Sleep isn’t merely a time when your body shuts off. While you rest, your brain stays busy, overseeing biological maintenance that keeps your body running in top condition, preparing you for the day ahead. Without enough hours of restorative sleep, you won’t be able to work, learn, create, and communicate at a level even close to your true potential. Regularly skimp on “service” and you’re headed for a major mental and physical breakdown.
Whether you’re scrambling to meet the demands of a busy schedule or just finding it hard to sleep at night, getting by on less sleep may seem like the only answer. But even minimal sleep loss can take a substantial toll on your mood, energy, mental sharpness, and ability to handle stress. And over the long-term, chronic sleep loss can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. By understanding your nightly sleep needs and how to bounce back from sleep loss, you can finally get on a healthy sleep schedule and improve the quality of your waking life.
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.
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.
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.
Clinical trials have not proven chamomile to be helpful for insomnia. Chamomile is an herb traditionally used to reduce muscle tension, soothe digestion, and reduce anxiety, which may help induce sleep. Sip a cup of hot chamomile tea after dinner, but don't drink it too close to the bed or you may have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Hops, passionflower, and ashwagandha are other herbs that are often used for insomnia. As with chamomile, they have not proven their effectiveness in studies.
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.
The science behind the technique explains that when people are stressed or anxious, they tend to under-breathe (breathe shortly and shallowly). By forcing oneself to slow your inhale, you take in more oxygen, force it to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath, and then exhale slowly to release carbon dioxide. "The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream."
A sleep deficit affects everything from someone's ability to pay attention in class to his or her mood. According to a National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America poll, more than 25% of high school students fall asleep in class, and experts have tied lost sleep to poorer grades. Lack of sleep also damages teens' ability to do their best in athletics.
Postpone worrying and brainstorming. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when it will be easier to resolve. Similarly, if a great idea is keeping you awake, make a note of it on paper and fall back to sleep knowing you’ll be much more productive after a good night’s rest.
Valerian Root. Valerian root helps relax the body, decrease anxiety, and regulate your sleep cycle. While it helps to induce sedation, it won’t make you feel groggy in the morning, which, unfortunately, can be a common side effect of other sleep-promoting supplements and medications. Valerian root not only improves your quality of sleep, but it also helps you fall asleep faster.
People often ask me about whether, and how, to use cannabis for sleep. (I wrote about some dos and don’ts for using cannabis as a sleep tool—you can check it out here.) One of the easiest, most effective ways to harness the relaxing, sleep promoting effects of cannabis? Try using CBD. You’ve probably heard of CBD. It’s showing up everywhere as a therapy to reduce anxiety and improve mental focus. It’s also a natural sleep booster.
Beyond food and plants, regular exercise and turning off electronics can make a huge difference in getting some rest. Exercise wears out the body and is one of the best natural remedies. As for electronics, the blue light emitted can trigger the brain to stay awake. Try developing a nightly bedtime routine that promotes relaxation and allows you to wind down. The brain will begin to associate the routine with sleep and help you get the rest you need.
If you’ve tried natural remedy after natural remedy and are still having difficulty sleeping, it’s a good idea to talk about your insomnia with your doctor. Together, you can discuss your symptoms, which could point to underlying health issues that might be making it harder for you to fall asleep. She can also review any prescriptions that you’re taking to see whether they might be interfering with your ability to nod off.
“Usually products that you put under your tongue are absorbed quicker because that area of your mouth is very viscous,” explained Dr. Breus, “as opposed to pill that you swallow that has to be broken down in your stomach, where you stomach acid will eat up half of it.” This gives it an edge over chewable tablets or gummies, which both have to be chewed and swallowed.
They discovered that we have these molecular pathways that are responsive to light and allow the body to synchronize to the comings and goings of the sun. When that is working at its most effective, and all the cells are working as a team, overall health is much better. I think most people don’t understand the importance of light and how we consume it. Artificial light is completely at odds with our biology.
Eat Foods That Help You Sleep: Tryptophan is a naturally-occurring amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin. Eat carbohydrate snacks such as whole grain crackers before bedtime. Also include foods rich in vitamin B6, found in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, and bananas, which enhances the body's conversion of tryptophan. Note that L-tryptophan supplements are not recommended as they have been linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.
The recommended amount of sleep an adult needs is between seven and nine hours each night. But for many, finding this time isn’t the problem–it’s falling asleep once your head hits the pillow. I’m one of those people who occasionally has this problem, and in the past have tried everything from meditation to medication. But for the last four weeks, I tried something different–and it’s something worth trying if you have sleep problems.
Reducing sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about one-third. Excessive daytime sleepiness impairs memory and the ability to think and process information, and carries a substantially increased risk of sustaining an occupational injury. Long-term sleep deprivation from sleep disorders like apnea have recently been implicated in high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Circadian rhythms direct a wide variety of functions from daily fluctuations in wakefulness to body temperature, metabolism, and the release of hormones. They control your timing of sleep and cause you to be sleepy at night and your tendency to wake in the morning without an alarm. Your body’s biological clock, which is based on a roughly 24-hour day, controls most circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms synchronize with environmental cues (light, temperature) about the actual time of day, but they continue even in the absence of cues.
If you’re experiencing sleep debt, you may be tempted to take a nap as a quick fix; however, this isn’t the ideal solution. Naps can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night and can further disrupt your sleep schedule; if you absolutely have to nap, keep it to an hour or so during peak sleepiness hours in the afternoon, but keep it short, or else you might not be able to fall asleep that night.
Other potential health benefits: Glycine has been shown to improve both memory and attention in young adults. Scientists are actively investigating the use of glycine in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Higher levels of glycine have been associated with a lower risk of heart attack, and there’s some evidence that glycine may help protect against high blood pressure. It also may help strengthen bones and joints, and guard against arthritis.
In Ayurvedic medicine, insomnia is often associated with a vata imbalance. Vata regulates breathing and circulation. People with a vata imbalance often notice irritability, anxiety, and fear with insomnia. One Ayurvedic treatment is the application of oil on the head and feet. For the pitta type, room temperature coconut oil is used, for the vata type, warm sesame oil is applied, and for the kapha type, warm mustard oil is often applied.
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).
Sleep stability means pinning your bedtime to the same time every night, even on weekends, and waking up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. The key is to settle into a groove or a cycle that your body understands and responds to. Once you do this, it’s really quite amazing. You’ll sleep better, feel better, have more energy, and worry less.
Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder and CEO of Wellness Mama, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.
As a psychiatrist with an integrative focus, Ellen believes mental well-being is powerfully influenced by sleep, exercise, thought patterns, relationships, nutrition, spirituality and creative outlets. She incorporates a variety of modalities into her psychiatry practice, including acupuncture, yoga philosophy, breathing, and relaxation techniques in conjunction with conventional treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and psycho-pharmacology. Ellen believes mental health is fundamental to primary care and treats a range of health issues, from panic disorders to bipolar illness and ADHD to fibromyalgia. After graduating from Yale University, Ellen earned her MD at Columbia University and stayed on to complete an internship at Columbia University Medical Center. She began her postgraduate training at Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center and completed her residency in psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is a member of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, and is a board-certified psychiatrist, licensed medical acupuncturist, and certified yoga instructor.
LabDoor gave Source Naturals’ melatonin high marks for label accuracy, with a score of 82.3 out of 100. Note that this score is for Source Naturals Melatonin 1 mg Orange Flavor, which offers a very strong burst of citrus (though no medicinal taste at all). If you’re not a fan of citrus, we’d suggest Source Naturals’ unflavored melatonin instead — or you can try the peppermint formula. At $0.06 per serving, any one of these flavors represents an affordable option.
There is usually no particular biological or health reason to worry about sleeping less or more than other people. Your spouse might get mad at you if you sleep too much and you might get into hot water if you nap on the job, but most people have no reason to worry about going outside the norms when it comes to sleep duration. You might think sleeping too much is a problem, that excessive sleep is a waste of time, and indeed hypersomnia is recognized as a clinical condition. But not all long sleepers can be classified as hypersomniac and in any cases, there is nothing doctors can do for hypersomnia except prescribe stimulants. So it may not be worth worrying about.
See a Doctor. While lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment for sleeplessness, if you’re still not getting enough rest after improving your bedtime routine and trying a variety of relaxation strategies, a physician may be able to help determine if your sleeplessness is merely a symptom of another health concern, and prescribe appropriate treatment.