Valerian is one of the most common sleep remedies for insomnia. Numerous studies have found that valerian improves deep sleep, speed of falling asleep, and overall quality of sleep. However, it's most effective when used over a longer period of time. One caveat? About 10% of the people who use it actually feel energized, which may keep them awake. If that happens to you, take valerian during the day. Otherwise, take 200 to 800 milligrams before bed.
Valerian research is more contradictory than that pertaining to melatonin. One valerian study found no benefit to taking the herb at the 14-day mark but discovered that it “greatly improved sleep” after 28 days. Dr. Goldstein confirmed this, noting that, while valerian will work for some “super sensitive” people the first time they take it, for others it may need to build up in their system for weeks before they start to notice any changes (though she notes that the same has been said about melatonin).
TEMPERATURE: This is a big problem, especially if you have a sleep partner. Everyone has different natural body temperatures, and usually men run hotter than women, but it can go either way. That can be a big issue if you have a different body temperature, because then no one’s happy. I wrote this article called “Split blankets, not beds,” where I said that you shouldn’t share the same comforter. Of course it’s nice to share, and I do that at some points, but it’s also important to have different bedding on your bed so you can have that lighter sheet or comforter to try to mitigate differences in body temperature. There’s also something called a chili pad. You put on half of your bed and it’ll dictate the temperature level on your half if you run at a different temperature than your sleep partner.
This third one is what I study. The “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” is this idea that during the day, we make all these connections with the world around us. It used to be like, “Don’t go over there—the lions live there now.” Now it’s like, “What did Barbara say to me in the office?” These excitatory connections we make during the day result in the neurons in our brains getting overall higher activation. Then during the nighttime when we sleep, we have a downregulating process where the things that didn’t really matter to your survival sink to the bottom, and the things that are most relevant to your survival rise to the top. What deep sleep does is all the neural processing, and what REM sleep [rapid-eye-movement sleep] and light sleep do is basically integrate that into your long-term personality and understanding of the world.
Now to the more technical details: People who are stressed or anxious are actually chronically under-breathing because stressed people breathe shortly and shallowly, and often even unconsciously hold their breath. By extending your inhale to a count of four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, allowing the oxygen to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath for seven seconds, and then emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs by exhaling steadily for eight seconds. The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild sedative-like effect. It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air.
Worry Earlier in the Day. When your mind is racing with concerns while you’re trying to fall asleep, that can make it nearly impossible to drift off. Instead, dedicate 15 minutes during the day to process these thoughts. Writing a to-do list or thinking about solutions can be a healthy way to deal with stress and prevent it from interfering with sleep later.
The hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain, contains groups of nerve cells that act as control centers affecting sleep and arousal. Within the hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – clusters of thousands of cells that receive information about light exposure directly from the eyes and control your behavioral rhythm. Some people with damage to the SCN sleep erratically throughout the day because they are not able to match their circadian rhythms with the light-dark cycle. Most blind people maintain some ability to sense light and are able to modify their sleep/wake cycle.
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.
Social or recreational drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol may have a larger impact on your sleep than you realize. Caffeine, which can stay in your system as long as 14 hours, increases the number of times you awaken at night and decreases the total amount of sleep time. This may subsequently affect daytime anxiety and performance. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine, with a difference being that at low doses, nicotine tends to act as a sedative, while at high doses it causes arousals during sleep.
Time to bust some long-held myths: Waking up early does not make you a better person. The early bird does not always catch the worm. Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock, and it’s going to look different to your neighbor’s. When you go to sleep and wake up in accordance with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, you’ll sleep better, and be more alert and productive during the day. Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert, identified four sleep chronotypes (aka your circadian rhythm personality). These are:
Research published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports found that listening to sounds from nature, like a rainforest soundscape or a babbling brook, can trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Soothing background sounds can also cover up manmade sounds like voices or traffic, which were shown in the study to have the opposite effect.
People often ask me about whether, and how, to use cannabis for sleep. (I wrote about some dos and don’ts for using cannabis as a sleep tool—you can check it out here.) One of the easiest, most effective ways to harness the relaxing, sleep promoting effects of cannabis? Try using CBD. You’ve probably heard of CBD. It’s showing up everywhere as a therapy to reduce anxiety and improve mental focus. It’s also a natural sleep booster.
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.
If you try just one sleep hack, make it this one. Junk light — the blue light that emits from your smartphone, laptop, and tablet screens — is wrecking your sleep. Too much blue light messes with your brain’s production of melatonin — the hormone that tells your body when it’s time to snooze. Blue light wakes you up and tells your brain that it’s daytime. Screens aren’t the only source of junk light — street lamps and LED lightbulbs are also to blame.
If your mind tends to race as soon as your head hits the pillow, put the brakes on this sleep-stealing habit by distracting yourself from rehashing the day’s events. One tip Breus offers his patients: Count down from 300 in multiples of three. “Because this task is mathematically complicated to do in your head,” he explains, “it forces your brain to focus on something else besides your worries.”
She happens to be a licensed wellness practitioner who studies meditation, stress, and breathing techniques, and she told me it would change my life. You simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. She explained that the studied combination of numbers has a chemical-like effect on our brains and would slow my heart rate and soothe me right to sleep that night. “It works,” she told me. “It’s crazy.”