Best Natural Sleep Solutions

January 30, 2018 (Updated: January 31, 2018)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

A good night’s sleep is one of life’s great pleasures. But it’s not just about easing into dreamland and feeling good when we rise. And sleep is not a “luxury”. Simply put, without good sleep, there’s no good health. Period. So let me help you dance into dreamland and reap the health benefits of getting a restful and recharging night’s natural sleep—every single night.

The health benefits of good sleep

Overview: Your body and your mind devour good sleep as if it were food. Just as with good food, every cell in your body craves sleep and benefits from it.

A good night’s sleep means a minimum 7–8 hours, with no interruptions. That gives your body time for your muscles, tissues, and bones to relax and repair themselves, and for your heart to relax from its daytime “I’m alert!” state.

For every minute or hour of on/off sleep through the night, you’re missing an opportunity to heal and stay healthy. A good night’s sleep means no intermittent waking.

What causes “undersleeping?”

If good sleep is so important, why is it so hard to get? Why are nearly one-third of Americans chronic “undersleepers?”

Clearly, working adults often sacrifice their natural sleep on the altar of productivity. How many over-achievers boast that they got to the top by sleeping only 4 hours a night?

That’s so wrong.

You know why it’s lonely at the top? Hardly anyone survives the sleep-deprived journey.

But even happily employed, non-working, or retired people fall prey to poor sleep. Let’s face it—who isn’t stressed, emotionally, for countless reasons, and neuro-physiologically, from battling daily environmental toxins? Some meds also can impede sleep.

We all need all the natural sleep help we can get. In my and my patients’ experiences, these are my best tips.

Natural diet for natural sleep

Eat for good health—fresh, local, organic, unprocessed—and you’ll be eating for good sleep. But note that some otherwise worthy food types are especially linked to poor sleep, and should be limited or avoided on your dinner menu:

  • Fats, carbs, and naturally occurring sugars, all have their place in a healthy diet, but the evening meal isn’t one of them. Foods that are high in fat are especially difficult to digest. They impede your body’s ability to rest. So that burger can be OK at lunchtime, but not at night.
  • Excitotoxins, the flavor “enhancers” added to processed foods, also can interfere. Note the presence of “toxins” in this food category, and steer clear of foods that include monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and casein.

Be aware also that giving your digestive system extra work to do, especially while you’re lying down—makes acid reflux and heartburn more likely.

I recommend including fiber in your evening meal. It aids digestion, and importantly, helps regulate your blood sugar. Even non-diabetics should avoid sugary, high-carb foods that cause blood sugar spikes.

I also recommend eating foods with high levels of tryptophan. That’s an essential amino acid, meaning we have to get it from food or supplements. It does many good things, and acts as a stepping-stone toward the production of serotonin—a mood-elevating hormone which helps regulate good sleep for you.

So plan dinners that include tryptophan-rich nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs. Lots of great choices.

Exercise yourself to sleep

Another of life’s great pleasures is how good exercise makes you feel. Not so much while you’re doing it, but afterwards. Depending on how much you’ve challenged yourself, your pulse is faster, you’re taking deeper breaths, your face is flushed and glowing.

That’s exactly how kids look after recess, right? Let that be a lesson. Kids don’t have to be forced to exercise—they have to be forced not to. When they run, jump, and tumble, they’re just doing what their bodies know they need.

When kids do it, it’s called playing. When adults do it, it’s called exercising, and worse, “working out.” Who wants to work?

Think of it as “playing out.” And anything you do outside your normal routine, that’s exercise. From getting off the couch or chair and walking around for a few minutes to walking briskly around the neighborhood to a treadmill, pedaling a stationary or real bike—it’s exercise.

So how do you feel after “playing”? Comfortably tired, of course, which improves your sleep quality—as much as 65 percent in one study of people 18–65 who exercised for at least 150 minutes per week, or around 20 minutes a day.

Huge bonuses here—exercisers were also 68 percent less likely to have leg cramps while sleeping, and 45 percent less likely to have trouble concentrating when tired.

Sex is also great exercise, by the way … to end on an up note.

Meditation, not medication

Let’s first be clear on what “meditation” means. Yes, there are monks in distant lands who meditate in silent solitude for hours every day. There are millions more who practice “mindful meditation”, wherever they happen to be, for mere minutes a day.

That can be you, and I urge you to hop to it. If I hadn’t seen amazing results in my patients, and experienced them myself, I wouldn’t believe it.

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A 2015 study taught mindful meditation to one group of middle-aged and older adults. Another group attended a class that taught them ways to improve their sleep habits.

The group that learned how to meditate reported:

  • Reduced insomnia
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Reduced depression

No meds, free of charge, and great results. Other studies have linked meditation to reduced risk of just about every disease you can think of, and to far higher measures of just plain happiness.

Melatonin for better sleep

Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to help you sleep, among other benefits. It’s all about the sleep response that’s been in us since before we walked upright—when the sun sets and the sky darkens, we start to produce more melatonin, signaling to our body that it’s bedtime. As dawn approaches and the day fills with light? Melatonin production goes way down and we wake up.

But our hours of light are no longer controlled by the skies. Flip a switch, push a button, get your face into your TV, laptop, computer, or phone, and here comes light. The ancient part of our brain, that’s still anchored in light vs. dark, can’t figure out what to do—light means awake.

There are ways to help send a clear, unscrambled message to your brain, so it produces melatonin attuned to what our bodies need, not to whether it’s light or dark.

The most important step you can take is to turn down or off what’s lit up a few hours before bedtime. This will un-confuse your melatonin production mechanisms.

The surest approach, however, is taking a melatonin supplement. Start with 1 mg, 30–60 minutes before bedtime. If that doesn’t help, slowly increase your dosage up to 3 mg per night.

Herbal supplements

Chamomile is a one of those wonder-herbs that can do almost anything calm related. As a relaxation agent and a digestive aid, it’s a list-topper—try a cup of chamomile tea in the evening.

Valerian is well known as an easer of anxiety and reliever of insomnia. Many studies confirm that it can help you sleep sooner, and better.

L-theanine can also work wonders for a soothing night’s sleep. Found naturally in green tea, l-theanine can help switch off your “brain chatter” so you can drift off, more effortlessly to sleep.

Just remember that everyone’s body is different. Depending on your health and state of mind, you might experience overnight success—but your body might need more time to reap the fullest benefits of any of these remedies.

The most important thing you can do is work any sleep helper into a regular schedule. Your body will get used to the timing, increasing your likelihood of good, healing sleep.

What’s the best sleep position?

That’s one of the questions that only you and your doctor or sleep specialist can answer.

When you’re sleeping well, you’re relatively motionless. Depending on your position, your body puts more pressure on certain places—your head and neck, your shoulders, your hips, or your back.

That can cause trouble in itself, from discomfort to pain-induced wakefulness.

If your mattress is more than 7-10 years old, it may be time for a new, more supportive mattress. While I’ve see recommendations for swapping out pillows every six months to three years.

If aches, pains and sore spots are preventing sleep or waking you in the night, try a different sleep position…or upgrade your sleeping equipment.

Treat sleep the way we treat food

Why not treat good sleep like we do good food—as a treasured, essential nutrient?

Think about it. Just as we plan the ingredients and the logistics of every healthy meal—what to serve and when, when to prepare, when to serve—we should prepare for healthy sleep with the same care, and greet it with the same pleasure and gratitude.

That’s the recipe to make sure you get the most out of those healthy hours under the covers.

Take good care.

References

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