The nagging headaches, persistent drowsiness, impeded ability to handle stressors, and increased agitation are taking their toll. The sleep meds stopped working weeks ago. With fatigue mounts anxiety, and you can’t turn your brain off at night. You’re exhausted from tossing and turning, waking up in the middle of the night, and feeling off your game during the day.
“Improving sleep doesn’t come overnight but is well worth the effort to improve this imperative part of our lives.”
You are likely keenly aware of the effects of sleep deprivation. If you’re a swing or night shift worker, a student pulling all-nighters, or a habitually suffering insomniac, the rues of sleep deprivation are real and overwhelming.
More than one in three Americans does not get enough sleep. [i] The average adult needs at least seven to nine hours of sleep. Missing even one or two hours of sleep at night can negatively impact cognitive performance. [ii] Sleep deprivation not only comes with fatigue, decreased mental acuity, and reduced performance, but is also associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress. [i] Conversely, habitually sleeping more than nine hours a day is associated with hypersomnia, a condition with numerous mental health risks.
If you’re struggling with a chronic sleep disorder or a new, unwelcome change to your sleeping pattern, there are interventions you can employ without resorting to Ambien or benzodiazepines. Even if you are currently taking sleep medications, the following sleep recommendations can help you too.
Boosting Circadian Rhythm Chemicals Naturally
Two chemicals, serotonin and melatonin, are intimately involved with circadian rhythm, the body’s 24-hour light-dark, sleep-wake body clock. Both light and darkness at the proper times are needed to sleep efficiently. The brain produces the neurotransmitter, serotonin, known for influencing happiness and well-being, with stimulation by light. At night, the brain turns serotonin into melatonin in the presence of darkness.
In order to fall asleep, heightened levels of melatonin in the brain are needed. The production of these two chemicals is influenced by numerous factors. Through the modification of these important brain chemicals, you can improve your ability to sleep more effectively.
1. Light exposure and timing
Depression, insomnia, and other conditions influence our ability to follow an active schedule, which can change how much exposure we have to the sun and/or daylight. Getting sun and light exposure throughout the day is important for maintaining the natural light/dark cycles needed to function optimally. This light exposure stimulates serotonin production.
To maximize light exposure benefit, get 30 minutes of bright light in the morning, ideally within 10 minutes of waking up. [iii]
Medical Grade Light Therapy
Outdoor daylight is about 15 times brighter than artificial indoor lighting, so if you’re unable to be in the natural light in the morning, it is wise to consider a medical grade light source. Look for a blue or white light that is 10,000 LUX. We recommend these: AYO light glasses or Philips Golite Blu light box.
Use your light therapy device for 30-60 minutes each morning within 10 minutes of waking up (at the time you want to wake up), ideally before 7 AM. It can take up to 10 days to respond to this treatment, but it is an effective approach to resetting your circadian rhythm. If you experience early morning awakening, use your light therapy device for 20 minutes 12 hours opposite of the time of unwanted awakening. i.e., if you wake up at 2:30 AM, use your light therapy device at 2:30 PM for 20 minutes.
2. Choose foods that boost your brain
Diet can influence sleep patterns. The body uses the amino acid tryptophan in the biosynthesis of melatonin and serotonin. You can choose foods naturally rich in tryptophan to provide good nutrition to your brain such as in pumpkin seeds, seaweed, chia seeds, sesame seeds, and tofu.
Note that tryptophan can only enter the brain in concert with carbohydrates. Tyrosine, another important amino acid, improves stress, fatigue, sleepiness, and mood when present in the brain. Tyrosine can be found in mustard greens, watermelon, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and tofu, but also needs carbohydrates to enter the brain. Learn more about diet and mental health.
3. Natural sleep aids
Supplements have been used for millennia to promote sound sleep. Employing the recommendations of this article will influence your body’s ability to sleep, but some individuals feel assurance with more natural sleep aid backups. Nedley Health recommends the following: Sleep Balance, Melatonin 5-HTP, Somnapure, Cortisol Manager, and Lavela.
Daily physical activity helps stimulate blood flow, decrease depressive symptoms, increase energy levels, and improve sleep quality. One meta-analysis found that exercise can improve sleep quality without any notable adverse effects in insomnia patients. [iv]
Low sleep quality has also been associated with low exercise levels, and conversely, better sleep with increased physical activity. Aim for 60 minutes of regular moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week, ideally every day. You may need to experiment to see what time of day works best for your body since some people find exercise before bed stimulating, while others find it relaxing.
Some individuals find contrast showers (hydrotherapy) before bed help promote relaxation and deeper sleep. While hydrotherapy can induce sleepiness in some, it can cause wakefulness in others. Experiment then use this modality at the time of day it promotes the desired effect. Learn how to do a contrast shower.
6. Smart napping
If you struggle with sleeping too much or too little, avoid naps altogether. However, if you must nap, do so for no more than 15 minutes before noon. Afternoon siestas and daytime naps, while they may temporarily meet your sleep needs and improve some aspects of performance during the day, are associated with disrupting circadian rhythm and nocturnal sleep quality. [v]
7. Avoid stimulants
Consuming stimulants is a sure way to sabotage sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. [iii] While there are numerous reasons to avoid caffeine in the first place, stay clear of this stimulating drug completely in order to achieve restorative sleep.
8. Turn off the screen
Reducing electronic usage before bed is important for efficient sleep. The light emitted from phone, tablet, and TV screens interferes with the serotonin-melatonin conversion process. It is ideal to stop using electronics 3 hours before bed. If this is not possible, use a blue-light blocking app to change the wavelength of light coming from your device. Even when such an app is employed, stop using electronics at least one hour before bedtime.
9. Foster routine
Our fast-paced society doesn’t leave room for a consistent, healthy routine. However, our bodies thrive on regularity - for health, mental acuity, and efficient sleep.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. On the weekends, vary your bedtime and wakeup by no more than one hour. [iii] The adage “early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” holds true for optimal sleep.
- Eat meals at the same time each day.
- Our bodies and brains thrive on water but begin tapering water consumption before bed to reduce chances of getting up at night.
- Establish a calming evening routine. This could include taking a shower or bath, reading a printed book, lighting a candle, or listening to soft music.
10. Hold still for 20 minutes
If you can’t sleep once you’ve gone to bed, hold a still position for 20 minutes. If you are still not asleep, hold another position for 20 minutes. If you still cannot sleep, try some light reading (physical book) for a brief period before holding your position again. [iii]
11. Physical sleep aids
Black out curtains, noise machines or apps, ear plugs, and eye patches can all be employed to help provide a quiet, dark environment in order to fall asleep in. A cool, dark sleeping environment can enhance melatonin production. [iii]
12. Check your thinking
The thoughts racing in your mind as you switch off the light are often the culprits keeping you up at night. Cognitive distortions significantly influence quality and quantity of rest experienced. Insomniacs often express worry and anxiety about being able to get adequate sleep. This anxiety in turn contributes to alertness, which interferes with sleep, thus creating a difficult-to-break self-fulfilling cycle. [vi]
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) works on identifying misbeliefs about sleep and replacing them with more-adaptive beliefs and healthy sleep education. [vi]. There is substantial evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy is the ideal first-line treatment for insomnia and is more effective than medication [vi, vii] Learn more about CBT.
13. Talk to your doctor
You may need to seek medical advice if you are still struggling with sleep. Sleep apnea and other medical conditions can greatly impede efficient sleep and can be properly treated under medical care. Routine blood work can help point out any areas chemically in your body that could use adjustment. Having proper vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels both influence energy.
Correcting chemical imbalances can improve your overall energy and mood during the day, which helps balance your body for sleep and wake alike.
Don’t underestimate the importance of routine medical evaluation for your health. Before resorting to strong sleeping medications, however, consider implementing the recommendations found in this article to naturally provide your body with the benefits of lifestyle interventions for sleep.
This is by no means an exhaustive source of sleep recommendations but provides numerous integral components for enhancing sleep efficacy. Give yourself time as you let your body relax, adjust, and form new habits. Improving sleep doesn’t come overnight for most of us but is well worth the effort to improve this imperative part of our lives.
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[ii] Sadeh, A., Gruber, R., & Raviv, A. (2003). The effects of sleep restriction and extension on school-age children: what a difference an hour makes. Child development, 74(2), 444–455.
[iii] Nedley, Neil. (2016). Optimize Your Brain Program Workbook.
[iv] Banno, M et al. (2018). Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PeerJ, 6, e5172.
[v] Monk, T. H et al. (2001). Effects of afternoon "siesta" naps on sleep, alertness, performance, and circadian rhythms in the elderly. Sleep, 24(6), 680–687.
[vi] Williams, J et al. (2013). Cognitive behavioral treatment of insomnia. Chest, 143(2), 554–565.
[vii] Krakow, B et al (2010). Patients with treatment-resistant insomnia taking nightly prescription medications for sleep: a retrospective assessment of diagnostic and treatment variables. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 12(4), PCC.09m00873.
About the author
Cami Martin Gotshall, MPH, is the Health Education Director for Nedley Health. She is an international trainer for the community-based health education program Optimize Your Brain™ and the 8-week Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™. Her passion is disseminating information on living a mentally healthy lifestyle to people around the world. Cami works closely with all Nedley Health programs to continually enhance and expand each program.