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.*
Even though sleep is pretty much the opposite of physical exertion, exercise conducted at the right time of day (i.e., not too close to bedtime) is one of the best things you can do to get a good night’s rest. Exercise helps regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which promotes sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, exercise can also improve insomnia by lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression, two conditions linked to sleep disruption. Daily physical activity also helps reduce cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone.
Get out of bed. When you lie awake in bed, you send yourself the wrong message. "You're basically training your body not to sleep in bed, but to lie there and not sleep," Walia says. "And your mind can get conditioned to that." Olson puts it another way: "The longer we lie there and get frustrated in that environment, the more we come to anticipate it next time we're there," he says. "We come to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well."
The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep. (The brain stem includes structures called the pons, medulla, and midbrain.) Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem. The brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends signals to relax muscles essential for body posture and limb movements, so that we don’t act out our dreams.
But remember: It's important to talk with your doctors about consistent sleep problems. You should also let them know if you're taking any type of sleep aid, natural or otherwise, to ensure there isn't a potential risk with existing health conditions or other medications you're taking, says clinical sleep educator Terry Cralle, RN. "Like all drugs, natural sleep remedies can have side effects and risks. I think it's good to get information about them and then discuss it with a healthcare provider."
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.
We swear, we’re not pulling your leg. Try and remember what you physically feel like when you’re tired: Do your arms go limp? Do your eyes roll back into your head? Now, mimic those physical signs: While lying in bed, think of a weight pressing evenly across your entire body. Okay, that sounds a little scary, but concentrating on the weight will stop other thoughts (e.g. the school lunches you still have to pack for tomorrow) from distracting you. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself waking up the next day, wondering how the heck you fell asleep so fast.
IT'S 4 A.M. THE CLOCK ticks, the moon glows, the dog snores and you just stare. Perhaps you stare into the blackish red of the inside of your eyelids as you lie still and fetal, thinking if you pretend to be sleeping, the real thing will surely come. Or maybe you stare at the paint chips in the ceiling, then the laundry on the floor, then the glowing 4:01 a.m. time, as you turn and shift and stare some more. And you know you shouldn't be staring – you should be sleeping! You should be logging those crucial seven-plus hours of quality sleep each night, and the frustration that you cannot will yourself to achieve that makes this 4:02 a.m. stare session all the more infuriating. And it's hard to fall asleep when you're infuriated.
REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Mixed frequency brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness. Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep. Your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams. As you age, you sleep less of your time in REM sleep. Memory consolidation most likely requires both non-REM and REM sleep.
Before setting off on this path of personal improvement, you should candidly assess your level of commitment. Are you willing to make some hard choices? Is it a good time in your life to focus on your sleep and set necessary boundaries? Can you see this process through to its end? If your life is in an uproar, now may not be the perfect opportunity to focus on your sleep. But if you're ready and willing to improve your sleep, there is no better time than the present to make some changes.
Research has shown that changing your lifestyle and sleep habits is the best way to combat insomnia. Even if you decide to use sleeping pills or medications in the short term, experts recommend making changes to your lifestyle and bedtime behavior as a long-term remedy to sleep problems. Behavioral and environmental changes can have more of a positive impact on sleep than medication, without the risk of side effects or dependence.
The amount of sleep needed each night varies, but for adults, getting at least seven hours every night is crucial to having a healthy mind and body. And when we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies aren’t the only things that suffer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a whopping 49.2 million people have trouble with focus due to lack of sleep, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrationreported that millions nod off while driving! (1, 2)
Science says, we’re supposed to get sleepy when the sun sets, but since we spend most of our nights indoors basking in the glow of our cell phones and tablets, our brains still think it’s daytime and refuse to shut down. So, here’s what you do: Put the gadgets away and watch the sunset. It being winter and all, that can be difficult. Philips’ Wake-Up Light ($180 at Amazon) offers the ability to fake it. Simply, set it to sunset simulation mode; it will gradually decrease light and sound (on your timeline) to help prepare your body for rest.
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain, may also help you fall asleep faster when taken as a supplement. Triggered by the absence of light, this natural sleep aid regulates the body’s internal clock, ensuring we are tired at night and mentally and physically alert during the day. A recent study published in the journal Critical Care found that melatonin improved sleep quality and reduced nighttime disturbances in its healthy subjects, and experts from Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center discovered that melatonin supplements increased sleep time by 13 minutes. Supplements can be found in health food stores and pharmacies, but read up on the things you need to know before taking melatonin for sleep and talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is a suitable natural insomnia cure for you. Don’t miss the 10 best vitamins for sleep.
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).
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice was conducted with cancer patients, a common group that has serious issues with sleeping well, to better understand whether aromatherapy using essential oils could help provide some much-needed healing shut-eye. Aromasticks were given to patients over a 13-week period. Of the participants, 94 percent reported using the aromasticks with 92 percent reporting that they would continue use. Bergamot oil and lavender oil, in addition to sandalwood, frankincense and mandarin, were combined to create the useful sleep-inducing blend. (7)
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:
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.
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.
Why is working out seemingly so beneficial? The mechanisms aren’t entirely known, but National Sleep Foundation experts say that it could have to do with exercise’s ability promote feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Staying active might also help to keep your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in sync—particularly if you do it outside (more on that below).
5. If sleep doesn’t come, don’t become anxious or annoyed and try to force yourself to sleep. The more aggravated you become, the less likely you are to fall asleep. Instead, try to clear your mind and relax. For example, I find that making myself feel grateful for something soon sends me off to sleep. Alternatively, get up and do something relaxing and enjoyable for about half an hour before giving it another go. Don't worry too much about losing sleep: lying in bed with your eyes closed can provide some of the restorative benefits of sleep.
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
These products do not cure or shorten the length of the common cold and may cause serious side effects. To decrease the risk for serious side effects, carefully follow all dosage directions. Do not use this product to make a child sleepy. Do not give other cough-and-cold medication that might contain the same or similar ingredients (see also Drug Interactions section). Ask the doctor or pharmacist about other ways to relieve cough and cold symptoms (such as drinking enough fluids, using a humidifier or saline nose drops/spray).
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.
When you’re desperate to get some rest, it’s tempting to head for the medicine cabinet for relief. And you may get it in the moment. But if you regularly have trouble sleeping, that’s a red flag that something’s wrong. It could be something as simple as too much caffeine or viewing electronic screens late at night. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying medical or psychological problem. But whatever it is, it won’t be cured with sleeping pills. At best, sleeping pills are a temporary band aid. At worst, they’re an addictive crutch that can make insomnia worse in the long run.
“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.”
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).
Some researchers, parents, and teachers have suggested that middle- and high-school classes begin later in the morning to accommodate teens' need for more sleep. Some schools have implemented later start times. You and your friends, parents, and teachers can lobby for later start times at your school, but in the meantime you'll have to make your own adjustments.
It may sound hippy dippy, but if you focus on it effectively, daydreaming about relaxing scenes can really help ease your mind. During visualization, know that it’s OK if your mind wanders but keep returning your focus to the scene. Try out different methods and audio tracks to see what works best for you. Visualization can also be a helpful mid-day stress reliever to keep in mind.