There are few things that feel worse than being exhausted, yet unable to sleep. In addition to insomnia (the inability to fall or stay asleep), many people also suffer from poor sleep quality, which can cause you to feel sleepy during the day despite getting eight or more hours of rest.
If you frequently have trouble getting a decent night’s sleep, it’s a good idea to see your doctor to rule out/treat any underlying conditions, such as sleep apnea or depression. For many people, sleep problems can be remedied naturally with lifestyle changes and proper nutrition. The following are five natural, safe and effective remedies that might help you get some good shut-eye.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that our bodies need for a multitude of biological roles, ranging from bone health to mental health. Human and animal studies also indicate that magnesium plays an important role in sleep, and that magnesium therapy can help insomnia sufferers. Although magnesium is available in a multitude of foods, the USDA says that 57 percent of Americans do not meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for magnesium. So how can you get more of this essential sleep nutrient? One method is to eat more foods with magnesium – fibrous foods, such as whole grains, nuts and vegetables are generally high in this mineral. Magnesium supplements in daily doses of less than 350 mg are also considered safe for most adults. Magnesium supplements can also help relieve constipation – another common consequence of a typical fiber-deficient American diet.
Although it may seem counterintuitive that bright light can actually help you sleep, getting enough natural light during the day is important for maintaining circadian rhythms that control our sleep-wake cycles. While many of us don’t get sufficient sunlight because we work indoors all day and/or live in a place that doesn’t get a lot of sunlight for much of the year, people who work night-shifts can be especially light-deprived. There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that vitamin D, a nutrient we get from certain foods and from exposure to ultraviolet light, has wide-ranging health implications, and that a lack of it may cause insomnia and other serious health problems. To get enough sunlight and vitamin D for good health and good sleep, experts recommend getting 10 to 20 minutes of direct sunlight exposure each day – ideally, in the morning hours. Light therapy boxes and vitamin D supplements (in typical therapeutic doses) are also considered safe and effective.
Another major culprit for poor sleep is a lack of physical activity. America’s population is largely sedentary, spending most of the day sitting in a chair at work, sitting in the car while commuting, and sitting in front of the TV when we get home. Unless we find a way to incorporate some exercise into our daily routine, your body may not be tired enough to sleep well at night – even though your mind is exhausted. Exercise is also important for relieving stress and tension that accompany our modern, hectic lifestyles. Although you should aim to get at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise every day for good sleep and for good health in general, exercising vigorously within several hours of bedtime can actually interfere with your sleep. For this reason, gentle yoga, with its series of tension-relieving stretches and meditative elements, is an excellent type of exercise that you can practice in the evening to help you sleep – you can even do certain poses in bed! A 2010 University of Rochester study found that cancer survivors with insomnia who practiced gentle yoga for four weeks reported improved sleep quality and decreased use of sleep aids during the program’s duration.
Although it sounds like it might have to do with the cleanliness of your sheets, the term “sleep hygiene” is actually used to refer to your overall sleep environment and habits that can affect your sleep quality. Many of the factors that impact our sleep quality are environmental or have to do with our nighttime behaviors. The following elements are considered by sleep experts to be important components of good sleep hygiene:
Going to sleep at the same time every night, and waking up at the same time each morning.
Limiting or avoiding consumption of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol – all of which can impair sleep quality or make it hard to fall asleep.
Avoiding late-night exposure to bright electronic screens, e.g., iPads, smartphones, TVs, computers, etc., which can disrupt circadian rhythms.
Relaxing before bed with a warm bath or another restful activity. Lavender aromatherapy may also help relax you before bed to combat insomnia.
Using the bedroom only for sleep and sex – not for watching TV or working from your laptop, for example.
Making sure your sleeping environment is sufficiently cool, dark and quiet.
Like magnesium and vitamin D, B-vitamins are also important nutrients for sleep. In particular, B-6 is important for the production of serotonin, a “feel good” hormone which aids sleep and combats anxiety and restlessness that can keep you awake; and folic acid (B-9) deficiency has been found in those with insomnia and in those with depression, a condition which is often implicated in insomnia. Vitamin B-12 is also needed for good sleep and mental health, and certain populations, including seniors and vegans, are more likely to be deficient in this vitamin. Additionally, niacin, or B-3, has been shown to increase REM sleep and help with depression. Good food sources of B vitamins include animal products such as fish and dairy, and whole, unprocessed foods such as whole grains, beans, and green, leafy vegetables. Taken at recommended doses, B vitamin supplements are also generally considered to be quite safe, as they are water-soluble, meaning that any excess vitamins will be excreted through the urine.
A note on other sleep supplements: It’s important to remember that just because a supplement is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. For example, in recent years, it was discovered that kava (also called “kava kava”), a popular herbal supplement for insomnia and anxiety, has been linked to a number of hepatoxic (or liver-toxic) reactions.
There is some evidence that the following supplements may be useful as sleep aids, although the body of scientific research on these substances is not substantial enough to vouch for their long-term safety or effectiveness, and thus, I chose not to include them in the “top 5” list.
Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone that influences circadian rhythms and helps you sleep. While melatonin is produced naturally by the body, people who don’t get enough light exposure, including blind people, may not produce enough of it. However, while it is probably safe when taken short-term, the long term effects of taking melatonin are not known, and it may have the potential to build up to toxic levels in the body.
Valerian and Hops – Research published in the medical journal “Australian family physician” in 2010 found that the herb valerian, either on its own or in combination with hops – an herb that’s present in beer – may help treat insomnia and improve sleep quality; however, the study’s authors concluded that further randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials are necessary before such herbal treatments can be recommended for insomnia.
Wild Lettuce – This is another herb that has been associated with sedative effects that may help insomnia. However, the evidence supporting its effectiveness as an insomnia treatment is largely anecdotal, and according to WebMD, while wild lettuce is likely safe for most people in small amounts, large doses may cause breathing difficulty and even death. Use caution with wild lettuce and other herbal sleep remedies.