Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I’m a terrible sleeper—and have been for the past seven years or so. When my doctor referred me to a sleep specialist for insomnia, I figured I would get some sort of life-changing advice that would leave my days of counting sheep behind me. That didn’t happen, and I realized it was time to take matters into my own hands. As it turns out, there are a ton of nutritional tactics, natural remedies, and practical measures we can take to get a better night’s sleep, which is what today’s post is all about.
First Thing’s First…
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between the ages of 26 and 64 get approximately 7 - 9 hours of sleep per night (though 6 - 10 hours may be appropriate on occasion). However, 60% of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. This is quite disturbing information when we consider the importance of sleep for our daily functioning.
Firstly, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped more quickly through the brain when we sleep, acting like a dishwasher that takes away our brain cells’ waste products. The result is that we quite literally wake up with a “cleaner” brain, according to sleep.org. Our bodies also release growth hormones during sleep that rebuild muscles and joints, so more sleep means a better ability for our bodies to repair themselves.
When sleeplessness continues for an extended period of time, the effects become even worse. Levels of neurotransmitters that make us feel happy, alert, and focused—like serotonin, melatonin, endorphins, and dopamine—are insufficient, which can lead to mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Finally, research repeatedly confirms the link between sleeplessness, weight gain, and obesity. Your body craves simple sugars when you’re tired since it intuitively knows they’re the fastest way of getting glucose—or sugar—to your brain, which helps you feel temporarily energized. Hello donuts, chips, and chocolate bars!
Sleep deprivation also causes our bodies to produce less leptin, the hormone responsible for feeling satisfied after we eat. The more leptin you produce, the fuller and more satisfied you feel after a meal. On the flip side, being tired leads to increased production of ghrelin, which leads to an increase in appetite. The more ghrelin you produce, the hungrier you feel. This leads to the perfect storm of wanting more food—and the type that’s not so good for you.
I Know I Need More Sleep, So How Do I Get It?!
Limit your caffeine intake (or avoid it altogether if you can).
When I discovered why I wasn’t sleeping, the reason was so simple it was almost aggravating. I realized my body is just insanely hyper-sensitive to caffeine. I’ve never been a coffee drinker, so I didn’t think my two steeped teas from Tim Horton’s a day were that big of a deal. Turns out, they were giving me 180mg of caffeine—almost as much as one medium coffee!
The trouble is that caffeine can delay the timing of your body clock and postpone the time at which you feel tired, according to sleepeducation.org. It also causes cortisol levels to rise, which should naturally be lower at the end of the day. Additionally, although caffeine reaches peak levels in your blood within 30 to 60 minutes, it takes 3 - 5 hours for your body to eliminate half the amount of the caffeine; the rest of it can stay in your body for 8 to 14 hours! Once I limited my caffeine intake, I slept like a baby. That’s all it took. Now if I do have a steeped tea, I’m sure to have it early in the morning so its effects wear off by the time I go to bed.
NOTE: Even some decaf teas and coffees contain caffeine so be careful! Herbal teas are your safest bet here.
2. Up your tryptophan.
Ever wonder why people recommend a glass of warm milk before bed? Well, milk products contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps promote sleep. It’s also a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, which can induce sleepiness. Consuming foods high in tryptophan at dinner or a few hours before bed is a good idea if you’re having trouble with sleeplessness. Turkey, poultry, seafood, and milk products like yogurt and cheese are great non-vegan sources of tryptophan, while chia seeds, roasted soy beans, bananas, flaxseeds, cashews, pistachios, and almonds are good plant-based sources. A plain rice cake with some high-quality cheese, a slice of turkey on whole grain crackers, or banana slices over Greek yogurt are all healthy snacks that contain tryptophan and can induce sleep.
NOTE: Carbohydrates need to be paired with tryptophan-rich foods in order for it to become available to your brain. So, pairing the foods listed above with unrefined carbohydrates like veggies, beans, brown rice, and/or quinoa at dinner will give you the best results.
3. Stabilize your blood sugar levels during the day.
As you sleep throughout the night, your blood sugar levels get lower and lower since you aren’t eating anything, but if they get too low your adrenal glands release stress hormones that can cause you to wake up. If you’re constantly waking up in the middle of the night at 3am, it’s a sign that you need to stabilize your blood sugar levels during the day.
Here are some tips:
Make sure any carbs you do eat are from complex sources like steel cut oatmeal, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.
Make sure your snacks and meals consist of protein and small portions of healthy fats like hard boiled eggs or a protein shake with a bit of natural peanut butter or coconut oil.
Don’t go to bed famished as this will undoubtedly cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
Have a small high-protein snack a few hours before bed to encourage a better sleep. This can look like a bit of Greek yogurt with fruit, some crackers and cheese, cottage cheese with fruit, a handful of nuts and seeds, roasted chickpeas, or cheese string wrapped in sliced turkey or chicken.
4. Use natural herbs and supplements.
Valerian root: this is an herb that seems to enhance the action of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps calm us down. When using any herb, however, make sure you ask your doctor if there are any interactions with any current medications you take.
Melatonin: melatonin is a natural hormone made in your body by the pineal gland, located just above the middle of the brain. It’s job is to make you feel sleepy, with levels of melatonin corresponding to the amount of light outside. When it’s light out, melatonin levels are low. When it’s dark, they’re high. People with sleep issues are said to have naturally lower levels of melatonin, so taking a natural supplement can help in this regard. Try taking 3 - 6mg of melatonin 30 to 60 minutes before bed. Melatonin seems to be safe if taken for about a month or two, but try not to use it for any longer than that.
Nighttime teas: teas like 'Sleepytime' by Celestial Seasonings contain soothing herbs like chamomile and lemongrass that help calm the body.
Magnesium: I like Natural Calm, which is a magnesium citrate powder that dissolves in hot water. It helps calm the body and muscles and promotes relaxation.
Lavender essential oil: according to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, aromatherapy with lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and lift mood in people suffering from sleep disorders. Put a few drops in an aromatherapy diffuser or on a tissue under your pillow to reap the benefits. Alternatively, put some on your wrists, rub them together, and take some nice deep breaths.
Tart cherry juice: one (albeit small) study published in the European Journal of Nutrition revealed that tart cherry juice elevated levels of melatonin significantly, which resulted in significant increases in total sleep time and sleep efficiency. Mix 1/8 of a cup of cherry juice with 1 cup of water and enjoy once in the morning and once at night to help promote sleep. I get mine from Nature's Emporium, though most health food stores have it now!
5. Set up a good sleeping environment.
It sounds so simple, but this is something we don’t pay nearly enough attention to. I can’t tell you how much better I slept when I started eliminating lights and sounds that were disruptive. Invest in some high-quality black-out blinds or sleep with a comfortable eye mask to block out light in the morning.
Use earplugs if necessary so that car alarm outside doesn’t wake you up at 2am.
Use a fan or other source of white noise to drown out the outside world.
Buy high-quality sheets that are soft. Clean them with a detergent that smells nice. Find a pillow that you actually find comfortable.
6. Dim the lights.
The harsh, bright lights from your laptop or iPhone certainly aren’t ideal when you’re trying to wind down. And while I love encouraging people to “unplug” for an hour or so before bed, I also know that many of us would prefer to send that goodnight text to our significant other or watch those final debate highlights before getting our sleep on. Thankfully, there are many apps that transform that harsh blue light from your phone to a softer red light that’s easier on the eyes.
NOTE: iPhones have a feature built right into the phone that makes the display a soft red light but I find it still leaves my screen too bright! What I do is make my iPhone screen a super dark shade of red, which is very easy on the eyes: Settings --> Accessibility --> Display & Text Size ---> Colour Filters --> Turn on and select 'Color Tint' (make it red!) Don’t have an iPhone? “Twilight” is an app that’s another option!
7. Slow your mind down.
Many people I know with sleeping problems are under quite a bit of stress from their work, personal, or romantic lives. Journalling can be an incredibly helpful tool in this regard. Just getting your thoughts out of your mind and onto a piece of paper can be invaluable. Talking to a therapist is also a great option. It gives you an hour of time to talk about what’s bothering you and find more effective ways of dealing with your situation so that come bedtime, you’ve already gotten everything off your chest!
Additionally, thinking about falling asleep often has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to fall asleep because you've now put more pressure on yourself! Rather than thinking, "I have to fall asleep or tomorrow will be awful," try telling yourself more acceptance-based statements like, "If I can't sleep tonight, I'll be tired tomorrow but it won't be in the worst thing in the world." Remember, you've been tired before and have gotten through the day; it won't be the end of the world! However, if you continually tell yourself it will be the worst thing in the world, you'll struggle to relax and fall asleep.
You can also try doing a Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise before bed, which incorporates mindfulness and physical relaxation.
A study on more than 2,600 men and women between 18 - 85 years old found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week (just about 20 minutes a day!) provided a 65% improvement in sleep quality! People also reported feeling less sleepy during the day compared to those with less physical activity.
Sex is a form of exercise with additional benefits when it comes to sleep. It not only lowers cortisol, but orgasms also release prolactin, which helps you feel relaxed and sleepy. (Just don’t offend your partner by saying their sex puts you to sleep!)
9. Stick to a schedule.
Our bodies like routine. Try your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every night and you'll likely start to see a difference in the quality of your sleep over time.
It's also important to find a schedule that works for your personal daily life. If you get a better sleep by going to bed and waking up later—and your schedule can accommodate this—then go with that method. If you find that you naturally wake up early, however, it might be best to go to bed earlier so that you have gotten enough hours of sleep by the time you rise in the morning.
10. Make your bedroom your “sleep zone.”
We want to bring positive association to your bedroom when it comes to sleep. In other words, we want your brain to say, “Ah, time to go to bed!” whenever you enter your room. This can be difficult depending on your living arrangement, but try to do anything non-sleep-related outside of your bedroom. Watch movies in your living room. Eat in the kitchen. Do work on your office or at a table in a different room in the houses. But above all, make your bedroom your “sleepy room.”
If you wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to get back to sleep, go to another room and do a relaxing activity before going back to bed. For example, go to the living room and read your book. When you can barely keep your eyes open, go back to your bed so that it is only associated with sleep, not sleeplessness.
The Bottom Line
Trust me when I say that I know firsthand how exhausting it is to be exhausted. Feeling cranky, craving junk food, snapping at people around you for no reason… it just plain sucks. But there are things you can do to help yourself out, thankfully! Watching your caffeine intake, stabilizing your blood sugar levels, and making sure that only sleep-related activities occur in your bedroom are a great place to start.
You Tell Me!
Have any tips on what has helped you sleep better at night in the past? Let me know in the comments below!