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.
If your bedroom is not a comforting and relaxing place, you’re not going to want to spend a lot of time there. Make adjustments to your bedroom so that it is dark, quiet, cool and cozy. A key factor in the comfort level of your bedroom is the bed itself, so make sure your mattress is big enough so you can move freely, new enough so it doesn’t cause aches and pains, and comfortable enough to support a good night’s sleep.
Valerian. Valerian is a sedating herb that has been used since the second century A.D. to treat insomnia and anxiety. It is believed to work by increasing brain levels of the calming chemical GABA. Although the use of valerian for insomnia hasn’t been extensively studied, the research shows promise and it is generally considered to be safe and non-habit forming. It works best when taken daily for two or more weeks.
Valerian root is a plant with roots that contain many healing properties, in particular for a relaxation and sedative effects. It’s often found in combination with chamomile in a tea. By increasing the amount of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA), it helps calm the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. GABA works by blocking brain signals that cause anxiety and that ongoing trickle effect that can come from it. This calming effect has made it a favorite natural remedy for anxiety too. (9)
Contrary to all our wishes, you can’t really compensate for weekday sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's because you need to sleep one hour for every hour missed, which means that if you miss four hours during the week you'd need to sleep extra hours on Saturday and Sunday. Instead, pick a more reasonable weekday bedtime to stick to. Nudge your bedtime back 15 minutes at a time to help you adjust, says the NSF. If you normally hit the hay at 11:30 p.m., for example, go to bed at 11:15 for a few nights, then 11, then 10:45 — until you reach your ideal bedtime, which for most people is about 7 to 9 hours before you need to wake up.
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.
If any of this resonates with you, you might be interested in a new book by Henry Nicholls called Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of a Good Night’s Rest. Nicholls, a science journalist in England, chose the topic of sleep in part because of his personal experience with narcolepsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. So he decided to write a book about how to sleep better.
Go the drugstore and you’ll see dozens of so-called “natural” sleep supplements. The FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements for safety, quality, effectiveness, or even truth in labeling, so it’s up to you to do your due diligence. Although the evidence is mixed, the following supplements have the most research backing them up as insomnia treatments.
I know what you are thinking: Is he serious? How can stopping my caffeine intake at 2:00 p.m. help me sleep better? It’s simple! Caffeine has what’s called a “half-life” of about 8 hours, which means that its level is reduced, but still somewhat effective in your system after this time. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it will prevent you from either falling asleep or having good quality sleep.
“I’m a strong advocate of mindfulness and meditation for relaxation,” says Barone, who recommends shutting off electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bed and sitting quietly, focusing on soft music or deep breathing. “And if someone wakes up in the middle of the night, I tell them to do a 10- to 15-minute session of meditation then, too.” If you’re new to meditation, Barone recommends finding a mobile app, audio program, or online video to guide you through some exercises.
Sleep issues can often be traced back to an underlying issue. When we asked Dr. Breus for his first choice in treating sleep issues, he told us, “It’s never a pill. I would want to know the root cause. There could be an anxiety component where cognitive behavioral therapy could be helpful.” If you face sleeplessness regularly, it’s well worth speaking to your doctor about underlying causes.
The basal forebrain, near the front and bottom of the brain, also promotes sleep and wakefulness, while part of the midbrain acts as an arousal system. Release of adenosine (a chemical by-product of cellular energy consumption) from cells in the basal forebrain and probably other regions supports your sleep drive. Caffeine counteracts sleepiness by blocking the actions of adenosine.
Record how much and when you sleep, fatigue levels throughout the day, and any other symptoms. This serves two purposes: It can identify activities that help or hurt the chances of a good night’s rest, and it’s a useful tool for a doctor or therapist, should you decide to see one. Digital programs like Zeo, YawnLog, and a variety of apps can all make snooze-tracking easier.
Try “belly breathing.” Controlled, deep breathing is simply a way to direct your mind away from thoughts that might keep you awake. If you find your mind racing as you lie down to go to sleep, place a hand on your belly and breathe in deeply through your nose — so deeply that can feel the air filling your abdomen. Hold it for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth. Breathe mindfully like this for a few minutes, just trying to focus your attention on the rising and falling of your belly as you inhale and exhale. If your mind starts to wander, just bring it back to your breathing. The more often you practice this relaxation technique, the easier and more effective it will be.