Science's Weirdest Sleep Hacks
Yes, you do in fact need to get a good night's sleep, and no, I am not just imitating your mother when I say that. Scientific research keeps reinforcing the value of sleep for our mental and physical health; we've even identified the brainwaves, shaped like Princess Leia-ish buns on each side of the brain, that help consolidate memories as we slumber. But if you've tried everything — putting away devices an hour before bed, chamomile tea, relaxing breathing, counting various farm animals — and aren't capable of getting your full 8 hours, there are other scientific methods out there known to improve sleep quality and quantity. They do, however, get a little odd.
While the first stop for everybody who's having serious sleep problems should be the doctor, who will likely look at your diet and caffeine intake (plus a bunch of other factors) to determine where the problem might lie, it's always interesting to look at what some of the world's more obscure sleep science studies have prescribed. Some of the cures they advise are innocuous, while others a bit more far-fetched, but they all come with the promise that they could in some way help out a sleep-deprived person who just wants some shut-eye. And what better way to celebrate Sleep Awareness Week? Get out your cheese and jasmine flowers and let's do this.
Do Some Shiatsu Hand Massage At Bedtime
Shiatsu massage is a traditional massage technique created in Japan from Chinese influences, and while it's largely regarded as calming rather than genuinely helpful in medical situations, a little study done in Canada in 2014 found that for people suffering from chronic pain, a bit of shiatsu hand massage before they went to sleep seemed to help them drop off.
Shiatsu massage is normally done by professionals, but nine adults with chronic pain were taught the technique by therapists who advised them on how to give themselves hand massages shortly before bed. The results were encouraging; the chronic pain patients reported better, calmer sleep, which is often a serious issue for people whose pain is constant and intrusive.
It was, the scientists acknowledged, a vaguely unreliable study, because nobody actually studied the sleep patterns of the patients (they just reported it themselves) or watched them give the massage to themselves, and a lot of it could be explained by the placebo effect, or by the general calming nature of taking a few minutes for hand massage. It is, in other words, not a silver bullet. But if you have a problem with sleeping, there's little wrong with training yourself to do a little hand massaging.
Get A Whiff Of Some Gardenias
You likely hear a lot of claims about the power of fragrances to lull us to sleep or relax us, but German scientists in 2010 did some fairly intensive testing on our sense of smell, how it interacts with wakefulness, and what specific scent compounds seem to set it off, and came up with what seems to be a golden solution: Gardenia jasminoides, the white gardenia. Famous for its scent, the gardenia has a strong role in Chinese medicine, but up until this point Western medicine had largely ignored it — until the Germans got involved.
The scientists tested whether or not fragrance compounds did anything to the neurotransmitter that is directly affected by sleeping pills: gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. They exposed humans, frogs and mice to thousands of scents, and found that the compound vertacetal-coeur (VC) and its chemical variation (PI24513), sourced from gardenias, mimicked the effects of sleeping pills on GABA, and induced sleepiness and help for anxiety. If there's ever been an excuse to get a bunch of gardenias into your bedroom window immediately, that's it.
Turn On The Green Light (Or Maybe Not)
This one's just vaguely strange. According to research last year from the University of Oxford, tests on nocturnal animals (mice, as it happens) revealed that green light made them sleepy, while blue light delayed the onset of sleep by about 16 to 19 minutes, and violet light delayed it by about 5 to 10 minutes. (Blue light is what comes out of handheld devices like mobiles and e-readers, hence why they delay sleep.) They think it's down to light-detecting pigments called melanopsin, which operate in the retina and seem to affect how we react to different kinds of light and what that means for the brain.
The problem, the scientists noted, is that humans aren't actually nocturnal, so we can't just apply this discovery to all species willy-nilly. It may actually be that green-tinted light keeps humans awake while it sends nocturnal animals to sleep, as it might signal some kind of daybreak. So if you want to experiment with different kinds of lighting tints before you sleep, be aware that green might not be the magic color.
Eat Some Cheese
No, I don't mean a nightcap made entirely out of brie. (Though if that works for you, god bless.) If you're not getting enough calcium in your diet, science argues, you really should up your intake — because calcium appears to be pretty crucial for good sleep quality. Japanese scientists in 2016 identified several mechanisms through which calcium levels affected neurons responsible for sleep duration, through experimenting with — what else — the genes of mice.
The genes used in calcium regulation were knocked out in 21 different mice, and a third of the genetically-modified group developed massive sleeping problems. But the researchers didn't stop there; they also discovered that calcium levels in the relevant neurons rise when mice become sleepy and fall as they wake up, and seem to actually be part of a "cocktail" of substances like magnesium that trigger sleep and wakefulness. Therefore, get thyself to a cheesemonger immediately.
Deal With Your Fear Of The Dark
Are you afraid of the dark? Nope? Well, you might just be lying to yourself, if a study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2012 has anything to say about it. According to that research, adults who suffer from insomnia may actually be trying to deal with a fear of the dark, and conventional methods for coping with it (like going into a brighter space) aren't designed to help them defeat it.
The small study found that people who admitted to having a fear of the dark were much worse at staying calm and dealing with unexpected sudden noises in dark situations (for obvious reasons), and that they also reported sleep disturbances. The insomniacs with darkness phobia also didn't settle down or become comfortable, but actually progressively became more anxious as the experience went on. If you think you may suffer from nyctophobia, the technical term for a violent fear of the dark, it's better to seek help for that than for insomnia in general. It won't necessarily be easy to overcome a fear of the dark — but it's a lot easier than resigning yourself to spending the rest of your life lying awake all night.