By Julissa McClean
Ideally, you have a pretty routine lifestyle. You eat healthy foods and consistently exercise. You wake up and go to bed at the same time each day—and get seven to nine hours of sleep. Oh wait, you don’t do that? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in three Americans are getting a good night’s sleep. These seven tips can help you go from nocturnal zombie to sleeping beauty in no time.
1. Watch what you eat before you sleep.
In the same way that some foods can give you an energy boost or make you lethargic, certain foods can have a big impact on your quality of sleep. Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, consultant for Cleveland Clinic, Center for Integrative Lifestyle and Medicine, says the timing of your last meal and the type of meal are critical. She recommends avoiding fatty foods (which can take a prolonged amount of time to digest and can disrupt sleep) and high-sugar foods and refined grains (which can cause a boost and then a dip in blood sugar).
Dr. Aimée Gould Shunney, naturopathic doctor and medical adviser to PlusCBD Oil, suggests replacing the sugar and carbs at bedtime with a protein snack like hummus and carrots, a rice cake with nut butter, or a small portion of a protein smoothie to help keep blood sugar stable during the night and avoid nocturnal awakening. It’s also a good idea to finish eating for the day about two hours prior to going to sleep.
2. Set the stage . . .and the dimmer.
Studies have shown that exposure to bright light (blue light, in particular) before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and duration. Sleep expert Mike Harnett, human factors specialist, Solaris Fatigue Management, says to look at it this way: Office lighting is intentionally bright and enriched with blue light to promote alertness and focus. So are our electronic devices. Therefore, when we want to sleep, it’s a good idea to shut off those bright, concentration-inducing lights so our brain knows it’s time to relax.
Most devices come with a blue light filter that can be activated. For example, if you own a smartphone, you can customize the settings; adjust the color of your screen to display an orange hue in the evening, or adjust the intensity of the hue—the higher the intensity, the better the chance of getting a good night’s sleep. Alternatively, you can purchase a pair of blue-blocking glasses (with orange lenses) to wear in the evening hours.
3. Light proof your sleep sanctuary.
Instead of dimming the lights, turn the lights off altogether—not just the overhead light or your tablet brightness but every light source. Harnett recommends covering lights on clocks and phone chargers and turning off the TV. “People often rely on TV to fall asleep, but while it may let you drift off to sleep, the light that keeps flickering keeps your brain in alert mode and prevents it from dropping into deep sleep.”
Heavy blackout drapery is essential to preventing any light from seeping in from the outside. Blinds are not sufficient. No light is the right amount of light when you’re trying to sleep.
4. Regulate the temperature of your sleep spot.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a room around 65 degrees is the most comfortable and will promote the best sleep. As we become drowsy, our temperature goes down, reaching its lowest level around 5 a.m., and then climbs slightly as morning begins. This is why the air in your room can affect the quality of sleep: if it’s too hot, it may interfere with your body’s natural dip and make you more restless through the night. Some studies indicate that certain forms of insomnia are associated with an improper regulation of body temperature. To help regulate body temperature before bed, Kirkpatrick points to a new study that recommends having a warm bath one to two hours each night before bed. “This aids in the natural circadian process that encourages getting to sleep faster and having better sleep,” she explains. Each one of us has a slightly different optimal temperature for sleep, so experiment until you find what makes you most comfortable.
5. Don’t medicate . . .supplement.
While sleep medications and alcohol are sedatives, as Harnett points out, they do not replicate the various stages of sleep that we must cycle through during our sleeping period. Prescription and nonprescription medications contain synthetic melatonin, which is not the same as what our body produces. These drugs can actually disrupt the sleep cycle, in addition to having several known side effects, including lingering grogginess, very vivid nightmares, upset stomach, and an increase in depressive symptoms. Similarly, while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it does not keep you asleep, says Kirkpatrick. “When excess alcohol is consumed, you are more likely to wake in the middle of the night and struggle with getting back to sleep,” she explains. Skip the medications for natural melatonin-inducing supplements instead.
Dr. Shunney suggests the following natural alternatives before bedtime. (Note: Not all medical professionals recommend these products. Check with your doctor before using.)
Cannabidiol (CBD)—CBD helps balance our endocannabinoid system, the system that keeps us balanced by regulating the fight or flight response, modulating the endocrine system, and supporting immune function.
Cinnamon and holy basil (tulsi)—Both have been shown to help with glycemic control.
Kava—It impacts GABA receptors in the brain that promote calm and focus.
Nervine herbs—Calming, mildly sedating herbs like skullcap, catnip, chamomile, and California poppy have been used for centuries to aid with sleep disturbance, anxiety, and nervous restlessness.
L-tryptophan—This amino acid is necessary for serotonin development, which in turn is converted by your body into its own natural melatonin.
Valerian—Recognized by the World Health Organization, valerian is considered a natural, milder alternative to stronger sedatives like benzodiazepine drugs. Studies have shown valerian to improve sleep onset, reduce night waking, and improve sleep quality, especially in women.
5-HTP—A form of the amino acid tryptophan derived from Griffonia simplicifolia, 5-HTP has been reported in numerous double-blind studies to decrease the time required to get to sleep and to decrease the number of night awakenings. It raises serotonin levels, an important initiator of sleep. Serotonin is also needed to make melatonin.6 Get your hormones in check.
Whether you are experiencing PMS symptoms, are pregnant, are postpartum, or are going through menopause, hormonal changes can have a big impact on sleep. This is because estrogen levels are fluctuating, and therefore the production of serotonin is affected, Kirkpatrick explains. Hot flashes and night sweats also contribute to lack of sleep in menopausal women. While natural herbs like black cohosh or Siberian rhubarb (Estrovera) can be helpful, discussing hormone medications and other alternatives with your doctor may be the best bet.
7 Write it all down.
Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of us unless it is write in front of us. Start by keeping a sleep diary, and document everything you do leading up to falling asleep and the quality of sleep you have each night. Start with two hours before you fell asleep. Did you have a snack? Did you watch TV? What room did you fall asleep in? Did you wake up in the middle of the night? Then think about the day as a whole: Did you work out? Did you drink a lot of caffeine? Are you in the midst of a particularly stressful time? When you keep a sleep diary, the correlations will be much more apparent.
If lack of good sleep becomes an ongoing issue that can’t be helped with this advice, it might be time to visit a sleep specialist. DW
Julissa McClean’s health-focused stories have been featured in Women’s Health, Prevention, and Vice. She has also written for Cosmopolitan and Latina, as well as Diversity Woman.