REM sleep are particularly important. You can ensure you get more deep sleep by avoiding alcohol, nicotine, and being woken during the night by noise or light. While improving your overall sleep will increase REM sleep, you can also try sleeping an extra 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, when REM sleep stages are longer. See The Biology of Sleep to learn more.
Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to "turn off" all the noise from the day. No way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, or are reviewing all the day's events and planning tomorrow (sound familiar?), you simply cannot just "flip a switch" and drop off to a blissful night's sleep.
Insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep, remain asleep, or get the amount of sleep an individual needs to wake up feeling rested. Its symptoms include difficulty falling asleep, frequent wake-ups during the night, waking up too early in the morning, daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. Insomnia can be acute (lasting one to several nights) or chronic (lasting from a month to years). It’s also the most common sleep complaint among Americans (especially women).
Leave the distractions at the door and create a bedtime ritual for yourself: darken the shades, take a hot bath, and, most importantly, set a media curfew for yourself so you're not laying in bed looking at your phone for an hour. "Turn off all the screens and sit with a cup of tea or a notebook in dim light," she suggests. Training your body to wind down at the same time every night will help your inner biological clock know when to sleep, and you'll wake up feeling much more refreshed the next day.
We evolved from bacteria in the ocean that could differentiate sunlight from darkness—that’s what ended up forming the human eye. That means every organism is responsive to a circadian rhythm that’s largely dictated by sunlight. The photo receptors in our eyes pick up on sunlight, which controls the release of melatonin and all these other neurotransmitters that dictate your energy levels throughout the day.
Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in many parts of the brain become more active as we get ready for bed. Nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters can “switch off” or dampen the activity of cells that signal arousal or relaxation. GABA is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, and sedation. Norepinephrine and orexin (also called hypocretin) keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. Other neurotransmitters that shape sleep and wakefulness include acetylcholine, histamine, adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin.
Even if you’re exhausted, try to stick to within 30 minutes of your normal bedtime. Going to bed hours earlier than usual may throw your body’s normal rhythm out of whack, says Dr. Emsellem. “Sticking to a routine is key to keeping insomnia at bay. While you may hate being locked into a schedule, your brain likes following a pattern.” Likewise, daytime napping, even if you slept poorly the night before, is also a no-no if you’re prone to insomnia.
Tryptophan. Tryptophan is a basic amino acid used in the formation of the chemical messenger serotonin, a substance in the brain that helps tell your body to sleep. L-tryptophan is a common byproduct of tryptophan, which the body can change into serotonin. Some studies have shown that L-tryptophan can help people fall asleep faster. Results, however, have been inconsistent.
But the good news is that you can take steps toward a good night’s sleep that are easy and painless. There are effective natural sleep aids that can help improve the quality and duration of your sleep, and they won’t leave you with all the unwanted side effects of conventional sleep medications. Here are the five most powerful all-natural sleep aids:
It might not work for everybody, but focusing on one thing can help the brain settle down, making sleep more possible. Not a fan of our wooly friends? Focusing on your breath (in, out, in, out) is also an effective way to chill out. Or bust out some of those relaxation techniques you practiced earlier in the evening—they're just as good of a resource in the wee hours.
When figuring out how much sleep you need, it’s important to know your sleep debt as well as your basal sleep need. Many people assume that if they lose an hour of sleep, they just need to get an extra hour of sleep the next night; however, you also have to make up for the extra hour that you were awake and your increased activity during this time. Using your basal sleep need as a foundation, you can determine your sleep debt and adjust it based on how tired you feel or how much extra sleep you think you need.
You know what happens when you don’t sleep well: You feel sluggish in the daytime, and your concentration suffers. Poor or insufficient sleep has been linked to other problems, too, such as declined immune function and an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. In your struggle to find out how to sleep better at night naturally, you’re willing to try just about anything.
Many medications can interfere with sleep and turn into sleep aids that actually cause insomnia, including beta-blockers, thyroid medication, decongestants, medications containing caffeine, and certain antidepressants. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about changing dosages or medications. Now, find out the 8 little changes you can make to sleep better in just one day.
Melatonin supplements may improve sleep quality and morning alertness in older adults with insomnia. Timed-release melatonin is used to treat primary insomnia in people over age 55 in the European Union and elsewhere. In most studies on melatonin for insomnia in older adults, melatonin was taken up to two hours before bedtime for up to 13 weeks. The timing is important—when melatonin is taken in the morning, it delays circadian rhythms but advances them when taken in the afternoon or early evening.
The exception to this rule is new parents who are sleep deprived over a long period of time while also not getting high-quality rest (studies show parents lose about 350 hours of sleep during their baby’s first year). In this case, any sleep you get will become more effective; you’ll be able to fall asleep more quickly and more soundly, and any amount of sleep, from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, will improve your functioning. In fact, your sleep schedule may change to one that is more productive for your current lifestyle, such as segmented sleep or polyphasic sleep as discussed below.
If anxiety is keeping you up at night, try these natural sleep remedies: yoga, meditating, or writing in a journal before bed. Tai chi is another powerful sleep-inducing (and stress-reducing!) exercise; in a 2004 Oregon Research Institute study, a tai chi routine right before bed helped people fall asleep 18 minutes faster and get 48 minutes more nightly sleep. In addition to adopting sleep-inducing habits, avoid these 11 “harmless” habits that are causing your insomnia.
“Pregnant women see an increase in sleep problems in the first and last trimester. During the first trimester, sleep problems are caused by hormonal changes, and during the last trimester, the baby is larger and creates pressure on the diaphragm, which creates breathing problems,” Chokroverty says. “The baby also puts pressure on the bladder, so a pregnant woman needs to wake up during the night to urinate. Lower back pain and stress and anxiety during the last trimester also cause sleep disturbances.”
During deep sleep, you get these long-burst brainwaves that are called delta waves, but during REM, your brainwaves are actually functioning very similarly to waking life. Your body is also paralyzed during REM—it’s a very noticeable physiological difference. You also lose thermo-regulation, meaning if it’s hot in your environment, your body gets hot, kind of like you’re a chameleon.
Gallup has reported that over the past 50 years, we’re sleeping a whole hour less per night than we did in the 1950s. That’s a lot. A lot of that has to do with having TV on all the time, and mobile phones are taking it to the next level. But I think the biggest issue right now is the lack of work/life balance. I mean, I’m an entrepreneur, so I feel like I’m basically always “on”. A lot of people have jobs where they’re getting emails all hours the night, and there’s no longer a nine-to-five schedule.
Championed by best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil—and various wellness bloggers, the “4-7-8” breathing technique is purported to help you fall asleep in under a minute. The method is said to relax you by increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood stream, slowing your heart rate, and releasing more carbon dioxide from the lungs. According to DrWeil.com, here’s how you do it:
So if you're unable to sleep for about a 15- or 20-minute stretch, slip into your bunny slippers and out of the room. Try something relaxing and non-stimulating. Listen to music. Read a book. Even consider cleaning the house or doing the dishes, Olson suggests. A bath might do the trick, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, because sleepiness can brew from the post-bath drop in body temperature. Whatever activity you choose, do it away from bed, and return when you're feeling drowsy.
You should then spend 10 seconds trying to clear your mind before thinking about one of the three following images: You're lying in a canoe on a calm lake with nothing but a clear blue sky above you; you're lying in a black velvet hammock in a pitch-black room; or you say "don't think, don't think, don't think" to yourself over and over for about 10 seconds.
In fact, better sleep may be a byproduct of increased mindfulness, even if it’s not directly addressed in practice. In a 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, adults who spent two hours a week learning meditation and mindfulness techniques for six weeks (but who never discussed sleep) reported less insomnia and fatigue than those who’d spent that time learning basic sleep hygiene.
9. A light snack may be sleep-inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates or dairy products. Milk contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, which has been shown in research to help people go to sleep. So milk and cookies or crackers (without chocolate) may be useful and taste good as well.
You know now that it’s not about the amount of sleep that you get, but the quality of those zzz’s. You can deepen the sleep that you’re already getting with the help of high-tech sleep devices on the market. For a budget buy, a smartphone sleep app like the Sonic Sleep Coach can track your sleep and play audio to cover any disruptive noise. On the higher-end, wearable sleep devices like headbands and rings measure your sleep, and in the case of headbands, increase the number of your slow brain waves. The result? Deeper, more restorative sleep. Learn more about sleep headbands here, and read the Bulletproof review of the OURA Ring sleep tracker.
Generally, non-benzodiazepines have fewer drawbacks than benzodiazepines, but that doesn’t make them suitable for everyone. Some may find this type of sleep medication ineffective at helping them sleep, while the long-term effects remain unknown. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently directed the manufacturers of Ambien and similar sleeping pills to lower the standard dosage due to the serious risk of morning grogginess while driving, especially in women patients. Other side effects include:
If melatonin doesn’t work or patients don’t want to take it, Barone suggests trying valerian root. A 2015 review published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that “a few high-quality studies report modest benefits of valerian for insomnia patients,” adding that while the overall evidence remains mixed, the safety of valerian is well-established.
You can take one step per day to improve your sleep. Below are suggestions for what to work on each day for 30 days. It's not necessary for it all to unfold in an orderly manner: you may find that you need to take longer on one particular task, and conversely, you may be able to breeze by recommendations that are irrelevant to you. Personalize the plan to fit your needs and your situation as best as you can, and allow flexibility in the process.
What I Did: Every night, I wrote down the time I ate dinner, when I turned off electronics, and what time I turned out the light. The next morning I added my wake up time and a brief note about how I slept. Even after only a week or two sleep journaling, I saw some interesting patterns (or lack of patterns) and knew what I needed to work on to get better sleep.