Are you having trouble drifting into a peaceful, nourishing slumber? You’re not sitting up at night alone: More than 60 million Americans suffer from poor sleep quality.
Disturbed sleep is more than an inconvenience that leaves you dragging the next day: it can affect your emotional and physical health. It negatively affects your memory, concentration and mood, and it boosts your risk for depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Happily, there are easy, natural fixes that can improve your sleep, says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.
“It’s not always necessary to get a prescription for a sleep aid,” she says. “There are natural ways to make adjustments to your sleeping habits.”
Five tips for better sleep
1. Drink Up.
No, not alcohol, which can interfere with sleep. Gamaldo recommends warm milk, chamomile tea and tart cherry juice for patients with sleep trouble.
Though there isn’t much scientific proof that any of these nighttime drinks work to improve your slumber, there’s no harm in trying them, Gamaldo says. She recommends them to patients who want treatment without side effects or drug interactions.
“Warm milk has long been believed to be associated with chemicals that simulate the effects of tryptophan on the brain. This is a chemical building block for the substance serotonin, which is involved in the sleep-wake transition,” Gamaldo says.
Chamomile tea can also be helpful. “It’s believed to have flavonoids that may interact with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain that are also involved with the sleep-wake transition,” she says.
Plus, chamomile tea doesn’t have caffeine, unlike green tea or Earl Grey. Finally, tart cherry juice might support melatonin production and support a healthy sleep cycle.
Physical activity can improve sleep, though researchers aren’t completely sure why. It’s known that moderate aerobic exercise boosts the amount of nourishing slow wave (deep) sleep you get.
But you have to time it right: Gamaldo says that aerobic exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that keep people awake. (This is why you feel so energized after a run.)
It can also raise core body temperature; this spike signals the body that it’s time to get up and get going. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try to avoid working out within two hours of bedtime.
3. Use Melatonin Supplements.
“Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally released in the brain four hours before we feel a sense of sleepiness,” Gamaldo says. It’s triggered by the body’s response to reduced light exposure, which should naturally happen at night.
These days, though, lights abound after it’s dark outside—whether it’s from your phone, laptop or TV. This exposure to unnatural light prevents melatonin release, which can make it hard to fall asleep. Luckily, melatonin is available in pill form at your local pharmacy as an over-the-counter supplement.
Just make sure that you consistently buy the same brand. “Because melatonin supplements are unregulated by the FDA, the per-pill dosages and ingredients may differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Stick with one brand, and don’t buy it online from an unknown source,” Gamaldo cautions.
4. Keep Cool.
“The ideal temperature for your thermostat is between 65 and 72 degrees,” Gamaldo says. Women who are going through menopause and experiencing hot flashes should keep the room as cool as possible and wear cotton or breathable fabrics to bed.
5. Go Dark.
It’s known that the light from a smartphone interferes with sleep. But what about your bathroom light? If you have the urge to go at night, don’t flick on the lights. “The latest recommendation is to use a flashlight if you need to get up at night,” Gamaldo says, because it offers less visual disruption. And remember: If you do wake up for a bathroom break, it might take up to 30 minutes to drift back off. This is completely normal, she says.
The information from Johns Hopkins is provided for educational purposes only. Johns Hopkins, The John Hopkins University, their affiliates and their employees disclaim any responsibility for errors or any consequences arising from the use of this information. All medical information should be reviewed with a health-care provider.