I’m a good sleeper. For this, I’m eternally grateful.
In the rare times that I’ve had a poor night’s sleep, I’ve tossed and turned in bed in a fit of total misery.
At other times, I’ve briefly awakened in the middle of the night and glimpsed my wife – who is definitely NOT a good sleeper – sitting up doing a Sudoku puzzle or reading. If she catches my eye, her look is somewhere between jealousy and loathing. (Fortunately, except for those brief moments, my wife loves me very much!)
And so, I’m very sensitive to those patients who struggle with their sleep, and I’ve constantly got my eye out for safe, unique, and innovative methods for assisting them in getting to sleep… staying asleep… and waking refreshed and ready to face the day.
Many herbal remedies, nutrients, and other nutritional factors like melatonin and GABA can do the trick for patients with sleep problems.
But today, I want to focus on something besides pills and potions – rather, I’d like to tell you about three really interesting products that can help stop your night from turning into an endless one.
Light sleeper? You may need some weight
The first product, oddly enough, is a blanket. But it’s no ordinary blanket – this is a weighted blanket.
In fact, this blanket is filled with so much weighted material that one double-sized blanket can weigh up to 30 pounds or more. And a queen-sized blanket can weigh as much as 40 pounds!
It appears that weighted blankets take advantage of a type of stimulation that the scientific literature refers to as deep touch pressure (DTP). DTP – which encompasses everything from holding, swaddling, massaging, and other ways of applying pressure – is a well-known technique used to treat patients with special needs such as attention deficit, hyperactivity, dementia, and developmental disability.
According to research, DTP releases serotonin, the brain chemical associated with relaxation and calmness. In the brain, serotonin also can convert to melatonin, the so-called ‘sleep hormone’.
In addition, DTP engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which works against our fight or flight response to relax us.
Therefore, this is a type of truly alternative therapy that can increase the quality of life in patients with anxiety, pain, and insomnia.
In one article, published in a 2015 issue of Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders, researchers investigated the effects of treating insomnia specifically with this weighted blanket therapy, using both objective and subjective measures.
From an objective standpoint, not only did the participants’ sleep time increase, but their movements while asleep decreased – an indication that the sleep they got was more restful.
But how did the participants actually FEEL after sleeping under all that weight?
Well, they reported that they found it easier to settle down to sleep with the weighted blanket… and they described feelings of freshness and renewed energy in the morning.
And that, to me, is the real success story of this nonpharmacological approach to insomnia. Because what’s the point of getting more sleep if you don’t feel better when you wake up?
The proof is in the pudding
While other more rigorous clinical studies have failed to show clear scientific difference between the use of a weighted blanket in insomnia (as well as other disorders like autism, anxiety, and chronic pain), almost all the studies report that patients LIKE sleeping under the weighted blanket because they FEEL like they’re getting a better quality of sleep.
They also feel less anxious… and report less chronic pain.
For instance, in a 2014 study that looked at the sleep quality of 67 children with autism, the objective measures of sleep were unchanged – but there was a clear preference subjectively by both parents and children for the weighted blanket.1
And that’s a win in my book!
In fact, occupational therapists have long used ‘heavy’ blankets like this to treat children with autism – including, more specifically, something called Sensory Processing Disorder. Children with this disorder aren’t necessarily considered ‘autistic’ per se, but they’re so acutely sensitive to their environment that they’ve been placed on what’s called the autistic ‘spectrum’.
These are the children that need the tags cut off of their clothing… get panicky at loud noises or any other discordant stimuli… and frequently have sleep problems. Using a weighted blanket with these children (less weight for a child than an adult, of course) gives them a sense of better control, calm, and peacefulness.
Weighted blankets are also increasingly used to treat adults with dementia, cancer, anxiety, agitation and panic, chronic pain syndromes, and other discomfiting disorders.
And you know where else it appears to work? At the dentist.2
I can’t think of any place more anxiety-provoking than in that chair! And ANYTHING that can alleviate dental anxiety is nothing short of a miracle.
A ‘shocking’ way to get sleepy
The second innovative sleep aid that I’d like to share with you is cranial electrotherapy stimulation, or CES.
Specifically, the unit I’m most familiar with is called an Alpha Stim, and it’s something I’ve used for many years and in a variety of situations – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain, headaches, anxiety disorder, and, of course, insomnia.
The Alpha Stim is a small machine that emits a micro-current – so ‘micro’ that it’s barely perceptible – that stimulates the brain in a way that relaxes it and turns off its pain centres.
Within 20 minutes of using it, a sense of peacefulness and sleepiness set in.
A number of randomised clinical trials have looked at the efficacy of CES in general and the Alpha Stim specifically – mostly for anxiety, depression, and pain syndromes like fibromyalgia. In fact, one randomised pilot study using CES for insomnia, published in 2013, showed that participants treated with Alpha Stim got 43 more minutes of sleep than those in the ‘sham treatment’ group!3
You can sleep fine but still wake up miserable
The third sleep aid I’d like to share with you is actually an aid for waking up more gently and naturally.
In a world where we are cut off from natural stimuli like light and sound, our brains sometimes struggle to recognize the cues that dictated the ‘internal clocks’ of our ancestors. Without the first light of day beaming on our faces, we might wake up disoriented – especially in a room outfitted with blackout curtains and/ or filled with LCD lights from various electronics.
And frequently, what wakes us up is the jarring sound of an alarm.
No wonder we’re so miserable first thing in the morning!
But what can help is something called ‘morning light’ – or something that simulates the break of dawn, right there in your own bedroom.
You may have already heard of – or even used – one of the light boxes or light therapies that we use to treat mood disorders. They’re especially popular this time of year, when many of us are embattled with what’s called SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.
Those devices are the kind you use during the day.
But what you may not have heard of yet – or dared to try – are the light boxes that slowly start to turn on as early morning comes, gradually filling the room with light in a way that simulates dawn light from the sun.
Multiple clinical studies have been performed that show the effect of a dawn simulator on mood, behaviour, and energy upon awakening. In one study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, cortisol levels were significantly higher under dawn simulation, implying that there was a more energetic awakening and better alertness.4
Some data even suggest that dawn simulation can prevent the vulnerability of the heart to rapid increases in heart rate… and possible cardiac events that are more common in the early morning hours.5
So, if you can’t literally let the sunshine in through your windows, then go ahead and PLUG it in!
Nothing to lose but sleep
I like to file these three sleep aids under: Why not?
With the weighted blankets, there are no known side effects, and they’re generally inexpensive. You can even make your own weighted blanket instead of buying one! For instructions, check out the book The Weighted Blanket Guide by Eileen Parker and Cara Koscinski.
As for the Alpha Stim, the biggest risk is that you may feel a slight pinching of your earlobes when you wear it, as it clips onto your ears. Many patients feel nothing.
In my office, we usually offer a rental agreement that allows our patients to try the device at home for a month… and then purchase it only if it works for them.
In my experience, Alpha Stim clearly helps about a third of the patients with insomnia. Another third of the patients are helped somewhat, but it’s not always enough to warrant making the investment.
Finally, there are a variety of dawn simulators you can find online within a wide price range. Some actually attach to your own lamp to control the amount of light that it emits, while others are themselves the light source. You can even find ‘wake-up lights’ and ‘sunrise alarm clocks’ that feature the regular bells and whistles of your regular alarm clock – say, a buzzer and/or radio transmitter – but begin to brighten the room 30 minutes before the time you set it to go off.
And if the normal ‘buzz’ of an alarm is way too harsh for your taste, some of these new-fangled alarm/light combos actually allow you to set the alarm tone to be the sound of birds chirping.
Now, what could be a more natural way of waking up than that?
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.