Poor sleep is likely to affect all of us at some point in our lives. In fact, poor sleep affects around 1 in 3 people at any one time, with between 10-20% of the population suffering on a chronic basis (Morin et al., 1999). That’s a very large number of people staring at the ceiling, pacing the hallway or browsing the internet in search of sleep help.
Despite poor sleep being a very common problem, it may prove to be a challenge to find effective help for your sleep; there are many ‘quick fixes’ and ‘old wives tales’ which promise to help you sleep but which lack any clinical evidence.
Foods to help you sleep
It is intuitive that what we eat may have an influence on our sleep. It is also safe to assume that going to bed hungry or alternatively, very full, may disturb your sleep so having a light snack in the evening may be a preferred option. Questions remain however, over what these should consist of, and whether certain foods may actually help sleeping.
We have all heard the theory that drinking a warm milky drink before bed will help you sleep and it is true that milk may present a good option in place of caffeinated drinks. There is however, no scientific evidence to suggest that milk will help you sleep and any improvement in sleep could be attributed to the placebo effect.
Bananas are a good option for an evening snack as they contain the essential amino acid, tryptophan (Hudson et al., 2005), which is known to promote the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is involved in the onset and maintenance of sleep and has been shown to promote relaxation, an essential ingredient for a night of good sleep. Unfortunately, research has yet to indicate that the level of tryptophan found in bananas is great enough to affect sleep regulation.
There has also been much discussion about the benefits of cherry juice drinks in improving one’s sleep. Tart cherries contain high levels of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone associated with the dark period of the daily light-dark cycle. Unfortunately, similarly to bananas, research suggests the effects of cherry juice on sleep seems to be very limited and not an effective solution for those with chronic poor sleep.
Can physical activity help you sleep?
A range of studies have focused on the potential for physical exercise to have a positive impact on one’s sleep. Many have found that moderate aerobic exercise, if kept up over a period of time, can lead to improvements in sleep duration and quality, as well as mood and overall quality of life (Reid et al., 2010, Passos et al., 2011).
It is likely however that any effects of exercise on sleep may be related to a broader range of changes. This includes changes in the timing of sleep and wakefulness periods, improvements in mood and how people cope with stress.
Whilst food and physical activity may bring about improvements, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) remains the first-choice treatment for persistent poor sleep.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
As the name suggests, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses both cognitive (thoughts and feelings) and behavioral factors, which may contribute to the maintenance of poor sleep.
One of the most common expressions of poor sleep, for example, is the inability to ‘shut-down’ or ‘turn off’ one’s mind. Both the behavioral and the cognitive techniques used within CBT help to ‘quieten the mind’ and re-instate natural sleepiness, aiding both sleep initiation and sleep maintenance.
CBT has a strong body of evidence to support its effectiveness in improving sleep using both individual (one-to-one) and group session formats. Work is now establishing how well CBT can be delivered through other mediums e.g. self-help books and over the internet.
Emerging evidence indicates that sophisticated online interventions (like the Sleepio course) can be as effective as face-to-face sessions with qualified experts in behavioral sleep medicine. This work is very promising, having the ability to reach the millions of people experiencing chronic sleep problems.