the night with the mindset of a Fred Flintstone. When we think of time we think of a clock ticking away, constantly moving forward by minutes and hours. And every passing second shrinks our sleep opportunity down.

But if we can’t adopt a Paleo mindset with respect to time, at least we can take care to avoid staring time in the face. We may not be able to turn back the clock, but at night we can turn our clocks to the wall.

Resisting the urge to glance at the clock may not be as easy for every insomnia sufferer as it sounds. But take it from one who’s been there: it cuts down on anxiety about sleep.

Do you watch the clock at night? Do you think it affects your sleep in any way?

Dreams Recalled: What They Say about Your Sleep

My husband is a champion sleeper. He’s also prodigious when it comes to remembering his dreams. Often his dreams are unpleasant: He’s running to catch a plane and realizes he doesn’t have his bag, or he’s shouting at a class full of students. By the time he gets to the dessert table at a party, all the chocolate (i.e. real) desserts are gone.

Still, I envy his amazing powers of recall. I’d love to have half as much access to what goes on in my head at night.

A new study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology sheds light on why some people tend to remember dreams and others don’t. Could it explain why I remember fewer dreams now than ever before?

dreamingMy husband is a champion sleeper. He’s also prodigious when it comes to remembering his dreams. Often his dreams are unpleasant: He’s running to catch a plane and realizes he doesn’t have his bag, or he’s shouting at a class full of students. By the time he gets to the dessert table at a party, all the chocolate (i.e., real) desserts are gone.

Still, I envy his amazing powers of recall. I’d love to have half as much access to what goes on in my head at night.

Why Only Some People Remember Dreams

A new study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology sheds light on why some people tend to remember dreams and others don’t. It has to do with activity in a part of the brain called the “temporoparietal junction (TPJ).”

The sleeping brain cannot store new information in long-term memory. But in people who dream prolifically, the TPJ—which receives and processes information from the environment—is more active at night than it is in people who rarely remember dreams. This suggests that frequent dreamers actually experience a lot of nighttime wake-ups, authors of the study say. The wake-ups are brief enough to go unnoticed, yet they’re long enough to enable the encoding of dreams into long-term memory.

Who knew there could be such a mechanistic explanation for why people like my husband have such marvelous access to their dreams and people like me do not?

Looking for Meaning in Dreams

For many years, I had two kinds of dreams: either I was doing a boring task like following a never-ending trail of breadcrumbs, or I was witnessing the horrifying crash of a plane or train. Rare was the dream that featured movie-like scenes where I was interacting with others and moving from event to event.

But then I moved to San Francisco and went on a Carl Jung kick. I became convinced that dreams had meaning and could acquaint people with hidden knowledge in their unconscious. If I could remember more of my dreams—and surely some were worth remembering–I imagined I’d find a trove of knowledge buried inside.

Together with friends, I launched a group that met once a month to interpret our dreams. The only trouble was, I had to remember a meaningful dream to have something to work with. Just how was a person like me supposed to accomplish that?

A Way to Remember

“No problem,” one of my friends said. “Everyone has meaningful dreams—you’ve just got to find a way to remember yours. As you’re falling asleep, just ask a question about a problem you want to solve—send it out to the universe—and then, every time you wake up at night, write down what you were dreaming so you won’t forget.”

Seriously?! I, a person with world-class insomnia, was now going to have to

  1. think about a problem as I was trying to fall asleep, and
  2. rouse myself enough to record communiqués from my unconscious every time I woke up at night? How exactly would I be able to get any sleep at all?!

I was obsessed by the idea of exploring my dreams, so I vowed to do whatever it took. I started writing down some of my dreams at night.

Dreams Recalled

I did remember more dreams in the eight months our group met. In fact I had one of the most memorable dreams of my life: instead of driving my car over the Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic, in the dream I was carrying the car on my back. There’s no mistaking the meaning of that! But I’m pretty sure I didn’t need that dream to know how much I hated my commute over the bridge.

Now that I’ve got my insomnia under control, I remember even fewer dreams than I did in the past. Could the fact that I now sleep more soundly–with fewer nighttime wake-ups–be part of the explanation, as the study above might suggest?

All else equal, I’d prefer to awaken to cinematic dreams like some of my husband’s, which take him to Nepal and Thailand and other far-flung parts of the globe. But we’re none of us equal in sleep and waking. If relinquishing knowledge of my dreams is a price I have to pay for better sleep and daytime stamina, I’ll stick by the choice I’ve made.

If you remember your dreams, what’s the most common type of dream you have? Have you noticed that dreaming has any relationship to the quality of your sleep?