It’s oh, I don’t know, 3 o’clock in the freaking morning, and I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and wanting to cry with frustration. I'm trying to stay hopeful about my ability to catch a few hours of shuteye before work the next morning, but I’ve been up until 6 a.m. (not by choice) enough times in my life to know the beast of insomnia can’t always be tamed.
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.
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.
Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in many parts of the brain become more active as we get ready for bed. Nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters can “switch off” or dampen the activity of cells that signal arousal or relaxation. GABA is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, and sedation. Norepinephrine and orexin (also called hypocretin) keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. Other neurotransmitters that shape sleep and wakefulness include acetylcholine, histamine, adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin.
Ease anxiety. Sometimes the sleeplessness stems from worry. Your brain is on overdrive, thinking about your bank account and the big meeting tomorrow and your kid's detention. For people who consistently have trouble "quieting the mind" at night, Olson suggests trying "to train your mind to think about those things at more appropriate times of the day." Schedule a time each day – say, between work and dinner – to simply write a sentence or two about what's worrying you and where you stand with that. "Maybe it's as simple as, 'I thought about this today, but I don't have any real solutions right now,'" Olson says. By systematically documenting these worries during the day, ideally, you'll be less likely to fixate on them at night.
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.
Valerian research is more contradictory than that pertaining to melatonin. One valerian study found no benefit to taking the herb at the 14-day mark but discovered that it “greatly improved sleep” after 28 days. Dr. Goldstein confirmed this, noting that, while valerian will work for some “super sensitive” people the first time they take it, for others it may need to build up in their system for weeks before they start to notice any changes (though she notes that the same has been said about melatonin).
Alison Moodie is a health reporter based in Los Angeles. She has written for numerous outlets including Newsweek, Agence France-Presse, The Daily Mail and HuffPost. For years she covered sustainable business for The Guardian. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she majored in TV news. When she's not working she's doting on her two kids and whipping up Bulletproof-inspired dishes in her kitchen.
You know now that it’s not about the amount of sleep that you get, but the quality of those zzz’s. You can deepen the sleep that you’re already getting with the help of high-tech sleep devices on the market. For a budget buy, a smartphone sleep app like the Sonic Sleep Coach can track your sleep and play audio to cover any disruptive noise. On the higher-end, wearable sleep devices like headbands and rings measure your sleep, and in the case of headbands, increase the number of your slow brain waves. The result? Deeper, more restorative sleep. Learn more about sleep headbands here, and read the Bulletproof review of the OURA Ring sleep tracker.
Sleep issues can often be traced back to an underlying issue. When we asked Dr. Breus for his first choice in treating sleep issues, he told us, “It’s never a pill. I would want to know the root cause. There could be an anxiety component where cognitive behavioral therapy could be helpful.” If you face sleeplessness regularly, it’s well worth speaking to your doctor about underlying causes.
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.
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Set a regular bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night signals to your body that it's time to sleep. Waking up at the same time every day also can help establish sleep patterns. So try to stick as closely as you can to your sleep schedule, even on weekends. Try not to go to sleep more than an hour later or wake up more than 2 to 3 hours later than you do during the week.
2. Minimize noise, light, and temperature extremes during sleep with ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner. Even the slightest nighttime noises or luminescent lights can disrupt the quality of your sleep. Try to keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature -- not too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees).
7. Reduce your overall stress. At the same time, try to do something productive or enjoyable each day. As da Vinci said, a well-spent day brings happy sleep (and a well-spent life brings happy death). While lying in bed, do some deep breathing: breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds, then purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Let out as much air as you can and start again. Deep breathing also helps with controlling pain.
It depends on the sleep aid. Consumer Reports writes that while the antihistamine diphenhydramine isn’t physically addictive, it can be psychologically addictive. On the other hand, Mayo Clinic says that you’re unlikely to become dependent on melatonin with short-term use. Again, it’s best to talk to your doctor to figure out which option is best for you.
Forget the glass of wine—winding down the day with a warm mug of milk and honey is one of the better natural sleep remedies. Milk contains the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan, which increases the amount of serotonin, a hormone that works as a natural sedative, in the brain. Carbs, like honey, help transmit that hormone to your brain faster. If you’re hungry for a snack, a turkey sandwich will deliver that power-combo of tryptophan and carbohydrates; or try a banana with milk to get some vitamin B6, which helps convert tryptophan to serotonin. Looking for more delicious insomnia cures? Snack on these 16 foods that can help you sleep better.
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.
Factors that influence your sleep-wake needs include medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and what you eat and drink. Perhaps the greatest influence is the exposure to light. Specialized cells in the retinas of your eyes process light and tell the brain whether it is day or night and can advance or delay our sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to light can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep when awakened.
From having occasional difficulty sleeping to insomnia, there is a lot you can do to get a better night's sleep, feel refreshed when you awake, and remain alert throughout the day. It's called "sleep hygiene" and refers to those practices, habits, and environmental factors that are critically important for sound sleep. And most of it is under your control.
Valerian is one of the most common sleep remedies for insomnia. Numerous studies have found that valerian improves deep sleep, speed of falling asleep, and overall quality of sleep. However, it's most effective when used over a longer period of time. One caveat? About 10% of the people who use it actually feel energized, which may keep them awake. If that happens to you, take valerian during the day. Otherwise, take 200 to 800 milligrams before bed.
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.
Medicate with caution. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, Walia and Olson do not recommend drugs as a first choice for relieving sleeplessness. Ideally, the tips above and improved sleep hygiene should do the trick. But, should you choose a sleep aid, Olson reminds people that, of course, they make you sleepy. This grogginess is great at 11 p.m., but not at 7 a.m. – when you have to drive a car.
Judgments (“I should be asleep”), comparisons (“my BF/GF/roommate is sleeping; why can’t I?”), and catastrophic thinking (“If I don’t get eight hours’ sleep tonight, I’ll mess up that presentation tomorrow, lose my job, and die tired and alone”) don’t do us any good. Make the night easier by accepting it for what it is, letting go of judgments, and being gentle with yourself. The silver lining? You just might get to see a glorious sunrise.
If you're searching for a natural sleep aid to put an end to your insomnia, here's something to keep in mind. Some sleep aids and herbal remedies may help induce sleepiness. And even though the FDA does regulate dietary supplements, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.
Sleeping pills and other sleep-promoting pharmaceuticals can offer a short-term solution to a temporary bout of insomnia. And plenty of people use them. But often, prescription sleep aids come with unpleasant side effects like headaches, sore muscles, constipation, dry mouth, daytime fatigue, trouble concentrating, dizziness, and more. Add them all up, and they’re about as bad—if not worse–than your garden variety sleep deprivation.
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.
Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy – about 9 or 10 years for most good quality mattresses. Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep but also free of allergens that might affect you and objects that might cause you to slip or fall if you have to get up
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.
Warming your body up with a hot shower an hour before bed and then stepping into cooler air will cause your body temperature to drop more precipitously. Studies show that this rapid temperature decrease slows your metabolism faster and prepares your body for sleep. “Showers can also be very relaxing, so that helps, too,” says Meltzer. If you shower every night around the same time, making it part of a consistent bedtime routine, you’ll see the most sleep value from it, she adds. “Then your body has an expectation of what’s coming next.”
So I can confidently say this decades-old technique worked for me. Mind you, it didn’t work every night. Some nights during that second week I didn’t get that “release” after my visualization. But as the weeks went on, the trick seemed to work more often than not. And it seemed to work more effectively when I visualized myself in a velvety hammock instead of in a canoe, so it helps to switch up visualizations to see what works best.
Contrary to all our wishes, you can’t really compensate for weekday sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's because you need to sleep one hour for every hour missed, which means that if you miss four hours during the week you'd need to sleep extra hours on Saturday and Sunday. Instead, pick a more reasonable weekday bedtime to stick to. Nudge your bedtime back 15 minutes at a time to help you adjust, says the NSF. If you normally hit the hay at 11:30 p.m., for example, go to bed at 11:15 for a few nights, then 11, then 10:45 — until you reach your ideal bedtime, which for most people is about 7 to 9 hours before you need to wake up.
Wear socks to bed. While a cooler core body temperature helps you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep, cold extremities (hands and feet) can have the opposite effect. If you tend to have cold feet at bedtime, put on a pair of cozy socks, rest your feet on a heating pad, or pile an extra blanket on the foot of your bed. If none of those appeal to you, try wearing a pair of warm slippers in the evening so that your feet will be toasty when you climb in bed for the night.