Natural Sleep Remedies
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
One of the most common complaints we hear from patients in the primary care setting is issues with sleep. According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans do not receive the recommended 7 hrs or more of sleep per night (1). Sleep disorders affect 50-70 million US adults and insomnia, a condition defined by trouble falling and/or staying asleep at least 3 nights a week for 3 months, is reported by 30% of adults (2). These brief statistics go to show that sleep is a major issue within our population!
Not only are sleep problems prevalent, they can have serious effects on our health and well-being. I think we all know the tell-tale symptoms of a less than ideal night in bed- fatigue, brain fog, headache, irritability, lack of motivation… and the list goes on. A rough night here and there, despite making you a less pleasant version of your normal self the following day, is not likely to have any long-term detrimental consequences. Chronic sleep deprivation, however, can have significant health effects. The following list is just a sampling of these effects:
Increased risk of chronic disease such as hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), diabetes, and cancer (3)Difficulties focusing at school/work and decreased productivity (3)Increased risk of major motor vehicle accidents (4)Increased risk of emotional disorders such as depression (3)Increased risk of weight gain and obesity (3)Worsening of symptoms in those with gastrointestinal disorders (3)
Bottom line—-sleep is important! And a lack of it, especially on a consistent basis, can lead to poor health and seriously affect your quality of life. While sleep medications are occasionally needed, it is always best to try avoid their use if possible. Not only can they promote dependence, they can have a variety of (sometimes serious) side effects and can impair your ability to function normally the next day.
Here is a list of lifestyle modifications and natural sleep remedies that we often recommend to our patients who are struggling with sleep deprivation and insomnia. As always, it is important to collaborate with your health care provider and discuss any supplements with them prior to initiating their use.
1. Get into a routine– This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to improve your sleep. The body craves routine and having one in place helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, aka your physical, mental, and behavioral patterns, including sleep, that follow a daily cycle (5). Try and go to bed at the same time every night and wake up as close as possible to the same time every morning- yes, even on the weekends! Also create a routine prior to your bedtime to help prime your body for sleep. This can be as simple as reading a calming book while sipping some herbal tea or as elaborate as a hot bath with essential oils. I will be very transparent in saying that I seriously struggle with this one. Taking a bath is not usually something I can fit in before bed- as much as I would like to. All too often I end up rushing to get to bed at a decent hour and barely have time to shower, let alone to sit and meditate or drink tea. But we are all a work in progress!
2. Exercise– Exercise has been found to significantly improve sleep in people with chronic insomnia (6). The effect of exercise on sleep is likely multifactorial and based in its ability to reduce decrease arousal, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, and regulate the circadian rhythm. You should aim for 30 to 60 min of exercise a day but may have to experiment a bit to figure out whether morning or afternoon/evening sessions work best for you. One word of caution- exercising too close to bedtime may increase your alertness and lead to trouble sleeping. Again, figure out how your body reacts and adjust your schedule as needed.
3. Increase your natural light exposure– This is a big one. Exposure to natural light during the day (preferably in the morning) regulates your brain’s release of hormones that help to promote sleep, namely melatonin. Our circadian rhythm is driven by light-dark exposure. If you deprive yourself of natural light during the day and turn on the lights and TV the minute you get home from work at night, you are completely confusing your brain and disrupting your circadian rhythm. Even 20 minutes of natural light exposure in the morning helps keep your rhythm balanced.
4. Avoid blue light at night– Along the same vein, reduce your exposure to light from electronics at night. Blue light given off by your phone, tablet, computer, TV, and other electronics suppresses the secretion of melatonin and acts as a serious disruptor of your circadian rhythm (7). It’s no wonder so many of us suffer from sleep problems in this age of electronic overload! I fully realize how difficult it is to avoid electronics completely in the evening, so one suggestion is to wear blue light blocking glasses. Both Jaci and I use these ones from Amazon when we have no choice but to open up our laptop or phones in the evening.
5. Pay attention to your diet– While you may have heard that warm milk and turkey are foods that encourage sleep, the more important thing is to avoid foods and drinks that can keep you awake. Caffeine is the obvious, but simple carbohydrates and sugar are just as likely to keep you wired past your bed time. If you absolutely MUST have a snack before bedtime, forgo the chex mix and cereal, and choose something like nuts, veggies, or healthy protein (unsweetened yogurt, hard-boiled egg, slice of turkey with hummus, etc) instead. These foods help to stabilize your blood sugar rather than spike it.
6. Try meditation or breathing exercises– Guided meditation and breathing techniques can help to quiet the mind and prime your body for sleep. Even 5 to 10 min can help. Refer to our blog post on mediation for tips on how to incorporate a meditation practice into your bedtime routine and what resources we use and recommend. I personally love the Calm app for both its guided sleep meditations and music that you can listen to while you drift off.
7. Supplement with Melatonin– While I don’t recommend melatonin to everyone, it can assist you in falling asleep both when you are traveling, trying to adjust to different time zones and when you are suffering from typical delayed-onset insomnia (trouble initiating sleep). It has been shown in the scientific literature to both decrease sleep onset latency (time to fall asleep), increase total sleep time, and increase sleep quality (8). Unfortunately, the effects are modest and melatonin does not work for everyone, but it is worth trying given its favorable side effect profile. There is some question among experts as to whether ongoing use of melatonin and doses above the recommended 1-3mg can disturb your body’s own production of the hormone, but the jury is still out. It is therefore suggested that melatonin only be used short-term or as needed, and that the dose is kept to the recommended range (1-3mg).
8. Supplement with Magnesium– Magnesium is a vitally important mineral found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Because our soil is so nutrient depleted nowadays, a lot of us are deficient in magnesium. Its role in the body is widespread, but on a simplified level it is promotes normal muscle and nerve function. It also helps to reduce the stress response and encourages relaxation. Studies looking at magnesium as a sleep aid do show benefit but the quality of the evidence out there is not overly robust. That being said, its reasonably to try a magnesium supplement (250-400mg) if you are suffering from insomnia. I recommend this one from Natural Vitality. It tastes great and mixes well with a cold glass of water- just make it a small glass so you aren’t up all night going to the bathroom!
9. Sip on some tea– One walk down the tea aisle at the grocery store and you will quickly see that tea companies have capitalized on the sleep-promoting qualities of some herbal teas. Chamomile is the superstar in this category, but others such as lemon balm, lavender, and passionflower deserve some attention as well. There are a variety of blends on the market that include one or several of these herbs, but we like this one from The Republic of Tea. As with most natural remedies, quality scientific evidence is lacking, but small studies have shown support. And just to be clear- the lack of quality evidence for a lot of these remedies is not always due to lack of benefit, but rather it is often because the studies are not done in the first place. A word of caution- chamomile does have some blood thinning properties, so check with your health care provider if you are on blood thinners before starting it. Also check with them before using any herbal supplements if you are pregnant or nursing.
10. Try essential oils– There is a reason that most personal care products targeted towards rest and relaxation contain lavender oil. Lavender has been a go-to sleep remedy for centuries and has been found to increase quality of sleep (9,10) and essential oils in general may be helpful in people with mild sleep disturbances (11). Chamomile, bergamot, and neroli are a few other essential oils to consider. You can use essential oils in several different ways, but my favorite is to either diffuse them or apply a few drops diluted in a carrier oil (jojoba is a good one to use) on my wrists and neck. You can also purchase lavender pillow and room sprays- just make sure that you pick one with 100% pure essential oil and clean ingredients like this one from Aura Cacia.
I hope these suggestions were helpful and that you start incorporating some of them into your routine. In this day in age it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and burn the candle on both ends. But sooner or later, your body (and mind!) will suffer the consequences. Sleep has a significant impact on your overall wellbeing and prioritizing it is a non-negotiable when it comes to living a healthy life.
Continue to Follow Your Gut,