Fortunately, doing that is easier than you might think. Below, we’ll take a look at the multitude of lifestyle changes—both big and small—that you can make to help you sleep better. We’ll also explore proven herbal remedies that can give you a relaxation boost when you really need it, minus the side effects that tend to come with prescription meds.
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.”
Unhealthy daytime habits and lifestyle choices can leave you tossing and turning at night and adversely affect your mood, brain and heart health, immune system, creativity, vitality, and weight. But by experimenting with the following tips, you can enjoy better sleep at night, improve your mental and physical health, and improve how you think and feel during the day.
Abdominal breathing. Most of us don’t breathe as deeply as we should. When we breathe deeply and fully, involving not only the chest, but also the belly, lower back, and ribcage, it can actually help the part of our nervous system that controls relaxation. Close your eyes and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make each exhale a little longer than each inhale.
Studies have shown that exercise during the day can improve sleep at night. When we exercise, we experience a significant rise in body temperature, followed a few hours later by a significant drop. This drop in body temperature makes it easier for us to fall and stay asleep. The best time to exercise is late afternoon or early evening, rather than just before bed. Aim for at least 30 minutes four times a week. Aerobic exercises are the best to combat insomnia as they increase the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood.
Second, we capped melatonin supplements’ per-pill dosage of melatonin at 1.5 mg. While any average melatonin supplement likely contains up to 10 mg of melatonin, Dr. Michael Breus (a clinical psychologist who runs the website thesleepdoctor.com) says that’s far too much for the average person. “The data suggests that the average adult needs between 0.5 and 1.5 mg,” he says.
Unless certain medical conditions or medications are the cause of your sleeplessness, the most common culprit is anxiety, says Lisa Meltzer, an education scholar for the National Sleep Foundation and associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver. “If you’re anxious and worried, it’s very difficult to relax and fall asleep,” says Meltzer. “When you’re not sleeping well, you’ll be more anxious and you’ll have a harder time regulating emotion. It feeds on itself.”
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.
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).
Of course we know exercise is good for us, but the time you exercise could help you sleep deeper at night. Sleep expert Shawn Stevenson shared in this podcast episode that even 4 minutes of exercise in the morning can reset the cortisol cycle to its natural levels. In studies, exercising in the morning resulted in a 25% reduction in blood pressure at night and improved melatonin production (the hormone that helps us sleep).
The FDA has not approved antidepressants for the treatment of insomnia, nor has their use been proven effective in treating sleeplessness. However, some antidepressants are prescribed off-label due to their sedating effects. As with all depression medication, there is a small but significant risk of suicidal thoughts or worsening of depression, particularly in children and adolescents.
Invest in really comfy bedding. This is just common sense — if it feels really good to climb in bed at night, you’ll look forward to it. A quality mattress that suits your sleeping style, along with supportive pillows and soft, breathable bed linens, can mean the difference between tossing and turning and drifting off as soon as your head hits the pillow.