Natural Sleep Remedies to Conquer Insomnia
Tossing and turning. Watching the clock tick minute by minute, with multiple thoughts passing through your mind. This is what it is like for tens of millions of sleepless Americans every night. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If you have problems falling asleep or staying asleep, it is possible get a great night’s sleep every night—and without the aid of medication. There are several natural sleep remedies that can give you what you want: more and better sleep, and none of the scary side effects that come with sleep medications
How Sleep Disorders Affect Stages of Sleep
Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, is characterized by the chronic inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. It can be a genetic disorder or it can spur from the effects of an existing disorder: anxiety, stress, depression, chronic pain, or as a medication side effect.
Insomnia can also be the product of unhealthy habits, like drinking, smoking, poor diet, too much caffeine, having too much electronic “screen time” (especially at night), and more.
However a person develops insomnia or any sleeping disorder, the lack of quality sleep affects the body in the same way—by breaking up the stages of sleep that are crucial to your body’s short-term and long-term recovery.
The stages of sleep are broken into two categories: Non-REM sleep and REM sleep. A normal, healthy sleeper typically cycles between Non-REM (stages 1-3) and REM (stage 4) several times during the night.
Stage 1: Shortly after closing your eyes, your brain enters into a daydream-like state and your body begins to relax. Despite this, it is still common to experience vivid sensations or a sudden muscle contraction. This stage lasts for about 5-10 minutes.
Stage 2: Light sleeping. Your body is preparing for deep sleep by lowering your temperature, relaxing your muscles, and slowing your heartbeat. This stage usually lasts about 20 minutes.
Stage 3: Deep sleep. The body is repairing itself by re-growing tissue, building bones and muscles, and strengthening the immune system. This stage lasts about 60 minutes.
Stage 4: REM sleep. During REM sleep, your heartrate and breathing picks up and your brain becomes more active. Most dreams occur during this phase. During REM sleep, it is believed that signals sent to the brain aid the processes of storing memories, learning, and balancing your mood.
Though a trademark of stage 1 is a dream-like state, your dreams most often occur during REM sleep. It typically takes 90 minutes for a healthy sleeper to reach their first REM sleep. After about 10 minutes of REM sleep, the body returns to sleep stage 2 and progresses to stages 3 and 4. This cycle occurs about 4 or 5 times per night, and with each cycle, the REM sleep stage lasts longer than the previous. For adults, 20-25% of a night’s sleep is REM sleep.
Insomnia, and other sleeping disorders, prevent you from cycling through these stages of sleep. As a result, your body doesn’t function as well as it would if you had slept for hours without interruption. Your muscles, tissues, and bones do not relax and repair themselves. Your heartbeat does not relax and therefore your heart is working at its “day pace.” If you are getting small pockets of sleep throughout the night, your body is missing out on an opportunity to heal and stay healthy.
Short-term effects include fatigue, unstable mood, weight gain and memory loss. Long-term effects of sleep deprivation and insomnia include higher risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety and more.
So while sleep disorders do not have as high of a profile as heart disease or diabetes, they are just as prevalent and, by association, nearly as dangerous. If you have a sleep disorder or think you might have one, here are some natural sleep remedies I recommend to help you get a restful and recharging night’s sleep that can help regain your stages of sleep.
Natural Sleep Remedies You Can Start Using Today
As you become older, your ability to sleep deeply naturally diminishes. However, your body still needs the same amount of sleep as it did in your 20s and 30s. That’s opened a market for a variety of sleep medications.
Though they have gained popularity within the past decade, sleep medications come with a growing list of side effects, such as burning sensations in your arms and legs, sleepwalking, changes in appetite, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, daytime drowsiness, dry mouth, excess gas, memory and attention loss, headache, heartburn, unusual dreams, and more. In a few instances, people have entered a parasomnia state in which their bodies move without their knowledge or control. Sleepwalking is a common parasomnia behavior. Sleep driving is a rare but extremely serious side effect of sleeping pills.
Like most medications, you do not know what side effects you’ll experience until after you take the medication. Imagine taking an Ambien and waking up with your head in your car’s air bag!
As an alternative, here are some safe, natural sleep remedies that can help you get more and better sleep without the scary side effects:
A Healthy Diet: Fats, sugars, carbs, and stimulants all impede your body’s ability to rest for different reasons. So do excitotoxins, which are flavor enhancers that are common in processed foods. Commonly used excitotoxins are monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and casein. On the other hand, fiber aids in digestion and regulates your blood sugar. A high-fiber diet allows your body to get more rest because sugar levels are usually more even-keeled.
Exercise: How do you feel after you exercise? Tired! So it is a no-brainer that regular exercise leads to better sleep. According to a nationwide study of 2,600 men and women, ages 18-85, those who exercised for at least 150 minutes per week (that’s about 20 minutes a day) reported a 65% improvement in sleep quality. The study also showed that those who exercised were 68% less likely to experience leg cramps while sleeping and were 45% less likely to have difficulty concentrating when tired. But you don’t have to run marathons—even just a 20-minute walk around the block can work wonders.
Meditation: A 2015 study compared the effect of mindfulness medication on two groups of middle-age and older adults. One group was taught meditation and mindfulness-oriented exercises. The other group completed a sleep education class that taught them ways to improve their sleep habits. The group that learned how to meditate reported less insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared to the group that was educated on sleep habits. The continued practice of meditation teaches the body to develop a relaxation response that can be used when trying to fall asleep.
Melatonin Management: Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to help you sleep. Simple as that. The body naturally releases it as the sky gets darker and gradually stops releasing it as the sun comes up in the morning.
But the increasing amount of time we are spending in front of a phone, tablet, TV or computer screen (especially in the evening) has disrupted our body’s production of melatonin. Your body is literally receiving mixed signals: Dark skies outside, but bright screens right in front of your eyes.
In addition to turning off your devices, getting more exercise helps induce nighttime melatonin release. So does eating foods with high levels of tryptophan a few hours before bed, such as seafood, turkey, and nuts.
The most direct approach, however, is taking a natural melatonin supplement. Start by taking about 1 mg 30-60 minutes before bedtime and see how that helps. If you need more, slowly increase your dosage up to 3 mg per day.
Herbal Supplements: Chamomile is a widely used herb because of its wide range of benefits. Chamomile has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s been used as a digestive aid and relaxation agent. German chamomile is most widely used in tea form. Taken in the evening, it can help you feel more at ease and able to sleep.
Valerian is another natural sleep remedy best known for help managing anxiety and insomnia. Though research is limited, findings have shown that valerian can improve quality of sleep and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
Be patient. Everyone’s body is different. While some of these remedies will help you almost immediately, others may take a little time. To get more and better sleep, you must make positive changes and then engrave them into your daily routine.
Millions of people suffer from sleep disorders, but the good news is, there are a variety of natural sleep remedies that can help you sleep longer and better… and without the need for medication.
- “Why Is Sleep Important?” Updated February 22, 2012. Last accessed April 22, 2017.
- Gelman, Lauren. “11 ‘Harmless’ Habits That Are Actually Causing Your Insomnia” Readers Digest. Published NA. Last accessed May 19, 2017.
- “Insomnia” National Sleep Foundation. Published 2011.
- Corliss, Julie. “Mindfulness Meditation Helps Fight Insomnia, Improves Sleep” Harvard Health Publications. Published February 18, 2015.
- The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: “Herbal/Plant Therapies” and “Complementary/Integrative Medicine.”
Last Updated: September 2, 2020
Originally Published: September 1, 2014