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Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” must have been childless. No parent who has ever walked the floor for hours with a fussy infant or gotten up for numerous nighttime feedings would imagine that babies sleep well.

At the other end of the life span, sleep problems are just as common. Older people frequently have trouble getting to sleep. Another common complaint is that they wake up far too early. Some have to get up to visit the bathroom and then have difficulty falling back to sleep. Others find that they are wide-awake at 3:00 a.m. and toss and turn until morning. Up to half of all elderly people report trouble with insomnia.

Babies and senior citizens are not the only ones who suffer. The number of people who have intermittent or chronic sleep problems is enormous, perhaps as many as 70 million.672 That means that one in five of us is all too familiar with sleeplessness.

Perhaps people slept better in past centuries. Back before Thomas Edison invented the electric lightbulb, even adults slept an average of 10 hours a night. But average sleep time has been dropping ever since. A poll in 2002 showed that the average American gets fewer than 7 hours of shut-eye on weeknights. And the deficit can’t all be made up on weekends or holidays.

Think about a sleep debt as you would a financial debt. The more it grows, the harder it is to pay off. Eventually your body rebels. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, reduced immunity, daytime drowsiness, poor performance, traffic accidents, falls, memory problems, and cognitive impairment. But lying awake in bed worrying about these possible consequences won’t help.

Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for good health. We never cease to be amazed that health-conscious people who exercise, eat carefully, and take their vitamins often skimp on sleep. We hope you will make getting adequate sleep an important health priority. If you can find a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for sleep disorders, this approach may be the safest and produce the longest-lasting benefits.

Here is an overview of our other recommendations.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Try to go to bed at the same time each night. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Keep the bedroom dark, and do not watch TV in the bedroom.
  • Exercise during the day (not in the evening) and take a hot bath about an hour before bedtime.
  • A high-carb snack before bedtime may raise serotonin levels, helping you fall asleep. Relax with soothing music or a relaxation CD.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most cost-effective approaches to insomnia. Finding a practitioner with experience will be your biggest challenge.
  • Try magnesium supplements before bed. As long as your kidneys are healthy, 250 to 500 milligrams may help. If you develop diarrhea, reduce the dose.
  • Aromatherapy may be helpful. The scents of jasmine or lavender can be relaxing and facilitate sleep.
  • If a nondrug herbal approach appeals to you, valerian is our first choice. We would recommend a standardized extract of 300 to 600 milligrams before bed. Several days to 2 weeks may be needed to see results.
  • If a sleeping pill is your last resort, we suggest zolpidem. Because it is available as a generic, it will be the most cost-effective.
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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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