The recommended amount of sleep an adult needs is between seven and nine hours each night. But for many, finding this time isn’t the problem–it’s falling asleep once your head hits the pillow. I’m one of those people who occasionally has this problem, and in the past have tried everything from meditation to medication. But for the last four weeks, I tried something different–and it’s something worth trying if you have sleep problems.
Unwind by keeping the lights low. Light signals the brain that it's time to wake up. Staying away from bright lights (including computer screens!), as well as meditating or listening to soothing music, can help your body relax. Try to avoid TV, computers and other electronics, and using your phone (including texting) at least 1 hour before you go to bed.
But then something changed starting at around the ninth night. And honestly, I can’t be sure if it was due to the technique itself or the sheer boredom caused by trying to calm my body into a lump-like state. I relaxed my muscles and visualized swinging in a velvety hammock. And the next thing I knew, it was around 3 a.m., and I woke up, awkwardly splayed over my bed, with my feet still touching the floor and the bedside light still on. I was deeply tired and only woke enough to swing my legs into bed and turn off the lamp.
Set a Routine. If you get up early one morning and then sleep in the next, it can be hard to fall into a rhythm. For the 17 percent of Americans who do shift work, an erratic schedule may be part of the job. But if that doesn't apply to you, going to bed and waking up at roughly the same times every day can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
Your bed plays one of the biggest roles in determining how long and how well you sleep. Your mattress and pillow have to be up to snuff for you to slumber well. Your bed and your body naturally change over time (they’re both aging!), so if your mattress is seven years or older, it’s probably time to replace it. Older mattresses do not provide the support you need for restful sleep and need to be replaced. Making this one improvement can unlock nights of blissful sleep. Your pillows should also be replaced regularly once a year to make sure you are getting proper support for your neck and spine.
One of the vital roles of sleep is to help us solidify and consolidate memories. As we go about our day, our brains take in an incredible amount of information. Rather than being directly logged and recorded, however, these facts and experiences first need to be processed and stored; and many of these steps happen while we sleep. Overnight, bits and pieces of information are transferred from more tentative, short-term memory to stronger, long-term memory—a process called "consolidation." Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.
How melatonin helps sleep: Melatonin can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase overall sleep amounts, according to research. It’s been shown to improve quality of sleep and reduce daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Studies also show melatonin may increase REM sleep. It’s during REM sleep that we consolidate and process memory, and prime the regions of the brain associated with learning.
Visualization: Involves actively imagining a relaxing scene. You can try it in bed for 20 minutes before falling asleep. Involve all your senses. If you're imagining yourself on a tropical island, think of the way the warm breeze feels against your skin. Imagine the sweet scent of the flowers, look at the water and listen to the waves. The more vivid the visualization and the more senses you involve, the more effective it will be.
If you’re bringing the stress of your job and daily life to bed with you, you’re not going to sleep well. Resolve to keep everything that’s stressful out of your bedroom, so don’t bring in work materials, your phone or even allow yourself to think about work while in your bedroom. You can also gain control over your worries and anxieties by keeping a worry journal. Write about the things that are bothering you so you can work through them instead of bringing them to bed with you.
This amino acid comes from green tea and not only helps maintain a calm alertness during the day but also a deeper sleep at night. However, green tea doesn't contain enough L-theanine to significantly boost your REM cycles. Besides, you might then wake up to go to the bathroom. Instead, buy a brand called Suntheanine, which is pure L-theanine. (Other brands have inactive forms of theanine that block the effectiveness.) Take 50 to 200 milligrams at bedtime.
How L-theanine works: L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills. At the same time, L-theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety. L-theanine boosts production of alpha waves in the brain, which enhance relaxation, focus, and even creativity. That can make L-theanine a good choice for people who are looking to enhance their daytime relaxation without worrying about becoming sleepy and fatigued during the day.
You turn the light off at a reasonable hour, nestle into your pillow, and… your thoughts start going a mile-a-minute. Did you reply to that email from your boss? What should you pack the kids for lunch tomorrow? Are you living up to your potential? And why haven’t you started writing that novel/taken that trip/bought that house yet? If this sounds familiar, your stress and anxiety is getting in the way of you and some quality shut-eye. That’s where meditation comes in.
Over the years, I’ve written in-depth about some of the best-studied, most effective natural sleep aids. As we head into the new year with a focus on prioritizing sleep, I thought I’d share a quick review of some of my top suggestions for natural sleep therapies. These are the supplements that I most often discuss with my patients, and in some cases use for myself and my family.
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.
Before using this medication, tell your doctor or pharmacist your medical history, especially of: breathing problems (such as asthma, emphysema), high pressure in the eye (glaucoma), heart problems, high blood pressure, liver disease, seizures, stomach/intestine problems (such as ulcers, blockage), overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), difficulty urinating (for example, due to enlarged prostate).
Kava. The root has long been a favorite among Pacific Islanders for promoting relaxation. In fact, one analysis found that kava was significantly more effective at treating anxiety than a placebo, and some preliminary research suggests it could also help treat insomnia. But like valerian, long-term use of the stuff isn’t advised, since it could have a negative impact on your liver.
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.
A professor I collaborate with at Penn State named Orfeu Buxton says that 8.5 hours of sleep is the new eight hours. In order to get a healthy eight hours of sleep, which is the amount that many people need, you need to be in bed for 8.5 hours. The standard in the literature is that healthy sleepers spend more than 90% of the time in bed asleep, so if you’re in bed for eight hours, a healthy sleeper might actually sleep for only about 7.2 hours.
The herb Vitex agnus castus (chaste tree) may help insomnia during menstrual periods or insomnia that is a side effect of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In one study, women with moderate to severe premenstrual syndrome were treated with either a vitex agnus castus extract or a placebo for three menstrual cycles. Participants were asked to document their symptoms with a PMS diary with a daily rating scale of 17 symptoms. They reported fewer symptoms, especially less insomnia and negative affect, but their cramps didn't improve. However, chasteberry should not be used by anyone on birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, or dopamine-related medications, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Want help achieving and maintaining a healthy weight? Aim for eight hours of sleep a night. Research suggests that appetite-regulating hormones are affected by sleep and that sleep deprivation could lead to weight gain. In two studies, people who slept five hours or less per night had higher levels of ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates hunger – and lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin than those who slept eight hours per night. So make sure getting adequate sleep is near the top of your optimum health checklist!
Hypnosis is a state in which a person is more focused, aware, and open to suggestion. Although how it works is not understood, hypnosis may bring about physiological changes in the body such as decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and alpha wave brain patterns, similar to meditation and other types of deep relaxation. Hypnosis may be helpful in enhancing the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques. But the studies done so far are not well-designed.
Physical and chemical changes associated with injury and aging: The “internal clock” in the brain controls when people sleep and wake every day. For individuals who have a disability associated with a brain injury or ongoing nervous system lesions like multiple sclerosis, their brain may be less able to tell the body to fall asleep or wake up. Injuries to the brain can also affect the chemicals in our body that help us to sleep, and brain mechanisms for starting and stopping sleep.
Regular exercise will go a long way toward improving your sleep, Cralle says. Finding the perfect time in your day where a workout won’t hinder your sleep is crucial—some people have no problem falling asleep after an evening workout, but others may need to hit the gym first thing in the morning. The key is working out at least several times a week, whether it’s a 10-minute walk, a yoga class, or a sweaty weight-lifting session.
Melatonin, like all natural dietary supplements, is unregulated and untested for long-term use in humans. Some people find that melatonin causes grogginess and depression. Others report falling asleep quickly with melatonin only to awaken in the middle of the night. Still, studies show that melatonin appears to be safe with short-term use (three months or less).
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.
How is it possible to be sleep deprived without knowing it? Most of the signs of sleep deprivation are much more subtle than falling face first into your dinner plate. Furthermore, if you’ve made a habit of skimping on sleep, you may not even remember what it feels like to be truly wide-awake, fully alert, and firing on all cylinders. Maybe it feels normal to get sleepy when you’re in a boring meeting, struggling through the afternoon slump, or dozing off after dinner, but the truth is that it’s only “normal” if you’re sleep deprived.
Eat Foods That Help You Sleep: Tryptophan is a naturally-occurring amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin. Eat carbohydrate snacks such as whole grain crackers before bedtime. Also include foods rich in vitamin B6, found in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, and bananas, which enhances the body's conversion of tryptophan. Note that L-tryptophan supplements are not recommended as they have been linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.
How valerian and hops help sleep: You can use valerian and hops separately to treat sleep problems. Valerian has been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly, reduce restless sleep, increase sleep amounts, and improve symptoms of insomnia. Research also shows valerian is effective in treating sleep problems linked to menopause. Hops itself can increase sleep time. Studies show these herbal supplements pair well together: according to research, hops may be more effective for sleep when in combination with valerian.
Your health care provider may recommend a polysomnogram or other test to diagnose a sleep disorder. A polysomnogram typically involves spending the night at a sleep lab or sleep center. It records your breathing, oxygen levels, eye and limb movements, heart rate, and brain waves throughout the night. Your sleep is also video and audio recorded. The data can help a sleep specialist determine if you are reaching and proceeding properly through the various sleep stages. Results may be used to develop a treatment plan or determine if further tests are needed.
“It truly is cruel,” Simpson says. "Women may have had no problems with sleep their whole lives, except they can’t get any because their children or their job are keeping them up. Then they get the kids raised and the job slows down, and their sleep patterns go absolutely haywire. During menopause, women’s rates of insomnia go through the roof, and their rates of sleep apnea become more or less equivalent to men.”