Natural Sleep Aids That Work
written by sleep expert Lauren Hall
Natural Sleep Aids: Benefits And How They Work:
Have you been struggling to fall asleep and tirelessly looking for ways to tackle the restlessness throughout the night?
Well, let me tell you you’re not alone and you’re at the right place.
Turns out that 1/3 of American adults get less than 7 hours of rest per night, many use countless medications to help fall into the deep Zzz’s but nothing seems to help. Millions of us suffer from insomnia and have trouble falling and staying asleep on a daily basis!
Our bodies need sleep to recharge and repair at a cellular level from the day’s activities and without sleep, it’s even possible to go insane. For your physical and mental health, you have to sleep!
The problem is that many people don’t want to be dependent on medications, that and sometimes you can’t risk oversleeping – something these medications often cause. Whether it’s the side effects, the oversleeping, or simply the cost there are plenty of reasons to go natural.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, I’m here to help!
To make things easier I have broken down my top tips and tricks to help your body fall into those deeper sleep stages so you can wake up feeling refreshed. I have also selected the very best natural sleep aids that actually work when falling asleep!
There are potential benefits as well as downsides and I’m here to break it all down so you can lay down and relax, knowing that the method you’re about to use may actually work.
Let’s jump in!
Firstly what makes us sleepy?
Tiredness is the result of several chemicals working together in the body to signal they are low and need time to recharge. The most important are melatonin, serotonin, 5-HTP, and tryptophan.
They all work in harmony to get you to relax and nod off. Tryptophan is the most important, it’s an amino acid and it only comes from foods.
Tryptophan actually breaks down into 5-HTP which is then converted into serotonin and subsequently melatonin. This chemical process is in effect your internal body clock.
Your body produces the most melatonin at the end of the day to make you sleepy, but if you don’t have enough Tryptophan to start with this process can’t happen.
As a result of environmental cues such as darkness melatonin is released (which induces sleep). During the winter we often suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a result of darker mornings, our body stops releasing melatonin and starts releasing serotonin when exposed to light.
During winter it gets lighter later, our mood is affected as a result as our body cannot stop producing melatonin and start producing serotonin. Alarm clocks that wake you up by gradually lightening your room are brilliant for SAD.
What Are Natural Sleep Aids?
There is no formal definition for natural sleep aids, but they are often broken down into two definitions: natural and sleep aid.
Natural sleep aid is a product designed to improve sleep quality, from helping with insomnia and anxiety to environmental triggers such as jet lag, which affects one’s internal body clock and circadian rhythm as a result of environmental changes (such as traveling from one time zone to another).
Natural sleep aids work using natural ingredients (often derived from plants to help aid sleep). Lavender, for example, is said to help relax your mind and induce a restful night’s sleep.
Are natural sleep aids more beneficial than traditional sleeping pills?
Natural sleep aids tend to be much safer than OTC and prescription medications; they have much fewer side effects and make you less likely to become dependent on sleeping pills.
When we become dependent on sleep aids, we can often experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping using them; it may improve sleep quality for a short period, but over time our body becomes resistant to drugs, and then that’s when we will need a higher dose until we’re on the highest.
Any form of drugs are short-term resolutions and don’t offer a long-term solution. Using natural sleeping aids for a short period of time doesn’t often lead to dependence and has fewer side effects and complications.
Herbs regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration are often used in natural sleep remedies, so you should use them with caution and consult your doctor first, but they often don’t have any side effects.
Why Use Natural Sleep Aids?
The biggest worry with synthetic supplements is that you just don’t know what’s in them.
While the chemical compounds may be similar there’re lots of reasons your body won’t treat them the same while natural products ONLY have natural ingredients. These are easier for the body to absorb and you know your body can process them right.
The word “natural” is deceiving, though, you want to choose organic or therapeutic grade as often as possible because “natural” is an unregulated term meaning it can be slapped on anything.
As well as the ingredients being better for your body they’re also better all around. Natural dietary supplements also contain the antioxidants and enzymes found in the product itself to boost the effect on your body.
Your body is also less likely to become reliant on these ingredients which make them perfect for short-term problems too.
There are other ways you can also help improve sleep quality:
- Limit daytime napping to 30 minutes a day or even less if possible.
- Make sure you exercise at least 10 minutes a day and multiple times a week
- Do not eat a heavy meal before sleeping, such as take out.
- Avoid caffeine past mid-afternoon or even past 12 if possible, this will help aid sleep massively throughout the night.
Different Natural Sleep Aids for a Better Night’s Sleep:
Here are some natural sleep aids and natural sleep remedies you can take and drink throughout the day to help aid with sleep.
Also known as a calming herb the supplement increases GABA in your body and does act as a mild sedative. If you’re struggling to switch off and relax this might be exactly what you need.
Valerian has been said to be helpful when treating insomnia and in improving sleep quality in postmenopausal women! You may find that Valerian is combined with hops, lemon balm, and other herbs.
It’s also a good natural anxiety supplement since it’s a lower dose (and natural) version of what prescription anti-anxiety medicines do. It can be a little pungent but you can get it in capsules or make tea from it.
If you decide to make a tea you’ll want at least 1 teaspoon of the dried root and drink it right before bed. You should consult your doctor before use though.
Benefits of Valerian:
- Helps improve sleep quality by increasing GABA in your body which is a mild, calming sedative.
- Helps ease stomach cramps
- Helps with muscle and joint pain
- Helps with anxiety and depression as well as insomnia
- Can be taken as a tea or in pill form.
Side effects include:
- Persistent headaches after taking
- Impaired thinking
- Upset stomach
If you have any cause for concern do not hesitate to consult your doctor.
Linden Leaf Tea
Another calming tea remedy is Linden leaves. It’s a non-narcotic that is commonly used to treat blood pressure and is full of antioxidants. The active ingredient is farnesol which relaxes the cardiovascular muscles so that you feel less stressed and more relaxed.
It lowers your blood pressure by acting as a calcium channel blocker, something that your body should be doing naturally as you go to sleep.
Linden is something to only be used sporadically because it can have a strong effect on the heart and should be taken before bedtime.
If you’ve ever taken it accidentally as a morning tea you’ll find out that the entire day is spent trying not to nod off! Linden can interact with some medications and you should consult your doctor before using it.
You can skip the Tryptophan break down entirely and simply take melatonin itself. This is available as capsules or liquids but it’s also found in many foods.
Melatonin can also be used to treat cluster headaches however I wouldn’t recommend using if you suffer from SAD, this is because melatonin stops the production of serotonin (our happy hormone) and therefore induce sleep. Ironically the side effect of melatonin supplements is that it makes you sleepy!
You shouldn’t use melatonin for long periods because it will affect your body’s own ability to produce it and your body will also become accustomed to it, meaning that you won’t be able to get the same effect.
The right dose is from 0.2mg to 20.mg a day and you should start on as low a dose as possible to make sure you don’t experience oversleeping.
Lavender can be taken as a tea or diffused as an essential oil to get the benefits. It’s a type of mint and is known for its relaxing and calming effect.
You can also buy dried lavender and have it made into small pillows or sachets or use a hydrosol to mist your bed so that you can inhale the scent.
Studies have shown that people who fall asleep in a room smelling of lavender sleep 20% better since it increases slow-wave brain patterns found in deep sleep. This promotes relaxation and also improves memory during the day.
You probably know that poppies contain opioids which can be converted into drugs that cause total body relaxation and pain relief.
These are a cousin of the opioid poppy and have been used to remedy sleep issues by the Native Americans for centuries. The poppy contains sedative alkaloids to relax you to sleep by calming the mind.
It’s also been studied to produce better quality sleep by causing you to get into REM faster. It can be taken as a powder, tincture, or diffused as an oil. It’s one of the most popular because unlike melatonin you are unlikely to wake up feeling tired.
A long known remedy for relaxation chamomile is a sleep aid that has a substance called apigenin which blocks GABA receptors and allows your body to calm.
It has a mild sedative effect and it’s got a very pleasant taste which is what makes it popular as a bedtime tea. ¼ cup of fresh chamomile tea flowers or 2 heaped tablespoons of dry flowers are enough to make 1 cup of chamomile tea but you can usually find it in bags at the store as well.
There are tons of other supplements that cause a mild amount of drowsiness such as St Johns Wort, Lemon Balm, Hops, Honey, Catnip, Turmeric, the list goes on. While these may work their effects have not been as pronounced in studies.
There’s no reason you can’t try them but they’re simply not as strong.
Different Natural Sleep Remedies:
Tart Cherry Juice
If there’s one thing guaranteed to make you sleepy it’s this. You only need 4-8oz but it’s full of Tryptophan. This means your body will have plenty to turn into melatonin and you’ll get drowsy quickly.
This will improve your entire schedule and you’ll wake up feeling more energized too. In addition to its sleep benefits tart, cherry juice is also good for lowering the risk for heart disease and for helping to reduce pain from inflammation.
Studies by various scientific institutions have researched it and found that as little as 2oz a day can improve sleep quality.
Participants had increased levels of melatonin, spent more time in bed actually asleep, and were less likely to nap during the day. To make it more palatable mix 1oz of tart cherry juice to 12oz of water.
A traditional Chinese practice that has been used for thousands of years to correct many different medical issues.
It works on the principle that Q or life energy flows through the body constantly, but sometimes the paths that it flows through can become blocked or misdirected.
To rebalance this energy, acupuncturists stimulate the energy lines in the body using thin needles to open up these paths.
It’s been shown to increase your body’s natural production of Tryptophan and melatonin which will help your brain and body clock to be more efficient.
Eat Foods that Increase Melatonin
Cherries are an obvious choice because they’re packed with Tryptophan.
Other fruits that are high in tryptophan include bananas, pineapple, oranges, oats, rice, tomatoes, barley, and sweet corn. Pineapples and bananas are almost as effective as cherries since they raise melatonin levels between 180-266%!
Oranges can increase melatonin levels by around 47%. Tropical fruits are thought to be the best choice if cherries are not in season to boost your levels.
These foods are also high in magnesium which works as a neurotransmitter to improve GABA reception and calm your nervous system. Try changing your diet first before taking any supplements as this may be enough.
While you don’t want to exercise immediately before bed (specifically because it will cause you to feel more awake) exercising in the afternoon increases your body temperature.
Your body temperature naturally falls before you fall asleep and when your temperature begins to come down again after exercise you will often feel sleepy.
Exercise has been shown to affect your natural circadian rhythm by making a clearer differentiation in your body’s sleep and awake time. This can also be done by exercising outside in sunlight where your melatonin levels will be affected. It may also work simply by tiring your body out.
Having a warm, lavender bubble bath:
Hot baths are an ideal way to get your muscles to relax all over. A hot shower will work but a bath is better. Add some Epsom salts and lavender to ease any aches.
Hot baths increase your body temperature much on the same principal as exercise, so that when you get out and begin to cool off the drop in temperature will make you automatically feel sleepy.
The steeper the drop in temperature the quicker you will fall into deep sleep and the faster you will fall asleep.
Create a Sleep Routine
Whether we like it or not most of us are creatures of habit. Having a routine helps teach your body that certain times are for certain activities. For example, we know that when we go to bed we should probably use the bathroom first to avoid getting up at night.
Giving your body a proper sleep routine such as putting on pajamas, having a cup of warm tea, brushing your teeth and climbing into bed (for example) are an ideal way to signal that it’s time to sleep long before it is.
By doing these actions repeatedly you can teach your body to relax via a routine.
Your sleep routine should promote winding down so you want to avoid television and noise and opt for calmer things like meditation or soft music.
Sleep in a cool environment:
If you’re a hot sleeper you may actually struggle the most to doze off asleep and here’s why: in order to fall asleep our core body temperature needs to drop 1ºc in order to reach those deep sleep stages.
If you’re sleeping in a hot environment this makes falling asleep very difficult as your body struggles to drop that 1 degree it needs to reach those deep sleep stages.
There are ways you can easily combat this though, by getting a cooling mattress, mattress pad, or topper and a cooling pillow that helps to draw away heat from your body and regulate body temperature throughout the night.
Don’t want to splurge out on a whole new mattress? These mattress pads and toppers will help to improve your quality of sleep.
What to Avoid Before Bedtime
It should go without saying that drinking anything caffeinated before bed will keep you awake. But coffee isn’t the only thing with caffeine in it and many mistake other drinks as safe without realizing that they are adversely affecting their sleep. Cola products and many teas also contain caffeine in them.
Caffeine acts as a nerve stimulant so that you feel more awake which is ideal in the morning but very unhelpful when you should be winding down.
If you really can’t go without these drinks in the evening switch to a version that is caffeine-free. You should not drink any additional caffeine after 3-5 pm depending on your intended bedtime.
Looking at a screen has been proven to disrupt sleep. Avoid looking at your phone in bed or using a tablet or computer. If you have to install a blue light filter app on the screen.
The blue light comes from modern screens and it’s towards the ultraviolet end of the spectrum, similar to that which comes from the sun. This can trick the brain into thinking it’s seeing sunlight and it won’t produce as much melatonin.
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