Walia suggests progressive muscle relaxation: Working from your toes to your forehead, tightly tense each muscle group for five seconds, and then relax. Visualization is another classic relaxing technique, in which you picture yourself someplace pleasant and calm. And what about the mother of all sleep remedies – counting sheep? Olson views this as a "mental distraction technique," like visualization. With sleep, he says, "the harder you try to get it, often the more elusive it is." So whether you're counting farm animals or picturing yourself in a hammock in Cabo, the idea is the same, Olson says. "You're getting your mind off of 'I can't sleep; I can't sleep; I can't sleep,' and onto something else."
Imagine yourself drifting in a blissful slumber while practicing deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Treating insomnia with a self-administered muscle relaxation training program: a follow-up. Gustafson R. Psychological reports, 1992, May.;70(1):0033-2941. Starting at one end of the body and working up or down, clench and then release each section of muscles for instant all-over relaxation.
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.
There are several different types of prescription sleeping pills, classified as sedative hypnotics. In general, these medications act by working on receptors in the brain to slow down the nervous system. Some medications are used more for inducing sleep, while others are used for staying asleep. Some last longer than others in your system (a longer half-life), and some have a higher risk of becoming habit forming.
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.
Researchers from a Swiss study published in the journal Nature observed that warm feet and hands were the best predictor of rapid sleep onset. In the study, participants placed a hot water bottle at their feet, which widened the blood vessels on the surface of the skin, thereby increasing heat loss. Shifting blood flow from your core to your extremities cools down your body, working in concert with melatonin.
It’s well known that babies fall fast asleep when they’re rocked gently back and forth in a carriage or a mother’s arms. Surprisingly, the same trick works with adults. According to a small preliminary study published in Current Biology, when study participants napped in a hammock-like bed, they fell asleep faster and slept more soundly than when they slept in a regular bed. It seems that the gentle swinging sensation primes brain activity that fosters deep sleep. While you can’t exactly doze off in a hammock every night, try chilling out in a rocking chair before hitting the sheets to mimic the motion and help your body feel sleepy.
Sleep gives your body a rest and allows it to prepare for the next day. It's like giving your body a mini-vacation. Sleep also gives your brain a chance to sort things out. Scientists aren't exactly sure what kinds of organizing your brain does while you sleep, but they think that sleep might be the time when the brain sorts and stores information, replaces chemicals, and solves problems.
Some small studies have suggested that magnesium can help with insomnia, but the research isn’t conclusive. One study found that while total sleep time didn’t change significantly for participants receiving magnesium supplements, there was improvement in the participants' Insomnia Severity Index score, which measures the nature, severity, and impact of insomnia in adults, as well as improvement in sleep onset latency (the length of time that it takes to fall asleep), sleep efficiency, early morning awakening, and more.
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.
Magnesium is crucial to our health for so many reasons, including its sleep-promoting and stress-reducing abilities. It’s not surprising then that a magnesium deficiency can result in poor sleep. Research has shown that supplementing with magnesium even helps insomnia, which can be defined as a persistent problem falling and staying asleep. Taking around 400 milligrams of magnesium before bed is ideal to promote a good night’s rest. You can also add more magnesium-rich foods like spinach, pumpkin seeds, and almonds to your diet.
Everyone dreams. You spend about 2 hours each night dreaming but may not remember most of your dreams. Its exact purpose isn’t known, but dreaming may help you process your emotions. Events from the day often invade your thoughts during sleep, and people suffering from stress or anxiety are more likely to have frightening dreams. Dreams can be experienced in all stages of sleep but usually are most vivid in REM sleep. Some people dream in color, while others only recall dreams in black and white.
You know what happens when you don’t sleep well: You feel sluggish in the daytime, and your concentration suffers. Poor or insufficient sleep has been linked to other problems, too, such as declined immune function and an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. In your struggle to find out how to sleep better at night naturally, you’re willing to try just about anything.
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.
If you’re American, chances are you aren’t getting enough sleep. A Gallup poll (2005) of Americans past age 50 found only 32% reported getting a good night’s sleep routinely. 56% said they got between 6 and 8 hours a night. The US Dept of Health and Human Services reports that “The odds of being a short sleeper (defined as someone who sleeps less than 6 hours a night) in the United States have increased significantly over the past 30 years.”
Cherries. They’re the only edible source of the sleep hormone melatonin, so consider having a bowlful for dessert. If they’re not in season, opt for thawed frozen cherries or a glass of tart cherry juice. Drinking two glasses daily helped people with insomnia sleep for 90 more minutes, found one study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Though I’m not promising or claiming (nor does Weil) that practicing this breathing technique can fight disease or provide clinical benefits, I can tell you one thing: If it affects you like it did me, it will help you fall asleep way faster. Not only is it free, it also works for a number of different instances. In addition to using it to fall asleep in a pinch, you can practice it if you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself thinking about something you have to do the next day, in order to fall back asleep; if you are nervous before an event (like a wedding, or giving a speech); if you are angry about something and want to calm down. My friend (the bride-to-be who slept like a baby the week before her wedding), who gets nervous to fly, uses it before flights and during if the plane encounters turbulence.
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.
A lot of people don’t understand that these are two very, very different processes. A lot of people probably learned from basic psych in high school that you have these sleep stages: light sleep > deep sleep > light sleep > REM, and repeat. As you sleep more, you get less and less deep sleep, and also if you sleep-deprive yourself, you get more deep 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.
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.
Create the right sleeping environment. Studies show that people sleep best in a dark room that is slightly on the cool side. Close your blinds or curtains (and make sure they're heavy enough to block out light) and turn down the thermostat (pile on extra blankets or wear PJs if you're cold). Lots of noise can be a sleep turnoff, too. Use a nature sounds or white-noise machine (or app!) if you need to block out a noisy environment.
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.