Alison Moodie is a health reporter based in Los Angeles. She has written for numerous outlets including Newsweek, Agence France-Presse, The Daily Mail and HuffPost. For years she covered sustainable business for The Guardian. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she majored in TV news. When she's not working she's doting on her two kids and whipping up Bulletproof-inspired dishes in her kitchen.
Sleep also is important for good health. Studies show that not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep on a regular basis increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other medical conditions. In addition, during sleep, your body produces valuable hormones. These hormones help children grow and help adults and children build muscle mass, fight infections, and repair cells. Hormones released during sleep also affect how the body uses energy. Studies find that the less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese, develop diabetes, and prefer eating foods high in calories and carbohydrates.*
Postpone worrying and brainstorming. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when it will be easier to resolve. Similarly, if a great idea is keeping you awake, make a note of it on paper and fall back to sleep knowing you’ll be much more productive after a good night’s rest.
Probably the most commonly known characteristic that can help through food is tryptophan — yes, that sleepiness from the Thanksgiving turkey is no joke. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can help the brain get into a relaxed state, similar to serotonin and melatonin. You can obtain tryptophan and serotonin from carbohydrates, particularly 100 percent whole grain oats, brown rice, corn or quinoa.
A recent team of leading medical doctors and researchers examined all published studies to date on newer forms of sedative sleeping pills that most people take. They considered sixty-five separate drug-placebo studies, encompassing almost 4,500 individuals. Overall, participants subjectively felt they fell asleep faster and slept more soundly with fewer awakenings, relative to the placebo. But that’s not what the actual sleep recordings showed. There was no difference in how soundly the individuals slept. Both the placebo and the sleeping pills reduced the time it took people to fall asleep (between ten and thirty minutes), but the change was not statistically different between the two. In other words, there was no objective benefit of these sleeping pills beyond that which a placebo offered.
Black, D. S., O'Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015, April). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(4), 494–501. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998?hc_location=ufi
We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. Exactly how this happens and why our bodies are programmed for such a long period of slumber is still somewhat of a mystery. But scientists do understand some of sleep's critical functions, and the reasons we need it for optimal health and wellbeing.
It’s marketed as a before-bed beverage for a reason: The herb chamomile has been used as a sleep aid for thousands of years. While good research on chamomile’s effect on sleep is sparse, one 2016 study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that new moms who drank chamomile tea for two weeks reported fewer symptoms of sleep inefficiency and depression.
They discovered that we have these molecular pathways that are responsive to light and allow the body to synchronize to the comings and goings of the sun. When that is working at its most effective, and all the cells are working as a team, overall health is much better. I think most people don’t understand the importance of light and how we consume it. Artificial light is completely at odds with our biology.
Similarly, if you’re having sleep troubles, limit your cell phone use around bedtime. One study found that people who spent more time on smartphones, especially close to bedtime, were more likely to have shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality and take longer to fall asleep (PLoS One, Nov. 9, 2016). So, turn off your cell phone, computer and television at least an hour before bedtime. (See the chart for other behavioral changes you can make to improve your sleep.)
Reconditioning. A few simple steps can help people with insomnia to associate the bedroom with sleep instead of sleeplessness and frustration. For example, use the bed only for sleeping or sex and go to bed only when you're sleepy. If you're unable to sleep, move to another room and do something relaxing. Stay up until you are sleepy, and then return to bed. If sleep does not follow quickly, repeat.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a herbal home remedy, brewed as a tea or taken as a supplement, that is commonly used to reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality, and act as a sedative. Clinical trials of valerian have had inconsistent results for insomnia. Studies measuring sleep quality have found no difference between people taking valerian and those taking a placebo. However, a sizable number of people in the studies anecdotally reported that their sleep quality improved with valerian.
Memory consolidation: While you sleep, the brain repeatedly replays remembered events from that day; if these phases are interrupted, memories aren’t fully formed, or even not formed at all. This is part of what helps you learn new skills. One study found that mice doing an hour’s training followed by sleep would ‘learn more’ than mice who did three hours of training but were then sleep deprived. This process is the result of connections forming between neurons, which happens more often during sleep.
Another method for determining your sleep need is to take a "sleep vacation." During a two-week period, when you have a flexible schedule or perhaps are on vacation, pick a consistent bedtime and do not use an alarm clock to wake up. Chances are that for the first few days or week you will sleep longer because you'll be paying off your "sleep debt"—the amount of sleep deprivation that you've accumulated over a period of time. If you continue going to bed at the same time and allowing your body to wake up naturally, you will eventually establish a pattern of sleeping essentially the same amount of time each night, probably in the range of 7 to 9 hours. Congratulations! You've identified the amount of sleep that you need.
Medicate with caution. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, Walia and Olson do not recommend drugs as a first choice for relieving sleeplessness. Ideally, the tips above and improved sleep hygiene should do the trick. But, should you choose a sleep aid, Olson reminds people that, of course, they make you sleepy. This grogginess is great at 11 p.m., but not at 7 a.m. – when you have to drive a car.
Gaia is a premium option at $0.30 per serving. However the valerian is sourced from the company’s organic farm in North Carolina, and each bottle comes with an ID number that allows you to track the batch and learn more about the source of your supplement on the manufacturer’s website. If you’re conscious about organic products, the price may be worth it, but know that there are cheaper valerian options out there.
Spicy foods. Can’t get enough sriracha? Save it for lunchtime. One International Journal of Psychophysiology study found that when people who consumed hot condiments (like Tabasco sauce or mustard) before bed took longer to fall asleep and achieved less restful sleep compared to when they skip the stuff. Researchers aren’t totally sure why spicy foods mess with your sleep, but it could be because they raise your body temperature.
It’s tempting to reach for coffee when we’re tired after a poor night’s sleep, but drinking caffeine can make it harder for us to fall asleep at night, creating a vicious cycle. Effects of caffeine on sleep and cognition. Snel J, Lorist MM. Progress in brain research, 2011, Aug.;190():1875-7855. Can’t quit cold turkey? Try limiting caffeine intake to earlier in the day so it’s out of your system by bedtime.