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.
“This is number one—most of us have this reflex where our cellphone has to be within arm's length, even when we go to bed," says Raj Dasgupta, MD, sleep expert and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. "We need to break that habit.” Studies have shown that the blue light generated by electronic devices can delay the onset of sleep. (Here's how spending just one extra minute on your phone before bed can rob you of 60 minutes of sleep.) Turn your phone on silent and keep it on a dresser or far end of the bedside table so you’re not tempted to text, check one last email, or get lost in social media.
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.
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.
When you eat and what you eat can significantly impact the quality of your sleep. While you don’t want to go to bed feeling hungry because low blood sugar can interrupt your sleep, it’s also not beneficial to eat right before you hit the sheets. Therefore, it’s best to eat 2-4 hours before going to bed. There are certain foods consumed during this window that can be beneficial for sleep, while other types of foods can hinder your slumber.
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.
Unless you’re in pain, your sleep aid doesn’t need to include painkillers. Products like Advil PM, which combine antihistamines with painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, have name recognition. But Dr. Gary Zammit, the executive director of the Sleep Disorders Institute, suggested following this rule when it comes to medications: Treat the problem that you have.
Keep precautions in mind. Diphenhydramine and doxylamine aren't recommended for people who have closed-angle glaucoma, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sleep apnea, severe liver disease, digestive system obstruction or urinary retention. In addition, sleep aids pose risks for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and might pose risks to people over age 75, including an increased risk of strokes and dementia.
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:
When you first start, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or you’ll want to speed up your counting, but if you stick to the numbers (or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks (in other words, consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 without resuming regular breathing), you can literally feel your heart rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically relax. It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8.
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.
Sleep needs and patterns of sleep and wakefulness are not the same for everyone. The first step in determining your need for sleep is through self-evaluation. Ask yourself: "How tired do I feel during the daytime? When do I feel most alert? When does fatigue set in?" Even moments of sleepiness that you may think of as routine, for instance, falling asleep on the subway on the way to work, or during a lecture, are likely a sign that you are not getting enough sleep.
Another common anxiety that lurks in the wee-hours of a sleepless night is the mounting awareness that you're not asleep when you should be. Stress and frustration – not typically emotions that welcome relaxation – escalate as you fret about how you need to be up for work in four (or three or two) hours. The experts' suggestion? Get rid of time cues. "No clock watching," Walia says, "That's a big no-no. Turn the clock around."
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.
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.
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."
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia is a pretty common technique. Also called CBT-I, the therapy typically involves self-monitoring, mental strategies (like developing positive thoughts about sleep), and creating an environment that promotes sleep—and it’s been shown to improve sleep quality. Self-help treatment for insomnia symptoms associated with chronic conditions in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Morgan K, Gregory P, Tomeny M. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2012, Oct.;60(10):1532-5415. Learn these strategies with the help of a therapist or with online guidance or books—both are equally effective ways of implementing CBT-I. Efficacy of a behavioral self-help treatment with or without therapist guidance for co-morbid and primary insomnia—a randomized controlled trial. Jernelov, S., Lekander, M., Blom, K., et al. Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. BMC Psychiatry, 2012 Jan 22;12:5 Not into seeing a therapist? Check out Sleepio, a digital program that helps users learn about and implement CBT practices from the comfort of their own homes.
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.
“This is a stimulus control theory,” says Meltzer. “Everything in life has a stimulus value, even your bed,” meaning your body should recognize that lying in bed means it’s time to go to sleep. To give your bed that value, the only things you should be doing in it are sleep and sex, she explains. “Getting out of bed if you can’t sleep is the hardest one to do, but it’s so important. If you’re spending 10 hours in bed, but only sleeping six, that’s really bad. Your bed becomes a place for thinking, worrying, watching TV, and not for sleeping.”
Now that you know how much sleep you need—and if you've allowed your body to pay back your sleep debt and "find" its natural sleep patterns and duration—you are probably also feeling a lot better, sharper, happier, and healthier. This is how it feels to be well rested. The next step is to make sure that you continue to make sleep a priority and find ways to protect your sleep time.
The most important thing is taking that time off—it’s more conducive to your productivity. A lot of times people think they can like fight through and push harder and harder and harder to get better results, but sleep can give you that, too. When you transition in and out of sleep, your brain produces theta waves, which help you think more divergently. That’s why a lot of times when you wake up from a power nap or from sleeping, you’ll be able to solve that intractable problem that you couldn’t earlier in the day. That’s one of the reasons I think taking a break—whether it’s meditation or nap—during that circadian dip can be much more conducive to productivity.
The first task to sleep better at night is to improve your sleep hygiene, which refers to following the guidelines for better sleep. These steps may initially seem straightforward, but because they involve modifying your behaviors in relation to your sleep, they can be challenging. If you have mastered these changes, you may be compelled to look at other options.
Sleep is an important part of reaching your health goals. Shakespeare called sleep “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Adequate sleep is a primary component of a healthy lifestyle. Although often the undesirable result of our busy lives, insufficient sleep may also be indicative of imperfect health, and can itself lead to future health problems.
Probably not all people will be able to fall asleep this quickly all the time, especially on days when you might be upset or anxious near bedtime for whatever reason. Your best bet is not to try just one or two strategies from the article, but as many of the strategies as you can at the same time, and keep up this routine for several weeks or more.
You know a good night’s sleep is the key to a happy and well-rested tomorrow. And getting enough shut-eye can help you drive more safely, maintain a healthy weight, and even lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes. But if you’re stuck in a cycle of tossing and turning—and then start stressing about the fact that you’re tossing and turning—it's all too easy to feel frustrated. Not so fast: With these tips you’ll be snoozing within minutes of your head hitting the pillow.