Everyone has an occasional bad night’s sleep, but some people struggle more than others do, often for a variety of reasons. Scientists tell us that stress or trauma are a frequent cause, but depression, bad habits before bedtime and even being too tired to sleep can prevent the brain from normal rest. Unfortunately, this can lead many people to begin using sleeping aids, which can be dangerous and are quite addictive.

A study led by Kai-Florian Storch, PhD, of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University, observed genetically modified mice to better understand sleep abnormalities. Sleep abnormalities thought to be caused by circadian rhythms were instead found to be the result from an imbalance of an ultradian rhythm generator (oscillator). These rhythms are responsible for several timing mechanisms in our day. For example, they help explain why we eat on average three meals a day that are relatively evenly spaced throughout our waking time.

Let’s look at this further. According to research, an internal 24-hour timer, referred to the circadian clock, governs the human daily sleep-wake cycle. In addition, daily activity is influenced by shorter ultradian rhythms, which follow a four-hour cycle. These four-hour ultradian rhythms are activated by dopamine. When dopamine levels are out of kilter, as is the possibility with people suffering from bipolar disorder, substance abuse, or depression, the four-hour rhythms can stretch as long as 48 hours, according to study indications.

This research is groundbreaking not only because of its discovery of a novel dopamine-based rhythm generator, but also because of its links to psychopathology. This new data suggests that when the ultradian arousal oscillator goes awry, sleep becomes disturbed. The study was published in the online journal eLife.

Establishing good habits before bed can help develop regular sleep patterns and allow the brain to rest properly. The fast pace of society today unfortunately encourages the very habits that can cause sleep problems. Turning off all the media devices that stimulate the brain is a great start, but can be much harder to do than most may think. Try to turn off the TV, video games and internet a least an hour before bed — including leaving the phone alone. Rest is essential to overall health and the light from media devices stimulate brain neurons for hours after exposure.

Having a regular bedtime, including on the weekends, should be seriously considered as a requirement for mental and physical health. Good sleep habits should be followed with a healthy diet, always beginning with an early breakfast, good lunch, and dinner several hours before sleep. It is also important to take a few minutes daily to attend to spiritual health. This can be accomplished by taking the last few minutes before bed to quiet the thoughts constantly bouncing around in our minds. Learning to be mindful of bedtime habits can improve sleep with some practice and effort.

Individuals prescribed sleeping pills for longer than 6 or 8 weeks may be addicted and not realize it. Education and alternative therapies can provide healthy solutions to sleep abnormalities. Talk to a healthcare professional for additional information about getting a proper night’s sleep, safely and naturally.