Can’t sleep? In modern times, poor sleep quality is at an all-time high. By one recent account from the National Sleep Foundation, more than a third of Americans report their sleep quality as "poor" or "only fair”, and this doesn’t seem to be getting better with a culture that treats working long hours and burning the midnight oil as badges of honor.
Good quality sleep is crucial for keeping your mind and body functioning optimally, as you are likely aware of, since you are here, reading this article.
It can often be hard navigating the various suggestions to rest more soundly. With everything from folk remedies that date back centuries to modern, clinically-backed sleep treatments, there are so many sleep remedies that compete for our attention on the web.
In this article, we’re going to condense down all of the popular sleep remedies into a comprehensive resource of what to try in order to improve your sleep quality (and quantity). Many of these remedies are backed by credible scientific findings, and we’re going to be sure to stick to what the data is saying when possible.
Sleep issues can result from a range of causes. They can arise from not allocating enough time per night to get sufficient sleep; they can be caused by various stressors or anxieties, and they can be caused by an underlying medical disorder.
If you think you may suffer from a sleep disorder or if you’re taking medication to treat an ongoing medical issue, it’s always best to consult with a medical professional before adding new sleep remedies or supplements to your routine to make sure you don’t experience an unintended interaction.
Table of Contents
1. Sleep Supplements and Herbal Sleep Remedies
2.Creating an Optimal Sleep Environment
3. Other Promising Sleep Remedies
4. Daily Habits to Support Restful Sleep
5. Prescription Sleep Aids: Are They Effective?
Sleep Supplements and Herbal Sleep Remedies
Sleep supplements are one solution for helping your body feel sleepy. There are lots of natural sleep supplements on the market that work in different ways to help your body get ready to sleep. Here’s a short list of popular natural sleep aids.
At Remrise, our view is that the best way to use natural sleep supplements is to take them in rotation so as not to habituate to any given ingredient. Our formulations were designed to keep the body from becoming too accustomed to one ingredient or approach when it comes to sleep.
By rotating ingredients, like GABA or Valerian, it prevents the body from building a tolerance. This maximizes the therapeutic effect when taken in moderation and on a cumulative basis, so the body essentially does not become immune to the product (or ingredients).
The Chinese herbs create a foundation of support, to restore the body during sleep. This is further benefited by the amino acids and Western herbs that lead to deep, restorative sleep and a refreshed morning.
Valerian root is a widely popular herbal supplement that is either brewed in tea or taken as an extract in capsule form. It is derived from Valeriana officinalis, a plant native to Asia and Europe. It is thought to help with symptoms of anxiety and insomnia by enhancing the signaling of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, resulting in its anxiolytic and sedative properties. It is one of the leading natural supplements for sleep-related disturbances.
In the studies, the supplement is normally taken one hour before bed in a dose ranging from 100-600mg. Valerian root extract is generally well-tolerated and has no adverse side effects.
Passionflower has been used for centuries for its sleep-promoting effects. The plant is native to North America and was originally used by Native Americans. Like Valerian, Passionflower increases the levels of GABA in the brain. Apart from GABA, its main bioactive components are unclear, but it is thought to be the plant’s flavonoids that also result in its sedative properties.
Passionflower is commonly consumed in tea form or as an extract, either as a liquid or in capsules. Several animal studies have shown statistically significant sleep-enhancing effects. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of people with sleep-related disturbances, passionflower was reported to increase objective measures of sleep quality relative to controls.
This article gives a thorough rundown of the multifaceted benefits of this supplement.
Lemon Balm has a long history in traditional medicine, where it's consumed for its calming and sleep-inducing properties. Lemon Balm, or Melissa officinalis, is a perennial plant that is part of the mint family. The main bioactive responsible for its calming and sleep-promoting effects is rosmarinic acid. Rosmarinic acid is known to inhibit an enzyme that breaks down GABA.
Lemon Balm may be effective in treating sleep disturbances and anxiety-related insomnia, but not many clinical studies have evaluated its long-term efficacy. In one 15-day study of 20 volunteers, supplementation with 300mg two times a day of Lemon Balm extract alleviated insomnia by 42% as measured by the Clinical Global Impression-Improvement scale in 85% of subjects.
Due to the presence of water-insoluble bioactives in the herb, supplementing with alcohol-extracts are likely to confer the biggest therapeutic effects, but Lemon Balm is also frequently consumed in tea form alongside other herbs such as Valerian and Passionflower. To learn more about this herb and how it’s used for sleep and other ailments, this article is a good resource.
This mineral is crucial for many important bodily processes. Magnesium helps maintain optimal brain, bone, heart, and muscle health, but it is increasingly being used as a sleep aid. The essential mineral increases GABA levels in the brain, which account for its anti-anxiety and sleep-enhancing effects. Most of the available literature on magnesium in relation to sleep is focused on the elderly. In one study, 320mg of magnesium daily for seven weeks improved sleep quality in people over 51 years of age.
A recommended dose for magnesium is 200-400mg before bed. Magnesium glycinate is the recommended form for its sedative effects, as the other forms have more laxative effects.
Given that less than half of the US population consumes less than the daily requirements for magnesium, it is a great supplement to add to any sleep regimen. Magnesium levels can also be increased naturally by eating foods such as green leafy vegetables, bananas, nuts, and seeds.
This supplement is among the most popular supplements on the market. That being said, it is frequently overused. If taken for limited periods of time it can be an effective sleep aid. However, it can leave you with a bit of a groggy hangover in the morning.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the center of the brain. Most melatonin supplements are a synthetic version of this hormone.
It is often supplemented to regularize sleep patterns, especially in those who work irregular shifts or suffer from jet lag. The release of melatonin regulates and is governed by the body’s circadian rhythm, our natural biological clock that controls sleeping and feeding patterns.
Despite its popularity, melatonin does have several downsides.
Perhaps the most canonical of all folk remedies, warm milk before bed is part placebo effect and partly the benefit of a pre-sleep wind-down routine. Warm milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to both serotonin and melatonin, two important chemicals for sleep.
However, the levels of tryptophan in milk don’t approach values that signal any sort of therapeutic potential compared to supplemental forms. Overall, this remedy hasn’t been shown to have statistically significant effects on sleep relative to placebo, but the psychological association of milk before bed can also help aid in sleep.
As many anecdotal reports suggest, it acts as a cue for the body to prepare to calm down and get ready for rest. This article provides a thorough rundown of the scientific basis of this remedy.
Tart Cherry Juice
Another popular liquid remedy is tart cherry juice before bedtime. Cherries are a natural source of melatonin. Tart cherry juice may help promote healthy sleep cycles. It produced statistically significant reductions in insomnia severity in a study of 15 older adults with chronic insomnia.
In the available clinical studies, the subjects used a cherry juice, containing approximately 100 cherries worth of melatonin per eight-ounce serving.
Creating an Optimal Sleep Environment
A comfortable, sleep hygiene-friendly environment is crucial to alleviating insomnia and sleep disturbances. There are multiple strategies you can use to optimize your environment for better sleep.
Keep the bedroom dark and cool
The National Sleep Foundation recommends a temperature between 60-67F for sleep. When we’re about to enter a sleep cycle, our bodies naturally cool down. Keeping the bedroom cool can help initiate this process. Since melatonin production is dependent on the absence of light, keep the bedroom dark by using blackout curtains or sleep masks.
One hour before bed, dimming the lights and removing bright artificial lights, especially in the blue wavelengths, can help you naturally transition towards a calm and sleepy state. Removing electronic clocks and other devices from the sleep environment can also go a long way towards alleviating anxiety about drifting off and keeping melatonin levels optimal.
Keep the bedroom quiet and calm
Since ambient noises can wake us from the shallower stages of a sleep cycle, its best to ensure the bedroom is noise-free. Using earplugs can be helpful if any distracting sounds are present. Alternatively, white-noise machines and fans can provide a soothing ambient noise that can drown out distractions and sudden changes in noise.
Once the room is quiet, keep it calm by using the bed for only sleep (or sex). Avoid watching TV or using cell phones and laptops in bed, as the light will interfere with our ability to fall asleep. This is known as stimulus control in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Insomnia. It helps to remove the association of the bed with stimulating activities.
Keep the bedroom comfortable
To promote a calm and relaxing environment, the bedroom should be comfortable. Choose a mattress that feels comfortable and supportive. Also, use pillows and sheets that match your sleep position preferences.
A clean and tidy bedroom environment can also make a difference by making the bedroom feel relaxed and comfortable. It can also quiet feelings of stress and anxiety by maintaining a sense of order.
Surrounding yourself with aromatherapy essential oils can help you relax before bed. Lavender oil is an especially good choice because it can promote relaxation, decrease your heart rate, and improve your mood. Many human studies support its usefulness in treating sleep disturbances, anxiety, stress, and more.
A 2005 study of 31 young healthy sleepers found that lavender acts as a mild sedative, increasing deep slow-wave sleep and subjective reports of higher quality sleep upon waking. Their research findings were found to be most significant in women.
Other sleep-promoting oils include chamomile flower, spruce needle and leaf, blue tansy flower, and ho wood. A few drops of the oils can be applied directly to the skin when diluted with a carrier oil or added to a diffuser. Learn more about aromatherapy and essential oils.
Other Promising Sleep Remedies
Acupuncture is a popular treatment in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that helps to restore systemic balance by manipulating the flow of energy, or qi, within the body. It is implicated in helping sleep, alleviating pain, reducing stress and anxiety, and improving overall well-being.
Traditionally, acupuncture involves the use of fine, sterilized needles inserted into strategic acupuncture points in the body that lie along an energy meridian.
Within the Western understanding of acupuncture, it is thought to increase blood flow and endorphins, as well as stimulate the Autonomic Nervous System. Studies show that acupuncture has efficacy in treating sleep disturbances.
In a recent meta-analysis that looked at 30 studies of 2363 participants with insomnia, acupuncture was better than placebo and pharmacotherapy in treating insomnia as measured by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.
Similar in principle to acupuncture, acupressure is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that promotes balance within the body and removes blockages of the energy meridian system. Instead of needles, acupressure utilizes the hands and other devices to apply physical pressure to strategic points around the body.
Acupuncture is covered by many health insurance companies at increasing rates.
The evidence for acupressure’s role in treating sleep disorders is limited by clinical research standards, but a study of 50 long-term care facility patients found acupressure improved their symptoms of insomnia relative to controls in five weeks. This article is a good place to find more information on this practice and common acupressure points for insomnia.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) can be a highly effective remedy for sleep-related issues. The program is structured around the core principles of other Cognitive Behavioral therapies: if you change your thoughts, you change your emotions and your behaviors in a self-reinforcing manner. Usually, CBT-I is conducted by a trained professional in one-on-one consultative sessions.
In CBT-I, participants keep sleep diaries, learn sleep scheduling and stimulus control, as well as cognitive restructuring and relaxation techniques to improve sleep. Ruminative thoughts such as "I will never sleep" can be replaced by "There is nothing to do, my brain knows how to sleep and wants to obtain restorative sleep". Furthermore, daily habits and lifestyle practices that are not conducive to sleep can be augmented or replaced.
Writing in a journal before bed can be an effective way to unwind and release any negative, stressful thoughts and emotions. It can also help us not worry about what’s in store for tomorrow and increase feelings of order when we journal about our to-do list for the next day.
Writing to-do lists before bed is associated with reduced sleep onset latency, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learn more about the connection between journaling and sleep from this article.
Daily Habits to Support Restful Sleep
One of the most effective ways to improve your sleep is by building the right habits. You’re probably wondering if we’re going to tell you to stop drinking coffee.
We won’t do that to you, that is unless you want to. We might just suggest you stop drinking it after noon. Some of these habits might sound spookily similar to the advice you might have received from your parents as a teenager.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
Consistency is key when it comes to your circadian rhythm. Regular sleep patterns through a fixed sleep/wake time can reinforce healthy circadian rhythms and lead to better-quality sleep. This habit can act as a strong cue to fall asleep quickly, leading to higher-quality rest.
This habit also extends into non-work days. Don’t try to catch up on sleep by sleeping in on weekends, which can cause a disruption of your circadian rhythm for the following work week.
To maximize the potential of this habit, try to set the alarm to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. Waking up in the middle of the deeper stages of a sleep cycle can make you feel groggy.
Your natural sleep cycles occur in roughly 90-minute intervals, so going to bed at 10 PM and waking up at 7 AM, for instance, would reflect six full sleep cycles and lead to a more refreshing wake up.
Lastly, exposure to bright light first thing in the morning can help correct abnormal circadian rhythms that are associated with some forms of insomnia and delayed sleep-phase disorder. A light box can also be used for gloomy winter days.
Keep coffee consumption to early in the day
Coffee is the world’s most popular stimulant, commonly consumed to increase alertness and enhance focus and productivity. It works by increasing adrenaline and blocking the receptors of a chemical that causes drowsiness, called adenosine.
Drinking coffee later in the day is associated with decreased total sleep time, reduced sleep quality, and increased sleep latency. If you drink caffeinated beverages, keep the consumption to earlier in the day, preferably in the morning.
Additionally, since caffeine has a half-life of approximately 5-6 hours, exceeding 400mg per day is not recommended. This is because if you consumed 400mg at noon, you’d still have about 100mg of caffeine in your system at 10 pm, about the same amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee.
Avoid alcohol and nicotine six hours before bed
If you smoke or drink, both of these can impact the quality of your sleep. It might feel like alcohol helps us fall asleep faster, but it is associated with poorer sleep quality, reduced REM sleep, and early awakenings due to a phenomenon called glutamine rebound. Learn more about how alcohol affects your sleep.
Nicotine is a stimulant like caffeine and can make it harder to fall asleep and can decrease slow-wave sleep. Since it is an addictive chemical, nicotine can also cause sleep disturbances due to withdrawals.
Exercise regularly to improve sleep
Exercise is associated with significant improvements in sleep for those with sleep disturbances and chronic insomnia. Exercise is thought to help sleep by causing a rise and subsequent fall in body temperature as well as promoting a healthy circadian rhythm. It is also an effective treatment for affective disorders like anxiety and depression, which can interfere with sleep.
It can improve your mood, increase sleep quality, sleep efficiency, deep sleep, and total time asleep. A twenty to thirty-minute period of moderate exercise per day can help you reap all of these benefits. However, exercise too close to bedtime can be stimulating and make it harder to fall asleep, so keep the workouts to earlier in the day. Learn more about how exercise improves sleep.
Try the beneficial practices of yoga and meditation
Yoga is widely known to help with strength and flexibility, but it can also be an effective sleep aid. In a National Health Interview Survey, over 55% of yoga practitioners reported improved sleep.
Yoga is an ancient practice that dates back millennia in India. The mindful component of the practice can calm the mind and put us into a state of deep relaxation and presence.
A focus on breathwork also helps to induce a parasympathetic response. Learn more about breathing exercises for sleep.
Meditation is another very helpful practice to cultivate for sleep and general well-being. Mindfulness meditation, or vipassana meditation, grounds us in the present moment sensations of the breath.
The essence of the practice is the skill of returning to the present moment awareness of the breath once thoughts and other sensations arise. This practice, even for just 15-20 minutes per day, can help promote relaxation, enhance REM sleep and slow-wave sleep, reduce negative thoughts that are associated with sleep disturbances, and reduce stress.
Mindfulness meditation works by inducing a parasympathetic response in the nervous system and creating a state of brain activity similar to what is found in certain stages of sleep. Try the Remrise sleep app, which offers free, high-quality guided mindfulness meditation sessions.
Body-scanning meditation is another helpful meditation practice, especially at bedtime. In this practice, you “scan” through the body from head to toe, bringing awareness to sensations in each part of the body. It’s helpful in reducing tension, stress, and inducing a calm mental space that invites in restful sleep.
Try out Remrise’s body-scanning meditations.
Prescription Sleep Aids: Are They Effective?
While prescription sleep aids are common first-line treatment options from the doctor, it’s important to not conflate sleep with sedation. While sedatives can help induce sleep, they often prevent the deeper stages of the sleep cycle from occurring as in natural sleep. The sedative properties also commonly cause grogginess and fatigue the next day.
Prescription sleep aids have been shown to have modest benefits in increasing total sleep time compared to holistic and integrative approaches to treating sleep disorders. Apart from potentially being expensive, these pills have health risks and side effects, including an increased risk of dementia in older persons.
While some of these medications can be effective in the short term, the quality of sleep provided by sleeping pills and the long-term sustainability of taking them is untested by clinical research. Learn more about the different prescription sleep aids.
In modern times, insufficient sleep is along the lines of a public health epidemic. What we have learned though, is that when it comes to sleep, both quantity and quality matter.
Sleep disruption is usually a multifaceted issue, and natural integrative sleep remedies can help tackle the problem from multiple fronts, helping you successfully sleep the necessary seven to nine hours of restorative sleep you need each night.
Flavonoids: A group of over 6,000 phytonutrients extracted from plants. Some offer sedative properties and various health benefits through antioxidant effects and cell signaling pathways.
Autonomic Nervous System: A branch of the peripheral nervous system that deals with largely unconscious processes. Conventionally, it is broken down into the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. The former is associated with a "fight or flight" response and the latter a “rest and digest” response.
Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index: A month-long questionnaire commonly used in psychiatry and neurology to assess sleep quality and disturbances.
Sleep onset latency: The length of time it takes to transition from wakefulness to sleep, normally the lightest stage of NREM.
Delayed sleep-phase disorder: A chronic dysregulation of the body's circadian rhythms, creating difficulties at going to sleep and waking up at normal times.
REM sleep: One of the two fundamental sleep states, along with NREM (Non-rapid eye movement) sleep. It is known as dream sleep, due to the presence of many dreams during this period. It is characterized by rapid eye movements, desynchronized brain waves, low muscle tone, and irregular breathing and heart rate compared to NREM sleep.
Glutamine rebound: Glutamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. It is temporarily blocked when alcohol is consumed, but its levels “rebound” some time after drinking, causing stimulation that leads to sleep cycle disruptions and early awakenings
Anticholinergic: Agents that block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Common anticholinergic sleep medications include Benadryl and certain antipsychotics and tricyclic antidepressants.
Parasympathetic response: A part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the “rest and digest” response when the body is feeding, relaxed or resting. When in a parasympathetic state, our pupils constrict, our heart and blood pressure decrease, and our saliva production and digestion increase.
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