Because tryptophan is present in milk and warm milk helps some people feel drowsy, tryptophan became a much sought-after item for the treatment of insomnia at natural food stores. Yet some people who took tryptophan as a natural supplement developed a syndrome eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). Some people died. Scientists later believed the deaths were the result of taking the amino acid tryptophan. Not everyone who took tryptophan, however, experienced these side effects. In addition, not everyone who took tryptophan received help for insomnia.
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.
Melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain, may also help you fall asleep faster when taken as a supplement. Triggered by the absence of light, this natural sleep aid regulates the body’s internal clock, ensuring we are tired at night and mentally and physically alert during the day. A recent study published in the journal Critical Care found that melatonin improved sleep quality and reduced nighttime disturbances in its healthy subjects, and experts from Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center discovered that melatonin supplements increased sleep time by 13 minutes. Supplements can be found in health food stores and pharmacies, but read up on the things you need to know before taking melatonin for sleep and talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is a suitable natural insomnia cure for you. Don’t miss the 10 best vitamins for sleep.
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.
Another study found that the mineral helps decrease cortisol, the “stress hormone” that can keep you up at night. Dr. Lipman says he recommends magnesium to insomnia patients because it calms down the nervous system. But because the evidence around magnesium as a sleep aid is sparse, you might consider incorporating more magnesium into your diet rather than spending money on a supplement. It's found in quinoa, almonds, spinach, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, black beans, and brown rice.
Innovative fibers like Celliant may help you drift off sooner. Used in Amerisleep mattress covers, Celliant is a fabric infused with minerals that absorbs body heat and converts it to infrared waves. It’s been shown to help regulate body temperature (to avoid overheating) and to boost circulation. In one study, people fell asleep 15 minutes faster on a mattress with a Celliant cover.
It might seem like a good idea to doze off to your favorite sitcom, but research now shows it’s quite the opposite. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that young adults who watched multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show were 98% more likely to have poor sleep quality and reported experiencing more insomnia symptoms and next-day fatigue than those who didn’t binge-watch. Turns out, binge-watching actually caused them to be more cognitively aroused—exactly how you don’t want your brain to work right before bed. “Turn off the program after one episode and choose shows that won’t stimulate you,” says Dr. Dasgupta.
How glycine works: Glycine is considered among the most important amino acids for the body. It exerts widespread influence over our bodies’ systems, structure, and general health, including cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic health. Glycine helps the body make serotonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that has significant effects on sleep and mood.
Rather than counting sheep, visualize an environment that makes you feel calm and happy. The key to success is thinking of a scene that’s engaging enough to distract you from your thoughts and worries for a while. In an Oxford University study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, insomniacs who were instructed to imagine a relaxing scene, such as a beach or a waterfall, fell asleep 20 minutes faster than insomniacs who were told to count sheep or do nothing special at all.
No one would argue that exercise isn’t good for you. It keeps muscles and bones strong and maintains good cardiovascular health. Many of my sleep patients who lead sedentary lives and don’t exercise regularly are missing out on an excellent sleep remedy. Data suggest not only that exercising during the day will help you fall asleep more quickly and plunge you into deeper sleep for a longer period of time, but also that exercising causes your body to produce growth hormones, which help it to repair and revitalize itself. Many of my patients report that they sleep better with regular exercise and that they feel more alert and rejuvenated the following day.
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.
The influence of tryptophan on sleep continues to be studied in major sleep laboratories across the nation. While this amino acid is not available as a natural dietary supplement or sleep remedy, you can easily include tryptophan in your diet through food sources such as turkey, cheese, nuts, beans, eggs, and milk. You can also boost serotonin levels in the brain -- helping you to feel calm and sleepy -- by eating foods rich in carbohydrates.
Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. This helps set your body’s internal clock and optimize the quality of your sleep. Choose a bed time when you normally feel tired, so that you don’t toss and turn. If you’re getting enough sleep, you should wake up naturally without an alarm. If you need an alarm clock, you may need an earlier bedtime.
A very common cause of difficulty sleeping relates to stress and the intrusion of stimulating substances and activities. You may have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test or presentation. In periods of emotional stress, such as after the death of a loved one, you may also have trouble sleeping. This is called acute insomnia. It usually passes when these stressors resolve. Similarly, stimulants such as caffeine and even nicotine can disrupt your sleep.
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.