If a good night’s sleep feels like an elusive dream, you might be tempted to reach for the medicine bottle. Over-the-counter drugs and prescription sleeping pills are among the most often used medications. And while those options will help you get more z’s, they don’t come without some downsides—some prescription sleep med side effects include driving, eating and walking during sleep, as well as short-term memory loss.
Okay, so now you’re really wide awake! But the good news is that drugs aren’t the only route to more restorative sleep. Here, several natural approaches that help you to have more restful nights.
Why it may help: Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally in the body. It is normally at its highest after dark, when it works to make you sleepy and ready to go to bed. “But melatonin is very sensitive to light—especially the blue light emitted from electronics like televisions, iPads, computers,” explains Catherine Darley, N.D., of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine, Seattle. “Being exposed to that blue light can shut off melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep at night.”
Melatonin is most proven for helping to shift the timing of your body clock—what is called “delayed sleep phase syndrome”—for people who can’t fall asleep until very late. “People take it for insomnia, but the research on its effectiveness for this isn’t as well established,” says Darley.
How to make it work for you: To maintain your natural melatonin levels, keep your electronic devices out of the bedroom and don’t use them right up until bedtime.
These days, people are treating melatonin supplements like they’re sleeping pills, popping one or two (or more!) right before hitting the sack. But melatonin is a sleep regulator, not initiator. It shifts your body into a state that is more available for sleep, but it’s not a quick lights-out solution. Because of this, take melatonin 90 minutes before you want to sleep to give it time to work. One milligram is all you need—anything more could make you groggy in the morning.
Why it may help: L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It has been shown to help boost mood and improve cognition, but the supplement’s connection to sleep is that it also helps to quiet the mind. A study in Japan found that subjects who took 200 mg. of L-theanine had improved sleep quality as compared to a control group who took a placebo.
How to make it work for you: If an overly busy brain is what’s keeping you up nights, taking an L-theanine supplement at bedtime can help. “It won’t make you sleepy, but it will help calm your brain,” says Darley.
Why it may help: Teas that contain herbs such as valerian, chamomile or passionflower are commonly used to help promote sleep (and come with names like “Sleepy Time” and “Nighty Night”). “These herbs do act on certain brain receptors and may have mild sedative effects,” says Wael Berjaoui, M.D., a sleep specialist with Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids, MI. “There may also be something of a placebo effect to drinking a hot drink.”
How to make it work for you: “The ritual of slowing down and preparing yourself for sleep by having tea and sitting quietly to drink it can be very helpful in making the transition from the buzz of activity to being ready to sleep,” says Darley.
Why it may help: Sleep onset is related to our body temperature. We experience a natural drop in temperature in late evening, which helps get the body ready for sleep. Taking a bath raises your body temperature, but when you get out of the tub, the resulting drop in body temp helps to make you feel sleepier.
How to make it work for you: Take a 20-minute soak about an hour before bed. A hot shower can also help. “It leads to muscle relaxation and tension relief which can help people with stress-induced insomnia as well as those with restless leg syndrome,” says Berjaoui.
Why it may help: It makes sense that learning how to quiet your mind would help you sleep. But meditation’s sleep-enhancement benefits go beyond basic relaxation. A recent study compared a group trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction (a meditative technique) with one taking a nightly dose of the prescription sleeping pill Lunesta. The researchers found similar improvements in time it took to fall asleep, sleep duration and sleep quality in both groups. “Meditation is one of the methods used in cognitive behavioral therapy,” explains Berjaoui. “The goal is to break the vicious cycle of ‘learned insomnia’—where the fear of not being able to sleep produces more insomnia.”
How to make it work for you: Using a relaxation technique like meditation can be most helpful for clearing your mind right before bed. But learning to lower your overall stress levels throughout the day can also help you sleep better once bedtime rolls around.
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