Wake up and smell the bacon! The birds are chirping outside your window and you feel great after a full night of undisturbed sleep. Or, you feel awful after “laying in bed” for 7 hours. You wouldn’t necessarily call what you just did all night sleep. To put the cherry on top, it probably takes you quite a while to fall asleep in the first place. Now, you feel tired and lethargic throughout the day, just to start the process over again at night.
If this is you, then listen up. Getting people to sleep easier and more efficiently is something that has been studied extensively, and for good reason. It’s estimated that sleep deprivation results in approximately $65 billion in lost productivity and healthcare just in the United States . This cost comes from the suffering of 70 million people, making sleep deprivation one of the most common health problems a person can have. Even more disturbing, it is estimated that 3.6 million human years are lost every year due to the burden sleep deprivation has on the body. Sleeping pills might be a quick answer, but many discontinue use due to the negative side effects. Because of this, it is crucial that we find natural ways to get to sleep faster and maintain it throughout the night.
In order to understand the studies on sleep (and for pure interest), let’s take a look at some of the different cycles we go through during sleep. Sleep consists of two major states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). These are then split into four stages. For NREM, stages 3 and 4 are where we get our deepest sleep, called slow-wave sleep. This state is defined by a specific brain state . These are the ones where we get the most rest, but many times are the culprit when we wake up tired if they are not reached.
Interestingly, during REM sleep the brain maintains similar activity patterns as when we are awake. It takes about 90 minutes to cycle between REM and NREM sleep, and this happens with varying intensities 5-6 times a night. Our sleep patterns are generally controlled by circadian rhythm and homeostasis. Homeostasis regulates how tired or awake we feel and depends on how much “sleep debt” we have accumulated. This system then interacts with our circadian rhythm, which is in charge of sending the signals to our brain that put us to sleep.
Techniques That Improve Sleep
Now that we know a bit about sleep, it’s time to get into the plethora of ways we can improve it and consequently our lives. Surprisingly, science has actually uncovered many practical techniques and natural supplements that we can add to our daily routine to help us out.
Do Morning Exercise
Any and all exercise is bound to help you sleep better, but there are huge benefits if you exercise specifically in the morning . The thought is that by doing this, you help reset your circadian rhythm and homeostasis. Even if you can’t hit the gym, there are still great home exercise routines such as bodyweight lifts and cardio that will help you achieve this goal.
Change Your Environment
Many of us don’t realize how little natural light we see throughout the day. We wake up early when the sun hasn’t fully risen, head to work in a poorly lit building, and then wander home to relax with the blinds down. This can be detrimental to our sleep since our circadian rhythm runs largely on natural light . Seeing the sun signals our body to stay awake, and when it starts getting dark, we start producing melatonin to ease us into sleep. Try to make as many small changes as you can to get more natural light.
In addition to environment, it’s important to keep the temperature down at night. If you need to wrap up in a blanket, do it, but our bodies heat up when we sleep (ever wonder why you always wake up with the blankets kicked off?) . Because of this, keep your room around 65oF if possible.
Avoid Heavy Stimulant and Alcohol Consumption
This one is fairly self-explanatory, but many (including myself) try to downplay the negative effects that stimulants have on our sleep cycle. Researchers found that having a moderate to high intake of caffeine nearly doubles your chance of struggling to fall asleep and decreases the amount of time you spend in slow-wave sleep . This then leads to increased daytime sleepiness which causes a downward spiral of consuming more caffeine to counteract the tired feeling. If you need a couple cups of coffee in the morning to get you going, try to cut off caffeine at least 6 hours before bed.
“higher caffeine intake as early as 12 years of age is associated with shorter sleep duration, increased sleep onset latency, increased wake time after sleep onset, and increased daytime sleepiness”
The same is true for other stimulants such as nicotine, Adderall, Ritalin, etc. These will keep you from achieving deep sleep and make you more tired and unhealthy ,.
Don’t Let Weekends Throw Off Your Schedule
You made it through a week of work/school (or both) and finally get to stay up late and sleep in. What a good feeling! WRONG. Not to be a party killer, but this shift in our sleeping habits can wreak havoc on our circadian rhythm when Monday comes around . We completely throw our body’s schedule off by doing this and our sleep suffers.
Even if you don’t have a late night out on the town, just staying up a couple hours past normal and sleeping in a bit later can be detrimental . We accumulate “sleep debt” throughout the week and try to make up for it on weekends. Playing catch up is no good. Even sleeping the same amount at night but taking a 2-hour nap has been shown to harm sleep quality. The key here is, to the best of your ability, try and avoid accumulating sleep debt. If that isn’t an option, just sleep slightly longer at night on weekends and take a short nap (>1 hour).
Falling asleep when you’re tense and have a million thoughts running through your mind is near impossible. Because of this, relaxing your body and easing your anxiety is crucial to getting a good night’s sleep. There has been a lot of research done on the link between anxiety and sleep deprivation with some interesting findings. In the end, they are both deeply intertwined and can make each other worse . Generally speaking, there is a significant correlation between anxiety and sleep .
“sleep deprivation increased anxiety and depression, as well as general distress, relative to a normal night of sleep control condition”
Sleep deprivation can increase jitteriness and agitation, both of which are forms of physical arousal . Elevated physical arousal is a central symptom of anxiety which is felt as our fight or flight response, for example . From this, we can see how closely the two are related. These studies show how sleep deprivation causes more anxiety, but it has also been shown that anxiety itself can lead to a significant decrease in sleep quality . Once again, the downward spiral that can occur is evident. Because of this, it is imperative that we increase our sleep quality with the methods of this article and also decrease our anxiety at the same time.
“How do I decrease my anxiety?” you may ask. Well, I will name a few methods in brief, but you may want to check out some of our in-depth articles for more clarification. One study showed that Qigong led to significant decreases in anxiety while simultaneously increasing sleep quality . If that isn’t enough eastern mysticism for you, meditation has also been shown to be an effective way to decrease anxiety and get into deep sleep . If you want something a bit simpler to start with, just relaxing your muscles by focusing on different body parts one at a time has been shown to also help people fall asleep .
Put Your Electronics Away
This might be an outlandish statement, but would it be possible to keep all electronics out of your bedroom? I mean your TV, laptop, tablet and keeping your phone in airplane mode so that you can use it only as an alarm. If you could do this and stop using them an hour or so before bed, you would likely see a huge benefit in your sleep. Studies have shown that the blue light emitted by screens suppresses melatonin, making it much harder to fall asleep and get into the ever so coveted slow-wave sleep state . Using electronics increases mental and physical arousal (going back to what we saw with anxiety) which is NOT good for sleep.
Specifically, social media use before bed has been shown to increase anxiety and decrease sleep quality . I know that little dopamine rush from social media feels great in the moment, but it isn’t worth being tired all day. Besides the physical and mental stuff, just being on your phone will make you stay up past your bedtime. If you absolutely cannot part ways from your phone and Instagram, at least get a strong blue light filter to mitigate the damage.
There are a few other small things that could be causing you to not sleep as well. Researchers found that being overweight doesn’t directly cause poor sleep, but it does make you more likely to experience sleep apnea, which then leads to poor sleep . Another way to get more deep sleep is to avoid drinking fluids before bed . Children are told this all the time because they will wet the bed. When we get older, we gain the ability to wake up when we need to go to the bathroom. Problem solved, right? Well, not really, because the last thing we want is to get thrown out of NREM sleep just to urinate.
Supplements That Improve Sleep
Now we are going to shift gears in our discussion of improving sleep. Aside from all the techniques above, there are also many supplements that have solid research showing significant improvements in sleep. Natural supplements are desirable because they allow us to avoid the many side-effects that come along with many prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids. Alongside having very few side effects, they actually work!
L-Theanine is an amino acid in our bodies and is interestingly found in green tea. If you are a caffeine junkie, listen up. Studies have shown that l-theanine has the ability to “smooth out” the negative side-effects of caffeine while allowing us to maintain the stimulatory effect . Moreover, this amino acid also helps to decrease sleep disturbance throughout the night, allowing us to maintain slow-wave sleep . Along with a decrease in sleep disturbance, another double-blind placebo study found it may help you get to sleep faster as well .
“400 mg daily of L-theanine is safe and effective in improving some aspects of sleep quality”
5-HTP and GABA
The names of these two sound like they are from another planet and their effect on sleep is out of this world (pardon the pun)! Despite their obscure names, they are actually compounds found naturally in our body. 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin and has been shown in many studies to be a beneficial supplement for sleep. In mice, which have a sleep mechanism similar to humans, NREM sleep was increased after their diet was supplemented with 5-HTP . 5-HTP has also been shown to increase serotonin, a molecule that makes us feel good and helps us sleep .
GABA on its own has shown some remarkable results as well. The role of GABA is to bind to parts of the central nervous system that make us active, which in turn helps us sleep. Supplementation with GABA has resulted in increased NREM sleep as well . Another study reported better overall sleep when GABA was taken compared to a control . This supplement gets into the bloodstream fast, so take it right before bed.
“GABA significantly shortened sleep latency and increased the total non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep time”
The effects on their own are fantastic, but when taken together, they have been shown to have an even greater effect. One double-blind placebo-controlled study resulted in participants falling asleep easier along with making it easier to wake up . We all have mornings when it is almost impossible to get out of bed. Luckily, GABA and 5-HTP are here to help.
“GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan reduced time to fall asleep, decreased sleep latency, increased the duration of sleep, and improved quality of sleep”
Melatonin is a long-time heavyweight champion in the supplement world when it comes to helping us get to sleep. This is the hormone made by our bodies that is ever so important in helping us actually fall asleep. There is also no shortage of scientific literature showing the efficacy either. Among night-shift workers, sleep problems are almost universal due to their circadian rhythms being in constant disarray. However, supplementing with 5 mg of melatonin helped them fall asleep with ease on their off days . But how does it work for the average Joe who is just looking to catch a few more Z’s? More researchers have come to the rescue! In one study, they found that melatonin was able to significantly improve overall sleep quality when compared to the placebo .
“Sleep onset latency was significantly reduced while subjects were taking melatonin as compared with both placebo and baseline. “
In general, one meta-study (a study that examines a bunch of other studies) from MIT came to the conclusion that there was enough research out there to say that melatonin does work . 1 mg is a dosage that can be taken on a daily basis, with higher doses being reserved for a night when you really can’t fall asleep.
This is another amino acid that you might know if you’ve heard the myth about eating turkey making you tired on Thanksgiving. While I’m not sure if you actually get enough from turkey to make you sleepy, I DO know that it will help you get to sleep as a supplement. This amino acid is the precursor to 5-HTP, which we have already talked about. Since it is the precursor, it holds many of the same effects, such as increasing serotonin . L-Tryptophan has also been shown to increase melatonin ; we already know how that works as well from earlier in the article.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in our brain and essential for many biochemical processes throughout the body . Specifically, being deficient in magnesium increases neural excitation , which is the opposite of what we want when trying to get to sleep. I know many people who take it just to relax, but let’s get back to the science. As we get more and more sleep deprived, our magnesium stores get depleted , which only compounds the negative effects. Because of this, supplementation is crucial. Like the other supplements on this list, magnesium supplementation has also been shown to improve sleep and increase melatonin . It also improves sleep in the most crucial area, which is NREM sleep .
“Supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI score, sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening”
Onto the more herbal side of things, valerian root is a good place to start. People have been using this one for millennia, and science shows for good reason. In clinical studies, valerian was shown to improve sleep quality and decrease the time it took to fall asleep for the participants. Even more, it helped people fall asleep with an efficacy similar to a group taking benzodiazepines . One of the suggested mechanisms is that it increases GABA levels and also hits the same receptors as GABA . Both of these make it a good option for your next sleep aid.
Kava is well known for its anxiety fighting effect (check it out here) but is less known as a sleep aid, despite a heavy amount of research in this area. It was found that kava has the ability to decrease the time it takes to get to sleep and also improve the quality of the sleep . It can also work for pain relief and to relax muscles. Within kava, the extracts called kavalactones and kavain were shown to partially cause this altered sleep behavior . These extracts also go to work on the GABA system and that, if you haven’t picked up by now, is very important for sleep.
Passionflower and Chamomile
These two didn’t have as much research behind them as the other supplements on this list, but they get an honorable mention because there were a few studies floating in the ether fighting for them. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that passionflower tea was able to improve the sleep quality of the participants in the study .
“sleep quality showed a significantly better rating for passionflower compared with placebo “
Similarly, chamomile tea is a long-time staple among recovering insomniacs. It is hypothesized that it works along the lines of the GABA pathway through an extract called apigenin . It may also be effective for lowering anxiety. So, if your local Seven-Eleven doesn’t have any of the other supplements on this list, give these two a whirl and see what happens.
This is a long list. To get better sleep, don’t feel like you have to try it all at once. Just implement the techniques for better sleep when applicable and try a couple of the supplements out. I would recommend starting with a 1mg melatonin and to stop electronic use at least an hour before bed. If you want to go further, pick and choose any others that seem appealing to you. Good sleep and unlimited energy awaits!
Do you have any techniques or supplements that help you sleep?
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