Dreaming of a Sound Sleep
Too many nights spent tossing and turning? These natural
snooze-inducers may help you find your way to slumberland.
By Jodi Helmer
Before crawling under the covers, set aside at least five minutes to meditate. A regular meditation practice can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, making it easier to fall asleep and spend all night in a restful slumber. In fact, research published in the February issue of BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found meditation to be as effective as a prescription sedative for treating chronic insomnia (and without side effects); after eight weeks, participants reported improved sleep quality and less distress about insomnia. If you’re new to meditation, Cristin Gregory MSOM, LAc, an acupuncturist and certified Chinese herbalist in Cornelius, North Carolina, suggests downloading a guided meditation app. “Listen right before bed,” she says. “The instructions will guide your mind to a calmer, more relaxed place and make it easier to fall asleep.”
You know that drinking a cup of coffee before bed could keep you awake for hours. But just as some foods and beverages can inhibit sleep, there are others that promote deep, restful slumber. For example, cherries are a natural source of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, bananas are a good source of muscle-relaxing potassium and magnesium, and walnuts contain tryptophan, an amino acid that triggers sleepiness. Research published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 found that participants who ate two kiwifruits one hour before bed experienced improved sleep onset and duration. Peter Bongiorno, ND, author of How Come They’re Happy and I’m Not? (Conari Press), suggests a snack with a balance of carbohydrates and protein about an hour before bed but warns, “avoid having a big meal before bed because digestion could interfere with sleep.”
Turn to Natural Remedies
Many sleep-support formulations are based on foods. For example, casein decapeptides are the protein components that give warm milk its soothing properties. An extract from Zea mays—corn to you—promotes healthy balances between a brain chemical called serotonin, linked to mood, and melatonin, itself available in supplemental form. Herbs can encourage sounder shuteye, too. In addition to such traditional bedtime favorites as chamomile and hops, Mucuna pruriens (velvet bean) fights insomnia and helps to deepen sleep overall while an African shrub called Griffonia simplicifolia provides 5-HTP, an amino acid the body uses to create serotonin. And L-theanine is a green tea component that does double duty, supplying a sense of alert calm and focus during the day and supporting deep, restful sleep at night.
In addition to burning calories, working up a sweat can improve your experience between the sheets. Just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week is all it takes to sleep better, according to research published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. “Exercise burns stress hormones,” Bongiorno explains. “It’s a wonderful tool to improve sleep naturally.” And it’s not just blood-pumping workouts that help. Yoga poses such as Downward Facing Dog and Child’s Pose are also linked to more restful slumber. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that a daily yoga practice improved sleep quality and duration for participants with insomnia because the slow and focused movements help lower cortisol levels. Bongiorno notes that other gentle exercises like qigong and tai chi have similar effects on sleep.
Unplug from Electronics
If your nightly routine includes falling asleep in front of the TV or checking Facebook, Michael J. Breus PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist in Scottsdale, Arizona, suggests turning off all devices at least an hour before bed. “Blue light from screens affects the production of melatonin,” he explains (by as much as 22% in one study). Breus notes that screen blue light “throws off your circadian rhythm,” resetting your internal clock and sending signaling your body that it’s time to wake up. In fact, that blue glow might make you more apt to struggle with sleeplessness than sunlight flooding the room. And to avoid the sleep disturbances some people have reported in response to low-power electromagnetic fields, you should keep all electronic devices (including alarm clocks and TVs) at least eight feet away from the bed.
Invest in Success
You wouldn’t cut the grass with kitchen scissors or plant a tree using a teaspoon, right? The adage about needing the right tools for the job applies to sleep, too. A sagging mattress and ancient pillows can cause back or shoulder pain and muscle stiffness, causing you to toss and turn. In fact, participants in a Journal of Chiropractic Medicine study reported improved sleep quality after sleeping on a new mattress for 28 nights. Bedding made from natural fibers such as cotton (organic, if possible), bamboo and hemp is more breathable and can keep you cool at night. New "performance" sheets and pillowcases can also prevent overheating, allowing you to sleep better because they’re more breathable and wick moisture away from the body, explains Breus.
Reduce the Temperature
Resist the temptation to slip into a pair of flannel pajamas and climb under a mountain of blankets: Added warmth could cause you to wake up more often and spend less time in the deeper stages of sleep, according to the journal Sleep. “Your core temperature drops at night, which is a signal that our bodies are preparing for sleep,” Gregory explains. Making changes that promote a cooler sleep environment, such as lowering the thermostat, switching on a fan and trading flannel PJs and wool blankets for lighter options, may allow for more restful slumber. In the Sleep study, researchers found that setting the temperature between 60 and 68 degrees helped participants fall asleep faster, sleep longer and wake up feeling more alert compared with a thermostat setting of 75 degrees.
Learn to Relax
The tense muscles and racing mind induced by stress can make it impossible to fall asleep. Instead of telling stressed-out patients to try counting sheep, Breus guides them through an exercise called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves thinking about each muscle, one at a time, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, clenching and unclenching each one before moving on to the next. A study published in the October 2013 issue of Sleep found that progressive muscle relaxation was an effective natural remedy for insomnia. Breus believes this process is effective because the focus it entails helps calm the mind. “If it’s done while in bed, in the dark, it usually puts people to sleep,” he says.
Establish a Routine
Most kids have a bedtime routine that includes changing into pajamas, brushing their teeth and listening to bedtime stories. Guess what? You need a routine, too, and for the same reason—it sends a message to the brain that snoozetime awaits. Bongiorno notes that “a bedtime ritual can make all the difference” when it comes to reducing stress and winding down enough to fall into a deep sleep. Consider rituals such as reading a book, brewing a cup of (decaf or herbal) tea or slipping into a warm bath. Steer clear of activities such as tuning into the news or making to-do lists, which will keep your mind buzzing. Aim to start the routine about an hour before lights out. For maximum sleep benefits, Bongiorno suggests tucking in before 10 p.m. There is a rapid decrease in the production of melatonin after that time which can make it harder to fall asleep.
Being pricked with dozens of small needles might not sound restful but research shows that acupuncture is helpful for treating sleep problems ranging from insomnia and sleep apnea to night sweats and anxiety. After an initial assessment to determine the possible causes of sleeplessness, an acupuncturist stimulates appropriate meridian points to provide relief.
The treatment can help make it easier to fall asleep, enhance REM sleep or prevent nighttime wakeups; its overall goal is to enhance sleep patterns by redirecting energy flows. Although acupuncture can have an immediate calming effect—a lot of patients sleep better the night after an appointment, which Gregory attributes to the release of soothing endorphins—lasting results will take several sessions. “It’s not a quick fix but it can treat the root cause of the problem over time,” she says.
Insomnia and Weight Gain
Losing sleep may not just leave you feeling tired and cranky—it may leave you overweight, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 70 million adults suffer from chronic sleep difficulties and two-thirds of the population is either obese or overweight. That both problems have become epidemic in the past several decades probably isn’t a coincidence.
Some people suffer from any of nearly 100 sleep disorders, including insomnia, an inability to fall or stay asleep, and sleep apnea, in which breathing difficulties cause subconscious awakenings throughout the night. Others suffer from what clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, calls “disordered sleep.” Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep (Rodale) says that poor sleep results in sleep deprivation, “which means the number of minutes spent asleep is decreasing and sleep quality is decreasing. Both will lead to increases in weight.”
The link between sleeping and eating is believed to lie in the appetite-control hormones leptin and ghrelin. Researchers have found that the part of the brain linked to appetite responds more strongly to food images after a night of reduced sleep. Stress, known to both promote weight gain and disrupt sleep, is another key factor. In one study, better sleep quality increased the chances that participants would lose weight by 33%.
The first step in fighting chronic sleep deprivation is to consult with a trained practitioner. (To locate a sleep center near you, visit www.sleepcenters.org.) A treatment plan should be tailored to your specific problem, but experts generally recommend following a sleep routine that includes consistent times for going to bed and arising, and avoiding stimulants food-related (such as caffeine), emotional (such as watching disturbing movies or TV shows) and electronic (no using tablets or cell phones in bed).
Certain nutrients promote healthy sleep, including vitamin D, calcium and magnesium. The herbs chamomile and valerian have long been used for their soothing properties. The hormone melatonin, which helps set the body’s internal clock is a popular sleep supplement; it works best when used with casein decapeptides (milk protein) along with extracts from Zea mays, Mucuna pruriens and Griffonia simplicifolia.