“I can’t sleep or fall asleep.” “I wish I could get eight hours of sleep a night.” “I don’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning feeling refreshed.”
If you have these complaints about your sleeping habits, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not sleeping enough is a public health epidemic. Roughly 50 percent of Americans have some type of sleeping problem.
That’s concerning because lack of sleep does more than make you irritable. It can make you susceptible to disease, shorten your life, cause weight gain, reduce sex drive, make you look older, and more.
How sleep affects your health and wellbeing
Your brain, body, and emotions are all affected by how much sleep you get. For example:
- Muscles get repaired and the brain recharged when you sleep. Toxic substances seem to get cleared out during sleep. If you don’t sleep enough your ability to think, learn, problem-solve, and cope diminish. You’ll be less productive at school or work.
- Hormones that regulate growth, appetite, and stress are released during the different phases of sleep. If you don’t sleep enough your body overproduces the stress hormone called cortisol. This can weaken your immune system and more.
- Emotional health takes a hit from not sleeping enough, which can lead to mood swings, anger, depression, and impulsivity. The less you sleep, the harder it is to deal with stress. The more stress you have, the harder it is to sleep. It’s a vicious cycle.
A lack of sleep can increase your risk for:
- Heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke
- Obesity, especially in teenagers
- Sickness from colds, flu, and other diseases because immunity is low
What you can do to sleep better
The simple, natural approaches listed below may be able to help you sleep better (and manage stress that’s making it difficult to sleep).
A good place to start is with your daily habits. As you find things that work for you, add in other solutions.
(Note: You don’t need a prescription for any of these sleep aids. But if you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions like sleep apnea.)
1. Change some of your daily lifestyle habits. There’s no question that habits are a hard thing to break. But working hard to change them can make a big difference. Try some of the things listed below.
- Create a pattern of daily rhythms and stick to it. Go to bed and wake at the same time every day; avoid naps. This can help with your sleep cycles and make sure you get the deep sleep needed for body repair.
- Limit or eliminate caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. You may not realize that if you have a cup of coffee at 10 A.M., half of the caffeine from that cup will still be with you at 10 P.M. Nicotine, too, is a stimulant that can disturb sleep. And while a glass of wine may help you fall asleep, it can disrupt the REM sleep stage when restoration usually takes place.
- Eat healthier foods in the right amounts. Focus on a plant-based diet with vegetables and whole foods. They have nutrients such as folate, which are crucial to brain health. Avoid sugar and processed foods. Eating more of a Mediterranean-style diet not only makes you feel better overall, but it may help reduce sleep apnea.
- Exercise daily. Regular aerobic exercise can cut down on the body’s response to stress and improve sleep. Aim for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. (Read about the best time of day to work out here.)
2. Incorporate relaxation rituals. Relaxation sets the stage for sleep. Try some of these as part of your nightly ritual.
- Use meditation and mindfulness. This can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Try progressive relaxation, breath work, meditation, yoga, guided imagery, hypnosis, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or biofeedback. Here’s more information about healthy living and relaxation.
- Soak in a hot bath. Include 2 cups Epsom salts, ½ cup baking soda, and 5-10 drops of essential oil of lavender in the water.
3. Try holistic healing methods. Methods outside the realm of Western medicine have been used for a long time to help people sleep. Below is a list of some tried-and-true ones.
- Acupuncture. It can raise melatonin levels and help relieve insomnia.
- Massage. Massage can enhance relaxation and improve sleep because it reduces anxiety, muscle tension, improves blood flow, and relaxes the breath.
- Aromatherapy. Essential oil of lavender can decrease anxiety and promote sleep. For the greatest benefit, combine it with a massage.
4. Experiment with supplements and herbs. Also in the realm of integrative medicine (or holistic healing methods), the herbs and supplements listed below have been found to be useful. You may have to try several to see what works best for you.
While they're generally safe, remember that anything can cause a reaction in some individuals. If you have concerns, make sure that you talk to your doctor.
- Melatonin. It’s a natural sleep hormone. Try 0.5-3 milligrams before bed.
- L-theanine. It’s extracted from green tea and is known for being calming. Try 200 milligrams twice daily to help manage stress, anxiety, and sleep.
- 5-hydroxytryptophn (HTP). This is a precursor to serotonin. It may induce sleep and improve mood. Try 50-100 milligrams before bed. (Note: DO NOT USE if you’re on SSRIs or other serotonin medications.)
- Valerian and lemon balm. If used together they can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
- Chamomile tea. Reduces anxiety and improves sleep. Drink a glass before you go to bed.
- Homeopathic blends such as “Calm’s Forte” by Hylands. They can be used for periodic night-wakening. It will not leave you feeling groggy in the morning.
For more information on holistic methods, try the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.