Oh sleep. We love you. We need you. And we rely on you. But you can be so, so elusive sometimes.
Feel as though truer words have never been spoken? As if you've thought the exact same thing time and time again while guzzling down your morning coffee, desperately trying to wake up? If so, you're probably on the hunt for a solution—some sort of behavior change or sleep aid that will help ensure you get your much-needed rest.
Knowing how important sleep is, we reached out to some leading sleep experts to find out the best natural sleep aids. Find their recommendations below and get yourself moving toward a better night of rest.
Meet the Expert
- Jeff Rodgers, DMD, specializes in dental sleep medicine.
- George Samuel, MD, is a board-certified sleep and internal medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System.
- Alex Dimitriu, MD, is board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and is the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.
Disclaimer: Check with your doctor before trying any of these natural sleep aids—especially the supplements. "Each of us has a different body with different metabolic needs, so dosages vary from person to person," says Samuel.
Quiet the Noise
"White noise is essentially all audible frequencies that a human can hear, played at the same strength across all frequencies," Rodgers explains. "This creates a sound that many people find relaxing."
If noisy neighbors or other sound disturbances nearby tend to keep you awake at night, white noise is a pretty simple and inexpensive way to block out the noise.
"Those who live in a noisy area can greatly benefit from a white noise machine or app," Rodgers says, adding that it may take a bit of time to get used to white noise if you haven't used it before. And if you don't sleep alone, remember to check with your partner to make sure they're OK with trying out a white noise app or sound machine.
"White noise can bother some more than others," Rodgers says.
Slip Under a Weighted Blanket
Who knew a blanket could be so calming? Weighted blankets are heavier than your typical blanket, and often filled with tiny beads that add a bit of pressure when placed on your body. "Pressure on the body—think of a hug—can release the hormone serotonin, which can boost mood and help you relax to promote healthier sleep," says Rodgers, who says this an easy and relatively inexpensive way to improve sleep without reaching for medication.
Any weighted blanket can take a bit of getting used to as your body adjusts to the pressure, but it's important to make sure the weighted blanket you choose is the right weight for you. This factor often gets overlooked, but weighted blankets aren't really interchangeable among people of different sizes.
Rodgers explains that the ideal weighted blanket will weigh 10% of your body weight. The elderly and anyone with a medical condition should check with a doctor before using a weighted blanket in order to figure out which weight is best.
Try Some Essential Oils
"Lavender, cedarwood, bergamot, ylang-ylang, roman chamomile, and neroli can all help the body relax and drift off into sleep in various ways," Rodgers says, explaining that essential oils can be inhaled or applied to the body.
"If applying to the body, dilute with water and apply just a bit—a little goes a long way," he says. "The ideal concentration for a topical essential oil is 1% for the body and .5% for the face. For those using essential oils on a daily basis, .5% or less is suggested."
Before using any essential oil—whether topically or inhaled—check the directions and usage recommendations, as these can vary from one oil to another. And if you have any medical conditions, always check with your doctor.
Hop in the Tub for a Bath
"Baths are the ultimate 'natural' way to get better sleep," Rodgers says. "What's more natural than hot water?"
A bath provides many benefits for sleep, he explains. The first benefit being that a bath can alter your body temperature. Typically, in the hour before falling asleep, most people's core body temperature drops—this is part of the body's natural circadian process. But warm baths can facilitate this process, starting by increasing your circulation.
"To get body temperature back to a normal level, the body releases the heat, leading to overall reduced temperature," Rodgers says. "If baths are taken at the right biological time (1–2 hours before bedtime), this natural circadian process is boosted, increasing the chance of falling asleep quicker as well as experiencing better sleep quality."
But that's not all—baths carry a ton of other benefits including improving mood, relaxing muscles, reducing some cold symptoms, and soothing the skin.
"To optimize your bath for sleep, you can listen to relaxing music, light a candle, use epsom salts, and warm your bath towel." Rodgers says. "If you plan on taking a long bath and are in need of some entertainment, read a book." If you're feeling tempted to stream something on Netflix while luxuriating in your pre-sleep bath, think again. Avoiding screens will help you fall asleep quicker.
Add Some Magnesium to Your Bath
Magnesium may help reduce muscle tension and anxiety, and can also improve sleep quality. Magnesium is available in many forms—it can be taken as a supplement, added to a drink, used as a spray, added to a hot bath, and more. Be aware that magnesium can cause diarrhea, but this is typically a rare side effect. Dimitriu suggests taking somewhere between 150 and 500 mg at bedtime—but check with your doctor, too.
Take Some Melatonin
Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone that we all have in our bodies already, Samuel explains. But still, many take melatonin supplements when they're having trouble sleeping—this supplement can help reinforce the body's natural circadian rhythm.
"Blue screens and late-night work can suppress the body's natural melatonin secretion, and some people will benefit with both sleep quality, sleep depth, and insomnia from the use of melatonin," says Samuel.
If you've ever shopped for melatonin, you know there are a lot of options out there. Samuel explains that immediate-release melatonin can be more effective in inducing sleep, whereas slow-release melatonin can help promote sleep maintenance. Whatever you reach for, be sure not to take too much—the suggested dose shouldn't exceed 5 mg per day. .
Definitely check with your doctor before taking melatonin supplements—and keep in mind that many common, everyday substances like caffeine, oral contraceptives, and smoking can affect the way melatonin is absorbed and functions in the body.
Take Some Kava
Kava is a bit controversial (it may contribute to liver toxicity and damage if you take more than the recommended dosage), but it is known for its calming and relaxing effects . Kava itself is a plant, but it can be taken as a tea or in pill form.
"Strong scientific evidence supports the use of Kava as a sleep inducer, indicating that Kava modulates the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) pathway," Samuel says. "GABA is a substance transmitted between neurons (neurotransmitters) to exert inhibitory effects in the brain. When the GABA pathway is promoted, sleep is induced by inhibiting brain areas involved in wakefulness."
Sip Some Cherry Juice
You may be surprised by this one, but yes, cherries really might improve your sleep.
"Scientific evidence confirms that our melatonin levels increase when we drink pure cherry juice," Samuel says. He describes a controlled study where 20 volunteers consumed either tart cherry juice or a placebo over the course of seven days. "In the cherry group, total melatonin was significantly elevated compared to the placebo group," he says. "Also, there were increases in bedtime, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency with cherry juice supplementation."
Find Your Calm with Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is said to decrease anxiety and stress, and help with insomnia. All major wins in the sleep department as far as we are concerned. One of the main reasons it helps with sleep is because it helps lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones.
"Cortisol is also responsible for insomnia," Samuel says. "When cortisol is unbalanced—too little in the morning and too much at night—it also causes sleep problems. Ashwagandha regulates cortisol by reducing nighttime levels to promote a good night's sleep."
Make Yourself a Cup of Valerian Root Tea
Acting as a sedative agent that relaxes the nervous system and brain, valerian is known to have sleep-inducing, relaxing, or even tranquilizing effects. It may help you fall asleep quicker and improve the overall quality of your sleep.
"There is some evidence that [valerian] reduces anxiety levels and can improve sleep quality and insomnia," Dimitriu says. "A nighttime tea ritual, whether with valerian root tea or chamomile, or both, can be helpful in getting people to sleep."
Samuel points out that it's better to take valerian root than valerian extracts, which may not be as effective.
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