In my opinion, there’s nothing better for your health or wellbeing than having a restful night’s sleep. You feel more energized, you can think clearer, you are more inclined to take on new challenges, and even more motivated to go to the gym. Yet a lot of us undervalue sleep or don’t get enough of it. Approximately 1 in 3 Americans gets less than seven hours of sleep a night and more than 83 million adults in the U.S. are sleep-deprived.Why is sleep so important? Without proper sleep, every aspect of your health will suffer. This includes impaired memory, reduced productivity at work and school, increased risk of neurological problems, including depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, weight gain, and increased susceptibility to viruses, bacteria, and cancer. You might be wondering: how much sleep do I need to avoid these disturbing health consequences? The average adult needs anywhere from 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night for optimal health.
Are you one of the millions out there not getting enough sleep? Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. In college, I suffered from insomnia. Over the years, I’ve tried countless supplements, herbs, diet and lifestyle changes, and sleep hygiene practices. I’ll share with you well-studied tips and tricks that work for me as well as what’s helped my clients and friends.
Sleep hygiene: Rules to live by
First off, let’s talk about sleep hygiene for a minute. Good sleep hygiene means sticking to one sleep schedule every day. This means going to bed and walking up around the same time each day - not just during the work week! Keeping your bedroom dark, and I mean really dark, is also an important aspect of good sleep hygiene. Exposure to light, whether it be from outside or lighting in the house, can disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This includes blue light exposure! Blue light is emitted our cell phones, TVs, computers, tablets, and other electronics. Set an alarm clock on your phone an hour before bedtime to remind yourself that it’s time to turn off any screens.
Don’t exercise too close to bedtime
While exercising during the day can help you fall asleep more quickly, if you exercise too close to bedtime, your cortisol levels are going to be high. We want cortisol (a stress hormone) to be low before we go to sleep to help the body produce melatonin (the hormone that helps you go to sleep). Ideally, try to exercise in the morning or midday, when cortisol levels are naturally high. If your schedule won’t allow it, try to finish your workouts by 6pm.
Caffeine and booze
Don’t drink caffeine, this includes green/black tea, energy drinks, and coffee, after 2pm. Caffeine has a “half-life” of about 8 hours, which means it can stay in your system as a stimulant when you’re trying to unwind for the night. What about booze? While some people consider an alcoholic beverage their “night cap”, sleep researchers say that having a few drinks before bedtime keeps you from reaching your deep REM sleep stage and tends to awaken you in the middle of the night. If you’re going to consume alcohol, make sure it’s not within 3 hours of bedtime.
Dietary habits and sleep
Your digestive system needs rest each day just like you! If you eat a large meal, especially high in fat and protein, too close to bedtime, it might keep you up at night. If you find yourself hungry late at night, aim for carbs, which are easier for the body to digest. No, I’m talking about a plate full of pasta! Try half of a banana and a handful of almonds, or some apple slices with peanut butter. Most importantly, don’t consume sugary treats at bedtime. Sugar has a direct effect on blood sugar, which cause blood sugar spikes. Eating that cookie or ice cream before bed will not only raise your blood sugar and delay your sleep, it may also wake you up in the middle of night when your blood sugar drops too low. Overall, limiting sugar helps keep energy consistent throughout the day, helping you stick to a normal sleep schedule.
Supplemental and Herbal Support for Sleep
During periods of high stress, anxiety, or depression, adding supplements and herbs to your sleep routine can be a powerful tool. Four supplements that I’ve seen work well include:
5-HTP: Also known as 5-Hydroxytryptophan is a naturally occurring by-product of the amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP has effects on both sleep and mood; this is because it’s actually a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin influences our sleep and sleep-wake cycles. It’s important to note that studies done on both supplemental L-tryptophan and 5-HTP found 5-HTP to be much more effective at improving sleep. This is because L-tryptophan does not cross the blood-brain barrier, whereas 5-HTP does.
Pharma GABA: Pharma GABA is a natural source of the neurotransmitter GABA; this neurotransmitter supports restful sleep, relaxation, and focus. I’ve seen this supplement be especially supportive for those who have anxiety-induced sleep problems.
Melatonin: Our bodies’ melatonin production decreases with age, adrenal exhaustion, and nighttime light exposure. Supplementing with a low dose of melatonin may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep quality. The key here is to start with a very low dose, somewhere around 0.5 mg. You can work your way up to 3 mg if needed.
Magnesium: Part of my personal bedtime routine includes a nighttime tea (see my recommendations on herbs below) and Natural Calm, a magnesium citrate powder you add to hot water. Approximately 70% of Americans do not meet their recommended daily requirements for magnesium. This mineral has so many health benefits that it could turn into a whole other blog. But, for now, I’ll just say magnesium plays a crucial role in relaxation and sleep by maintaining healthy levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. For those with sensitive stomachs, try magnesium glycinate before bed.
Herbs for sleep:
My top 10 herbs for sleep and relaxation are valerian root, hops, California poppy, passionflower, kava, skullcap, chamomile, lemon balm, ashwagandha, and lavender. Try one or 2 of these herbs at a time, either in a tincture or tea. Herbalist and apothecaries typically come up with their own custom blends for sleep and relaxation. Start with something mellow, such as lemon balm, chamomile, and skullcap. The most sedative herbs are valerian root and hops.
There’s hardly anything more frustrating than not being able to go to sleep. If you’ve already tried several of these tips and tricks for sleep and are still not getting the results you want, please contact me to set up a free 15 minute phone consultation. It’s also important to note that certain individuals tolerate supplements and herbs differently than others, so it’s always a good idea to work with a practitioner when using these for sleep problems.