From Weight Loss Issues to CBD—The Sleep Doctor Answers Common Questions

The Sleep Doctor is in. Michael Breus, PhD, answers your most common questions about getting the zzz’s you’ve earned and deserve. Let us virtually tuck you in.

Q. Which supplements can help me get a good night of rest?

woman taking melatonin pills

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Melatonin pills, gummies or drops may be the answer to sleepless nights.

If you’re not breaking any of my cardinal sleep sins—like consuming caffeine after 2 p.m.—I can understand your wanting to move things to the next level. Just keep in mind that it takes about 30 days for supplement benefits to kick in. 

When getting to sleep is the issue, try magnesium. Nearly half of all Americans are deficient in this mineral. If you are one of them, you’ll notice a difference in less than a month. Magnesium can trigger a neurotransmitter in your body that supports deep, restorative sleep. 

You might also try 5-HTP, a chemical that is naturally produced by the body and found in the seeds of an African plant. Research suggests that 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase how long you sleep. It’s indirectly involved in producing melatonin, a hormone critical for regulating daily sleep-wake cycles. 

Or go straight to the source and use melatonin itself. Many of my patients tell me they tried melatonin, but it didn’t work. Remember, it’s a sleep regulator, not a sleep initiator. Melatonin tells your brain that it is bedtime but does not actually make you sleepy. It’s great for jet lag but may not do the trick for insomnia.

12:21 P.M.

The average bedtime for Americans. Consistency is key when racking up rest. People whose bedtime varies by only 30 minutes average an extra half hour of sleep compared to those whose bedtime fluctuates by two hours. 

Source: Data from Fitbit, reported exclusively by Yahoo Finance

Q. Help! I fall asleep but I don’t stay asleep.

Patients tell me all the time, “I see 3:37 a.m. on my clock every night!” Here’s a sweet solution: Eat a teaspoon of raw honey (being raw makes it take longer to digest) before bed. I know this sounds a bit crazy with all the talk about carbohydrates and sugar these days, but it can work. Sleep is a fasting state, and hunger or low blood sugar may be what’s causing you to wake too soon. 

Q. What does my gut microbiome have to do with sleep, and how can I improve it?

Researchers have experimented with this and it turns out that when the delicate balance of bacteria in your gut (your gut microbiome) is off, it impacts your ability to recover from stress and disrupts your circadian rhythms. What’s more, impaired sleep contributes to inflammatory states and metabolic diseases, which can, in turn, rob you of a good night’s sleep. But if you feed your microbes well, they will treat you right. To do so, stick to a consistent eating schedule and limit fat consumption. You’ll also want to keep calorie intake the same but make your meals smaller and more frequent. 

Finally, consider adding either prebiotics or probiotics to your diet. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbs (like apple skin) that act as food for probiotics. Probiotics are live active bacteria (like those in yogurt) that reach your gut and help out as well. Both can give you the boost you need.

Q. I’ve been hearing about CBD helping with sleep. Is that true?

It is, but let me share the full story first. Cannabidiol (or CBD) is a chemical compound found in marijuana that has absolutely no “high” associated with it. None. (In fact, an FDA advisory panel recently recommended the approval of an epilepsy medication made with CBD for children who experience frequent seizures.) Not only does the compound have calming and anti-anxiety effects (which can reduce sleep difficulties and improve sleep quality), but it also reduces daytime sleepiness (which is important for consistency of the sleep-wake cycle) and may be helpful in preventing insomnia. 

But buyers must be wary. CBD is not well regulated, so you really need to be careful when identifying a CBD source for purchase. Also, laws regulating this compound vary from state to state, and there’s still significant legal confusion about the product. Not to mention that if even the slightest amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the psychoactive chemical of the plant that does get you high) is found in the mixture, that will make it illegal in many states.

Q. I use a fitness tracker to monitor my sleep but am not sure what I do with the data.

SleepScore app

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Prop the SleepScore Max (or just your phone with the SleepScore app) beside your bed at night to receive a personalized sleep report in the morning.

You’ve just hit on one of the biggest problems in the sleep-tracking world. Ready for two more? Not all trackers are accurate, and they don’t all agree when it comes to standard definitions of certain terms like “deep sleep.” 

But let’s assume your tracker is accurate—what next? First, you’ll want to put your data in context by comparing it with the data of other people of your gender and age. If you’re a 38-year-old female, you want to know what your data looks like relative to the average woman your age. 

Next, you’ll want insight into improvements you can make for peak sleep performance. This would require a real-time advice engine that would give you information based on your previous night’s sleep and lead you to personalized sleep goals. The only tracking system I’ve found that does this reliably is the SleepScore Max (sleepscore.com, $150). The company also recently released a free app that uses your smartphone to track and analyze your sleep as well. 

Q. What can an insomniac do to get a good night’s sleep?

Never go to bed too early. This is the biggest mistake insomniacs make. After being exhausted all day, they think turning in early will let them catch up on missed sleep. Not true. Either they won’t be able to fall asleep (because their biological clock is not ready), or they’ll fall asleep for a few hours only to wake later on. 

People with insomnia need to go to bed and wake up on a predetermined schedule. This allows the brain to “know” when to sleep and when to be awake. If you’re not sure what your sleep schedule should look like, start with the time you need to be up on weekdays and count backwards 7.5 hours (the average sleep cycle of 1.5 hours multiplied by 5, which is the number of sleep cycles the average person has). So if you wake up at 6:30 a.m. to get your kid out the door on time, your bedtime is 11 p.m. Remember, this is an average. If you manage well on 6.5 hours of sleep, test that timing by seeing if you can wake up then without an alarm.

37.9%

The percentage of U.S. adults who say they unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once in the past month. 

Source: CDC 

Q. How exactly is lack of sleep connected to my inability to lose weight?

Forty percent of American adults are sleeping 6 hours or less a night, which just isn’t enough. It’s no coincidence that in the past several decades, obesity rates have skyrocketed, right along with sleep deprivation rates. Lack of sleep has been linked to both increased calorie consumption and reduced  energy expenditure—which means more calories coming in and fewer calories going out. 

More important, sleep deprivation is also associated with disruptions to hormones in the body that regulate appetite. When you’re not getting enough zzz’s, your body makes more ghrelin (the hormone that says, “Go, eat more!”), less leptin (the hormone that says, “Stop, I’m full!”) and (apologies if you’ve heard this before) more cortisol, a hormone that can increase your appetite. Establish a healthy schedule, though, and you can turn things around. If you snooze, you’ll lose. It’s as simple as that!

Q. Does “blue light” really affect my sleep? If so, what can I do?

block out blue light

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Block out blue light with apps that let you bring tech back into the bedroom.

It does. Research shows that blue light suppresses melatonin production about twice as long as other light wavelengths and also alters circadian rhythms. But there’s more: Computer screens, tablets and televisions aren’t the only way you are exposed to this part of the light spectrum, which is aggressive in stimulating sleeplessness. The largest source of blue light is actually sunlight! Blue light is also found in fluorescent and LED lightbulbs. 

Thankfully, there are plenty of tools that counter its effects. One option is blue-light-blocking software like f.lux, a free program for your computer. There are also filters that can be placed over screens and eyeglasses you can wear to reduce unwanted exposure to the stimulating waves. 

Because blue light is part of the spectrum of all light, you might also consider LED bulbs in your home that are designed with our circadian biology in mind. They minimize the negative effects of blue-wavelength light at night—and take advantage of its energizing effects during the day. In our house, we use Lighting Science’s GoodNight bulbs (lsgc.com, $18 each) in the bedrooms and GoodDay bulbs (lsgc.com, $18 each) in places like my office and my kids’ bathrooms. (Little do they know it helps them wake up!)

Lastly, consider a carotenoid supplement, like lutein and zeaxanthin. Your eyes have their own blue-light shield—it’s a thin layer of cells near the retina that contain carotenoids we absorb through our diet. This layer both protects the retina against macular degeneration and acts as a filter for blue-wavelength light. A supplement may help strengthen your eyes’ natural abilities but, again, it can take 30 days for benefits to kick in.

About our expert

Michael Breus, PhD

Photo courtesy of Michael Breus, PhD

Photo courtesy of Michael Breus, PhD

Michael Breus, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and author. For more info, go to thesleepdoctor.com.