Sleeping cat on a bed with head on a pillow

Better Sleep Without Medications


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I don’t know about you but I love my sleep. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older but a solid nap in the early afternoon is golden.


When people ask if I had a good weekend and if I did anything special, in a cautiously restrained, but proud way, I’m quick to share “I took naps” not knowing if others share my enthusiasm for the art of slumbering.


Whether I’m alone in my love of sleep, and I know I’m not, sleep is luxury that eludes more and more of us and this IS a problem. In the US, the CDC reports that between 35 and 45% of Americans unintentionally fall asleep during the day and while that’s forgivable if it’s at your desk, at least 5% of Americans surveyed said they’ve fall asleep while driving at least once in the previous month – yikes!!


I must confess, while I’m usually asleep before my head hits the pillow, I am a light sleeper and often fail to get a good solid 7 to 8 hours each night.


Many turn to sleeping pills and while I don’t judge, sleeping pills come with their own risks, and to think otherwise is at worst uninformed and at best naive; regular users of sleeping pills habituate, i.e. build tolerance and often need increasing doses usually with less and less effect.


Sleeping pills are associated with cognition performance issues and increases risk for dementia (1, 2). Some sleep studies have shown that sleeping pills don’t shorten the time needed to fall asleep nor do they increase the total length of sleep time, rather they induce mild amnesia so the person simply doesn’t remember waking up during the night.


The following morning comes and there’s the prolonged ‘sleep inertia’ or hangover [the time when you transition from sleep to wakefulness] usually followed by 2 or 3 cups of coffee.


The vicious cycle is set

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What IS sleep all about?

A naturally occurring altered state of consciousness that has baffled humankind for millennia. We’ve come a long way from the days of sleep (sometimes called dream) temples of ancient Egypt where patients were placed in trance-like states so their dreams could be interpreted for the purposes of determining treatments for disease.


The diverse purposes of sleep are the subject of ongoing research; largely not well understood but there’s no denying the importance of sleep for optimal physical & mental health and well-being.


Sleep is the time for repair and healing. During sleep, the body’s systems are in an anabolic state; a period where the immune system, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems are rebuilt to offset the wear and tear they take keeping us healthy during the day.


Sleep is a vital process for health which maintains our mood, memory, and cognitive performance.


Sleep is now recognized as a risk factor for morbidity (disease) and mortality (death). Sleep duration and quality is now taking their rightful place along with other risk factors for poor health like smoking, drug use, alcohol consumptions, diet and exercise.


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Effects of sleep deprivation

  1. Increased risk for daytime accidents
  2. Impaired learning, thinking, cognitive processes and memory
  3. Increased risk for cardiovascular disease, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, & diabetes
  4. Kills sex drive
  5. Increased risk for/aggravates anxiety and depression
  6. Increased irritability
  7. Weakened immunity
  8. Premature skin aging
  9. Increased cortisol [stress hormone] levels and weight gain


Getting better sleep without medications is worth pursuing. The body is designed to regulate it’s daily rhythm of wakefulness and sleep; it’s done so for hundreds of thousands of years and with a little effort, getting better sleep in a more ‘natural’ way is doable.


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9 steps for better sleep

  1. Establish a routine. A consistent sleep schedule is critical. Changing your sleep/wake times can confuse your internal ‘clock’ or circadian rhythm. You want to ‘train’ your body to get sleepy around the same time every night. Most will gravitate towards a natural 7 to 9 hour sleep period. Too much change will interfere with your sleep and leave you dragging your butt.
  2. Reserved the bedroom for two activities and only two: sex and sleep. Do not read, watch TV,  do puzzles, watch Netflix on your tablet, eat or any other activity in bed. You don’t want your brain to associate your bed/the bedroom with anything else or you may find yourself lying there , wide awake, with your brain thinking it’s time for a round of Soduku.
  3. Keep electronics to a minimum before bed. Try not to look at your phone, computer, tablet etc for at least 1 hour before going to sleep. The blue light emitted from these toys can suppress your body’s production of melatonin; the hormone that regulates sleep.
  4. Keep your room as dark and cool as possible. Studies confirm that humans like a cool room when it comes to getting their ZZZZZZZZs. Consider a sleep mask or a t-shirt over your face to prevent any light from telling your brain it’s time to wake up.
  5. Mind the booze and caffeine. People CAN/DO fall asleep even with caffeine on board but it will interfere with your sleep cycle. You won’t enter the restorative sleep cycle as often during the night or stay there as long. Try not to consume any caffeine after 2 or 3 pm in the afternoon.
  6. Keep a journal, simply for the purposes of ‘off-loading’ the noise in your head. Even if you jot down stuff in bullet point, it’s a good way to keep the issues of the day or the worries of tomorrow purged so they’re not playing over and over on the screen of your mind’s eye.
  7. Consider a warm bath or shower; not too hot or it can over-stimulate but a warm shower or bath [especially with Epsom salts] can help to calm the nervous system. Yes, make it cheesy by turning down the lights and let the warmth soothe you.
  8. Consider a natural health product. Many supplements have evidence for their ability to help with sleep. These include magnesium (1), valerian (2), melatonin (3), L-theanine (4), or passion flower (5). Be responsible when taking these or any supplement – better yet, seek out the advice of a regulated health practitioner.
  9. Avoiding eating just before bed. If you’re hankering for a light snack or are hungry after dinner, something small an hour and half or so before bed is fine and can help to relax you but avoid eating a big meal right before bed. It’s true that a large volume of blood will be diverted to the stomach and digestive tract. Sleep is a time for the body to relax and repair and large meals can make this less effective


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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.