In today’s go, go, go culture, there are always more items on the to-do list than enough time in the day to actually do them. And with errands to run, deadlines to meet, meals to cook and kids to care for, getting a good night’s sleep becomes less and less of a priority for many. Throw in the hustle and bustle of the holidays—and all the accompanying stress—and sleeplessness can become a regular occurrence.
Most of us know, however, that getting plenty of rest is ideal for optimal health, even if we aren’t aware of all the scary side effects of catching too few Zs, like a predisposition toward depression and other anxiety disorders, a higher risk for cancer and a lower metabolism. Unfortunately, wanting to sleep more and actually doing it are two completely different things, and to bridge the gap, many people have turned to pharmaceutical sleep aids, with a host of potentially negative effects.
But now, thanks to a bevy of all-natural remedies, getting more sleep doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription. Read on to see how.
Take a warm bath
You need to get cleaned up anyway, so why not get in a relaxed, sleep-ready state at the same time?
“A very simple means of aiding sleep is to take a very warm bath before bed,” says Dr. Pamela Reilly, a naturopathic doctor and wellness educator. “Adding two cups of Epsom salts will increase the body’s magnesium content, thereby relaxing muscles. You can boost the effects of the magnesium by also adding ten drops of lavender essential oil to the bath.”
Cut back on caffeine and alcohol
Forgoing your daily latte or making it through New Year’s Eve without a glass of champagne may sound like torture, but it may actually the best way to score some quality shut-eye.
“While you might need a pick me up during all the shopping hours, too much caffeine has negative effects on sleeping,” says Mona Morstein, a naturopathic doctor with Arizona Integrative Medical Solutions in Tempe. “You may not be able to fall asleep, or you may fall asleep but then wake up in the middle of the night, generally between 2 and 4 am, and not be able to return to sleep.”
If you must have a cup of coffee, Morstein recommends having it as early in the day as possible, though she cautions that even if you drink it before 9 am, there is no guarantee that it will be completely out of your system by bedtime.
Alcohol has a similar effect on the body as caffeine. “It interferes with the deep REM sleep, so although it’s nice to drink a toast to all your family and friends, by preventing the deepest levels of sleep, alcohol can cause wakefulness throughout the night,” says Morstein. Her suggestion? “Enjoy, but don’t overdo it.”
Calm your racing mind
Still stressing over the holiday shopping and office party you agreed to plan, even though it’s way past bedtime? Ruminating over that never-ending to-do list can actually inhibit sleep.
The solution? Try jotting everything down on paper to clear it from your mind before bed or, says meditation coach Todd Robinson, try distracting yourself with other non-stressful thoughts.
“I suggest my students use a simple mindfulness technique of diversion and distraction to stop a racing mind so they can sleep,” he says. “The reason it works is because it’s about breaking out of the worry and insomnia cycle. If the mind can relax, even a little bit, natural exhaustion usually takes over.”
The first step in Robinson’s process is to verbalize a “speed bump phrase,” like “Not now, brain” or “I’ll think about this in the morning” that will allow your mind to put the problem aside until later. Then, he says, consciously focus on a thought or activity that is calming or strong enough to crowd out the stressful issue.
“My wife works through knitting projects she’d like to design, but it could be a mental rearrangement of the living room furniture, the opening lines of your next novel or even simple mental math problems, like how many letters are in all the names of your closest friends,” Robinson explains.
Avoiding traditional sleeping pills doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a little extra help falling asleep.
“Herbs are not drugs, so they have chemicals that weakly bind to the body’s benzodiazepine receptors, not displacing or interfering with the body’s natural calming substances that are released when we exercise for instance,” says Dr. Christopher Hobbs, a licensed herbalist and Director of Integrative Science at Rainbow Light vitamins. “They act quite differently than pharmaceutical drugs which bind tightly to binding sites, causing side effects such as morning drowsiness and interfere with the body’s own natural processes.”
In addition to lavender oil (used in the bath, for aromatherapy or in tea), Hobbs also recommends valerian (fresh, not dried), kava (as a tea infusion of the dried plant) and California poppy extract to induce sleepiness and promote better quality sleep.
Limit screen time
You’ve heard that turning off all electronics well before bedtime can make falling asleep easier, and it turns that isn’t just some clichéd drivel, but sound advice. There’s actually science to back it up.
“The brain does not secrete melatonin, a natural sleep-inducing chemical, in the presence of light,” says Reilly. “Turning off all electronics an hour before bed, and turning down the lights, will help your body secrete melatonin to fall asleep more easily.”
And if you’ve grown accustomed to letting the TV lull you to sleep and plan to cop your melatonin via tablet or capsule, Reilly advises against it. “Melatonin is a supplement I rarely recommend using as a sleep aid because our brain will stop producing melatonin if the body is receiving it from an external source,” she says. “That means that taking melatonin on a nightly basis can actually decrease the amount of natural melatonin produced by the brain.”
Get to the root of the problem
All the tips and tricks in the world will do little to ease sleeplessness long-term if there’s a larger, underlying problem that needs to be solved.
“Addressing the cause is always better than merely hiding the symptom,” says Reilly. “To determine the cause, I recommend having tests and assessments run to identify nutritional deficiencies, neurotransmitter imbalances, hormonal imbalances, thyroid function, etc. Imbalances in any of those areas can wreak havoc with normal sleep patterns.”