It can be really tough to get a full night’s sleep these days — something many Americans struggle with on a regular basis. More than one in three adults in the country are getting less sleep than they need, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between long work hours, the ever-increasing demands of parenting, and the pull of current entertainment options (how many shows are available for bingeing on Netflix alone?), we put off closing our eyes at night.
But health officials are sounding the alarms: We need that restorative shut-eye.
For one thing, night owls have a higher mortality rate than those who go to sleep early, according to a new study from Northwestern University in Illinois and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. Those who like to stay up late and then have trouble dragging themselves out of bed in the morning were also found to have a higher risk for conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and psychological disorders.
Another new study this week, from researchers at the University of Warwick, has found that children who get less than the recommended amount of sleep for their age are at a higher risk of developing obesity — and the deadly and chronic diseases that come with it later in life.
There may be an answer for weary adults: melatonin.
For the past 20 years or so, Melanie Weber of Blanchardville, Wisconsin, has occasionally used melatonin to get to sleep. The 67-year-old told LifeZette that between raising nine children (three of her own, two stepchildren, and four others she took in after a close friend died in a car accident), plus running several businesses, she just couldn’t wind down at night.
“I was going on about four to five hours of sleep nightly,” she said. “As you can imagine, stress was a huge component in my life. Someone told me to try this newer product, melatonin. I was desperate. I tried it, and I loved it. It just slowly relaxed me into sleep.”
How it works. Most people naturally produce enough melatonin, a natural hormone, for adequate rest. For those who don’t, the man-made supplement is widely used to combat insomnia. Melatonin essentially helps the body anticipate the daily onset of darkness. So if your sleep is off, it helps to more naturally readjust the body’s internal clock.
My mum texted me on WhatsApp :
The perfect cure for Sleeplessness, headaches, body aches and lethargy ? pic.twitter.com/tdSEdJia15
— tch (@Harismita_is_me) April 10, 2018
Shift workers and those with insomnia are more likely to try it on their own, according to Dr. Rachel Salas, an associate professor of neurology and nursing at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. She often recommends it for patients with circadian sleep wake disorders and REM behavioral sleep disorder.
“Generally speaking, many people try it, but many don’t continue it,” she told LifeZette. “With melatonin, it is more about the timing. We use it clinically more as a circadian rhythm anchor rather than a sleep aid.”
Timing is everything. While it’s said to have a low side-effect profile, users often complain melatonin can make them groggy, if they don’t allow themselves enough time for a full night’s sleep after taking it. Weber says she sets aside seven to eight hours each night for rest when she takes melatonin, to ensure she wakes up feeling refreshed and not “foggy.”
Morning grogginess is one of the most common side effects for anyone who may take it, said Salas. Upset stomach is another common side effect.
For those who aren’t bothered by its mild side effects, melatonin has been shown to be effective. And more sleep means people are less likely to suffer irritability, headaches, memory and concentration issues, or changes in metabolism. When it is timed correctly and used in combination with behavioral changes in sleep practices, a good night’s rest is within reach.
Other steps worth taking. Melatonin levels rise naturally about two hours before bedtime. Researchers involved in the night owl study said that if you’re struggling to get to sleep at a normal hour, there are a number of other ways to try to get back on track:
- Expose yourself to light early in the morning, not at night.
- Try to keep a regular bedtime.
- Keep lights low before bedtime.
- Avoid screen time before bed.
- Don’t let yourself drift to later bedtimes.
- Be regimented about adopting and keeping healthy lifestyle behaviors.
- Recognize that the timing of when you sleep matters.
- Do things earlier.
Restorative rest is critical to overall health — so make sure to take steps to get enough zzzs to be your most effective self.