While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, most older people still need at least 7 hours of sleep. Since older adults often have trouble sleeping this long at night, daytime naps can help fill in the gap.
For something that we spend a third of our lives doing (if we’re lucky), sleep is something that we know relatively little about. “Sleep is actually a relatively recent discovery,” says Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep scientist who is currently an assistant adjunct professor in biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Scientists only started looking at sleep 70 years ago.”
The research looked at simple carbs, which are quickly and easily digested. These include things like white rice, white bread and pasta, and potatoes (as well as sugary foods). Interestingly enough though, a Japanese study only found sleep benefits from rice and not from bread or noodles. If you are trying to minimize carbs, it may be most beneficial for your sleep to at least eat a serving for dinner.
Sleep medications, which are most useful for short-term sleeplessness, do require some caution, because they can result in hangovers the next day, or, even worse, lead you to eat, amble about, and even drive while asleep, with no memory of having eaten, ambled about, or driven. The FDA suggests that if you take Ambien, in particular, and at certain dosages, you shouldn’t drive the next day, or take part in other activities that necessitate your being completely awake, because the drug can remain in your system at levels that may affect your functioning.
What I Did: Every night, I wrote down the time I ate dinner, when I turned off electronics, and what time I turned out the light. The next morning I added my wake up time and a brief note about how I slept. Even after only a week or two sleep journaling, I saw some interesting patterns (or lack of patterns) and knew what I needed to work on to get better sleep.
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.
There are diagnostic tests that can be helpful for assessing your sleep problems, with special tests for insomnia. It may be helpful to keep a sleep log or use an actigraph (like a fitness tracker) to track your sleep patterns. Further testing with an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram can also be helpful to identify sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome as potential contributors to insomnia.
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."
Block out unwanted noises. Noise can impact your ability to get to sleep as well as your overall sleep quality. Try listening to a radio program or podcast that's not too engaging to help block out noise distractions such as traffic, as well as worrisome thoughts. Listen to something that is soft-spoken instead of loud, and something you enjoy but not so much that you will stay up just to listen to it. Recommended podcasts include: 
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.
If you feel worn down or are lacking energy due to improper sleep, a hectic schedule or day-to-day stressors, learn how to fight fatigue naturally with insomnia herbs. Taking a few minutes for yourself and doing simple breathing exercises can be helpful, as can daily moderate exercise and getting adequate rest. Certain nutrients, botanicals and other compounds can also help to ward off or lessen the effects of general fatigue. Experiment with the following insomnia herbs and natural remedies for insomnia:
Insomnia usually becomes a problem if it occurs on most nights and causes distress or daytime effects such as fatigue, poor concentration, and irritability. It predisposes to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; to physical problems such as infections, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes; and to motoring and other accidents. The relationship between insomnia and psychological symptoms is far from simple, as insomnia can both cause, and be caused by, depression, anxiety, and stress, opening up a vicious circle.
To set the record straight about being horizontal, Quartz spoke to one of the world’s most-talked-about sleep scientists. Daniel Gartenberg is currently working on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Aging and is also a TED resident. (Watch his talk on deep sleep here.) He’s also an entrepreneur who has launched several cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps, including the Sonic Sleep Coach alarm clock. All that with 8.5 hours of sleep a night.
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.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (or CBT-I) is shown to be incredibly effective for chronic sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. While sleeping pills and other sleep aids may only treat the symptoms of insomnia, CBT-I helps identify the root of the problem, but it takes time and dedication, with regular visits to a clinician who may give you various sleep assignments to try at home and ask you to keep a sleep diary.
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.
Reading books on electronic devices before bedtime disrupts the body’s natural sleep rhythms, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, 12 people read a book on an electronic device for 4 hours before bed, in a dimly lit room, for 5 consecutive nights. On another 5 nights, they read a real printed book on the same schedule. When using an electronic device, they were less drowsy, took longer to fall asleep, and were less alert in the morning. According to the researchers, use of electronic devices suppressed melatonin levels, making it more difficult to get a good night’s rest.
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.
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:
How magnesium works: Magnesium plays a widespread role in the human body, helping regulate and many essential functions. One of magnesium’s most important roles is to enable healthy enzyme function. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different enzyme-related reactions in the body’s cells. This mineral helps regulate blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and helps to control the body’s stress response. Getting sufficient magnesium helps the body maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, as well as elevating and stabilizing mood.
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.
Of all the sleep tips you could ever read or hear about, the most important one is to stick to one sleep schedule—every day. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. When sleep has a regular rhythm, your biological clock will be in sync and all of your other bodily functions will go smoother, including your sleep. You are probably squirming as you read this tip, thinking about your own sleep issues and how you have anything but a regular sleep routine.
Ongoing sleep deficiency can lower your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infections. It can trigger mood changes like irritability, depression, and anxiety. And studies have linked insufficient sleep to weight gain; increased risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes; and even shorter life expectancy.
Clinical trials have shown that passion flower can reduce anxiety as effectively as the prescribed drug known as benzodiazepine oxazepam. A four-week, double-blind study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder compared passion flower to the common anti-anxiety drug. While the oxazepam worked a little faster, both were the same in terms of effectiveness — however, the passion flower did not cause problems with job performance, such drowsiness while on the job, unlike the oxazepam. (8)
Derived from acupuncture, acupressure is an alternative medicine technique based in the Chinese medical theory that a network of energy flows through specific points in your body. Pressing on these points is meant to restore balance and regulate your mind, body, and spirit. A faculty member from leading natural health university Bastyr University suggests these acupressure techniques to alleviate sleeplessness:
The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
One reviewer says that the Stress-Relax Tranquil Sleep Chewable Tablets have helped calm him down and stopped his mind from spinning when lying in bed. Someone else says that the tablets even help him get better sleep when having panic attacks. Try the Stress-Relax chewables for your own anxiety, but remember to see a professional if you feel that your stress is too much to manage.
Many herbal tonics support adrenal health and help balance energy levels, which allow us to work, exercise, and digest during the day, then drop into an alpha state during the night. My favorite herb for insomnia is ashwagandha, which helps to relax the body. Try 500–1,000 mg at bedtime for 6–12 months until you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern. Other effective bedtime herbs include valerian (especially if pain is part of your disturbed sleep quality), passionflower, lemon balm, and California poppy.
Similarly, if you’re having sleep troubles, limit your cell phone use around bedtime. One study found that people who spent more time on smartphones, especially close to bedtime, were more likely to have shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality and take longer to fall asleep (PLoS One, Nov. 9, 2016). So, turn off your cell phone, computer and television at least an hour before bedtime. (See the chart for other behavioral changes you can make to improve your sleep.)
If you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep within 15 minutes or so, get out of bed and do an activity that requires your hands and your head, like a jigsaw puzzle or a coloring book, says Richard Wiseman, professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University if Hertfordshire and author of Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep. Stay away from the TV and digital screens, whose blue light has been proven to suppress melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. “The key is to avoid associating your bed with being awake,” Wiseman says in his 59 Seconds video.