Tired of Sleepless Nights? Try These Natural Sleep Remedies

If prescription medication is leaving you with too many side effects, these natural sleep aids could be an effective alternative.

March 25, 2018
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If you often have trouble falling asleep, you’re not alone. According to the American Sleep Association, between 50 and 70 million adults in the U.S. experience symptoms associated with sleep disorders at some point in their lives. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among adults; 10 percent have chronic insomnia, and 30 percent of the population will experience insomnia at some point.

There are a number of different causes for sleeplessness. Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo, says that smartphone usage is a common cause of restless nights. “Studies show that the majority of people use their phones within 30 minutes of bedtime,” Brantner says. “The light from the phones inhibits melatonin production, tricking the brain into thinking it needs to stay awake.” In case you aren’t familiar, melatonin is a natural hormone produced within our bodies to regulate our sleep patterns. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that screens affect our melatonin levels and thus our circadian rhythm, which is an “internal clock” that tells us when to sleep.

Other major causes for sleep disruption include stress, anxiety, and depression, says Brantner. “Mental health issues and sleeplessness have a symbiotic relationship. Mental health issues hurt sleep and sleep deprivation makes them worse, creating a vicious cycle,” he explains.

Jeffrey Durmer, MD, PhD, says that heightened anxiety is a common cause of sleep-onset insomnia—that is, difficulty initiating sleep. When we experience stressful events, our sleep is typically affected. Durmer, who is the co-founder and chief medical officer of FusionHealth, notes that it’s hard to get back to your regular sleep pattern once it’s been disrupted. “The perpetuation of insomnia—falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early, or just feeling tired after sleep—is usually related to a cognitive and/or behavioral problem that we create for ourselves,” he says.

According to Durmer, other causes for sleep-onset insomnia include pain, itchiness, excessive movement, and the presence of other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and circadian rhythm disorders. “Discovering the root cause for the ‘symptom’ of insomnia is key to applying therapy(ies) that will resolve the problem,” he says.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

If you’ve had trouble getting some shut-eye, you’ve probably noticed that your mind struggles to function the next day. Sleeplessness has dire effects on both your mind and body, according to Arielle Levitan, MD, a physician of internal medicine and co-founder of Vous Vitamin. Levitan notes that sleeplessness impairs your cognitive functions, meaning that it becomes harder for us to focus when we’re tired. We can also become more irritable and distracted. “Many chronic medical issues can get worse with less sleep—high blood pressure, diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression and more,” she says. “Bottom line is, sleep is essential for us to feel and function our best.”

If you’re struggling to regulate your sleep pattern, there’s no doubt it has an impact on your health. So how can you naturally restore your sleep cycle?

Natural Remedies That Can Be Used for Sleep

For those who don’t want to take prescription medication for sleep, there are a number of supplements that can aid sleep naturally.

Melatonin

As mentioned above, melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain to naturally induce sleep. Levitan says that it can be taken as a supplement consistently over a few weeks to “retrain” the brain and regulate the sleep cycle. It’s a very common and effective sleep remedy.

However, as Brantner notes, melatonin can have side effects. “It can leave you feeling groggy when you wake in the morning, as the supplement may override your internal biological master clock,” he says. Although it’s a naturally occurring hormone, many people might want other natural options to avoid this grogginess.

Magnesium

Levitan says that she often recommends magnesium to promote muscle relaxation.

And Brantner explains that “magnesium can help you relax as it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Magnesium not only aids in getting to sleep but has also been shown to improve sleep quality.”

Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D

Levitan says that both vitamin B12 and vitamin D can aid in sleep restoration. “Vitamin B12 is known to help with nerve-related issues and prevent numbness [and] tingling in certain nerves that disrupts sleep,” she says. “Vitamin D helps with muscle relaxation as well and prevents muscle aches and cramps, which often disrupt sleep.”

Iron

If restless legs are causing you to toss and turn throughout the night, Levitan recommends an iron supplement. “Iron plays a role in sleep for those who have restless legs, as iron deficiency is often the underlying cause for restless legs syndrome, a common cause for lack of sleep,” she notes.

Valerian Root

“The natural herb we recommend for sleep [is] primarily valerian root. It has natural sleep-inducing properties,” Levitan says. Some studies have suggested that valerian root can be an effective remedy for sleeplessness, although further research is needed.

“However, be cautious in choosing a reputable certified (USP or GMP) brand and be aware that it often smells or tastes bad,” she adds. To tone down the taste, try mixing the valerian root into some chamomile tea.

Lavender

Levitan says that lavender has soothing properties when inhaled as an essential oil. Indeed, a 2016 study of college students showed that inhaling lavender improved their sleep hygiene and quality of sleep. Further studies have shown that it can improve sleep, perhaps because it has a relaxing effect on the body and mind. Drinking some aromatic lavender tea or diffusing some essential oils might help you sleep.

Cannabidiol Oil and Medical Marijuana

Brantner points out that cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which is derived from cannabis plants, can be used as a sleep aid. It can also help by reducing factors that contribute to insomnia, such as anxiety and chronic pain. Notably, a 2008 study shows that medical cannabis reduces the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep we get. Since REM sleep is the period in which we have dreams (or nightmares), it can improve sleep for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)–related nightmares.

Chamomile Tea

Although published research on chamomile tea is limited, one 2013 study showed that regularly drinking chamomile tea might have positive effects. The study focused on 80 sleep-disturbed mothers struggling with postpartum depression. Researchers found that chamomile tea seemed to relieve sleeplessness and some symptoms of depression—but only in the short term.

It’s always important to be aware that many natural substances have limitations. Although it’s essential that you speak to your physician before trying these natural sleep remedies, most have few if any side effects. Durmer notes that many of these supplements—including valerian root—need to be studied further to confirm their effect on sleep.

Cause and effect studies are lacking, but many people derive benefits with little to no side effects,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is not a single accepted production standard or testing for supplements, so it is a ‘buyer beware’ environment.”

Lifestyle Changes to Aid Sleep

In addition to natural remedies that can help you sleep, there are a number of lifestyle changes that can also be effective. As Durmer discussed earlier, our own behavior affects our sleep pattern profoundly, which means that we can improve our sleep by changing our own lifestyles. Here are a few lifestyle changes worth trying.

Exercise during the day.

A little exercise during the day can help you sleep soundly at night, according to a number of studies. One study showed that sedentary older adults found that their sleep quality improved when participating in exercise, whereas another study showed that aerobic exercise can improve sleep among older adults.

Durmer suggests participating in high-output activities such as running, cycling, swimming, or rowing during the day. “[This] increases central nervous system signals for sleep, as well as body temperature signals that not only accelerate sleep onset, but also improve the depth of sleep,” he says. (It’s important to note that this should be done at least three hours before you plan to go to bed.)

Eat mindfully.

Our eating habits affect every aspect of our lives, including our sleep. “When it comes to food/nutrition and sleep, the timing and content of your meals is important. Eating spicy, fatty, and/or high caloric food in the hours before bed can activate the nervous system in your gut, which in turn activates your arousal system,” explains Durmer. He notes that going to sleep on a full stomach can also make you struggle with sleep. In other words, you want to be sated at bedtime, but not full.

Need a midnight snack? Brantner suggests a light dairy-based snack. “A glass of warm milk or a piece of cheese would do well,” he says. “The calcium in dairy can assist with melatonin production.” Your grandma had it right—warm milk is a soothing and relaxing nighttime snack.

Avoid screens.

One of the most important lifestyle changes you can make is avoiding screens. Reduce the time you spend looking at a screen, especially in the evenings. Looking at phone, television, or computer screens can have an impact on melatonin production. For this reason, Brantner suggests avoiding screens for at least one hour before bedtime.

Consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

If sleeplessness is a recurring issue for you and other efforts aren’t fixing the problem, consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, known as CBTi. “Therapists trained in CBTi can tailor a 6–8 week program for your needs or you can try one of the clinically validated online CBTi programs available through the internet,” Durmer suggests. “Both in-person and online CBTi programs are very effective at treating the root cause of insomnia and provide strategies and tactics that make it possible to avoid insomnia from occurring for years.”

Make your bedroom more conducive to sleep.

It’s imperative that your place of rest—that is, your bedroom—is conducive to sleep. You want to make it a comfy, relaxing spot where you can wind down after a long day.

Brantner suggests decluttering your room so that it feels less overwhelming when you enter it. Mess and clutter might overstimulate you, making you feel anxious and worried instead of relaxed. You can also use oil diffusers to release essential oils like lavender. Some studies suggest that white noise machines can also help people fall asleep, so it could be a worthwhile investment for your bedroom.

Try keeping your room cool. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we sleep best when the room temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees. Ensure that your bed is cozy but not too hot. Brantner suggests finding a quality mattress as well as comfortable pillows and blankets.

Lighting is also very important, as light signals to your brain that it’s daytime, which ultimately disturbs your sleep. Brantner recommends using thick curtains to block out light, which can be especially helpful if you live near bright streetlights and busy roads. If you need to use a light in your bedroom before sleep, try dimly lit warm lights.

And of course, make your room a device-free zone. It’s tempting to look at your phone when it’s next to your bed, so place it in another room instead, perhaps charging it for the next day. If you remember you have to email someone during the night and the thought nags at you, keep a pen and paper by your bedside and write it down. Use an old-fashioned, one-function alarm clock instead of your phone.

Pre-Sleep Routine

Both Durmer and Brantner recommend setting a bedtime routine to help you wind down before you sleep. Instead of scrolling through Instagram in bed, for instance, do some relaxing activities that won’t overstimulate you.

These activities could include yoga, meditation, massage, sipping relaxing tea, or some gentle stretching. Since a cool body temperature can help you sleep, Durmer recommends a warm bath or shower. When you get out of the bath or shower, your temperature will rapidly cool, which is the perfect condition for a good night’s rest.

Before you pursue these routines, decide on a time you’d like to go to sleep and a time you’d like to wake up. Brantner recommends waking up around the same time every day. “Your body and mind crave routines,” Brantner explains. “So this will help get your circadian rhythm in check.” It’s also important to ensure you have a hearty, healthy dinner, such as a Buddha bowl, before bedtime.

Different things work for different people, and not all nighttime routines will work for everyone. Gently experiment each night and record how quickly you fall asleep, the quality of your sleep, and how you feel the next day. This could help you figure out what natural sleep remedies will work best for you.

Keen to experiment with routines but not sure where to start? Here’s an example of a weekly outline. Change it according to your own needs.

Monday

  • Have a 15- to 20-minute run during the day, at least three hours before bed.
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Have a warm bath with a few drops of lavender essential oil.

Tuesday

  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Do 15 minutes of yoga. If you need to follow a routine, use a book or print out some instructions so that you don’t have to look it up on a screen.

Wednesday

  • During the day, do some light exercise, such as swimming, cycling, or jogging.
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Sip some valerian root tea before bed.

Thursday

  • Try some floor exercises today. Look for a few fun ones online and try out whatever appeals to you!
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Meditate for 10 minutes.

Friday

  • Walk for 30 minutes.
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Make some chamomile tea an hour before bed.
  • While the tea cools, try some deep-breathing exercises.

Saturday

  • Go on a relaxing walk today.
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Try using a white noise machine. If you don’t want to invest in one yet, consider using an app, but don’t look at your screen for too long when you’re setting it up.

Sunday

  • During the day, dance—in a studio, around your room, anywhere—for at least 15 minutes. This pleasurable, fun movement can give you a workout while tiring you out for a good night’s rest.
  • An hour before bedtime, switch your phone to “do not disturb” mode and put it in another room.
  • Give yourself a hand and foot massage using a lightly fragranced lotion or oil.

Once you find a useful routine, stick with it. You can enhance the effect of these lifestyle changes by speaking to your healthcare provider about taking supplements or trying various natural remedies for sleep.

But, as Durmer says, insomnia can be related to a range of factors, and whatever treatment you try, it should directly address the causes of your sleep issues. If you’re struggling to find and deal with what’s at the root of your sleeplessness, speaking to a doctor or sleep coach could be your best bet.

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