The science of sleep…When you hear about serotonin, melatonin, 5-hydroxy L-Tryptophan (5-HTP), and tryptophan, they usually sound like they are totally different things you can try to utilize to help sleep. Really, they’re all quite related to one another. If it was a perfect world, this is what would happen when you go to sleep-
You need to consume tryptophan, and essential amino acid, to start the process, and you need to get it from an outside source. In a two- step process that tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP, which is then converted into serotonin. The serotonin then converts to melatonin, which makes our body’s biological clock run smoothly and tell us when it is time to go to sleep and when it’s time to haul yourself out of your cozy bed. It is the master clock, if you will, making us sleepy-or alert-at the proper times, because melatonin produced is released in higher amounts the darker it is, while the amount lessens with more light. Since tryptophan is the only amino acid that can convert to serotonin, it is also the only one that can ultimately up your melatonin.
1. Drink Tart Cherry Juice
A ½ cup to a 1 cup of tart cherry juice is a tasty way to drift off to sleep, and is a natural sleep aid that I personally think really helps. Tart cherry juice is a natural sleep aid because it’s full of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that coverts to serotonin, which then coverts to melatonin. Melatonin helps maintain our sleep and wake cycle by causing drowsiness and lowers body temperature, working with the central nervous system to sync our biological clock. Its production is inhibited by light, but released in low light/darkness.
2. Improve the Feng Shui
Feng shui is more than just decorating you’re space in a visually appealing way; it’s a full philosophy that instructs on how to arrange your room, furniture, office, etc. to maximize good energy flow throughout living spaces. Here are a few tips for improving the Feng shui of your bedroom to help you get the most of a good night’s rest:
-Keep your bed easily accessible and approachable from all sides.
-Make the energy in the room fresh and help it flow by keeping the air pure, preferably with open windows. Also try to have several windows to allow in natural light.
-Have the bed positioned in such a way that you can see the door. Not being able to see the entrance to your bedroom can create a feeling of anxiety.
-Keep the room neat and clean with a balanced look and feel. Clutter and trash stresses you out and represents unfinished business, which can prevent you from really resting well in your room. On that note, it can also affect your sex life.
Valerian is a hardy plant whose roots are used in a number of ways as a sedative and sleep aid. It is thought to work by increasing the amount of GABA (gamma aminobutryic acid) which helps regulate the action of nerve cells and has a calming effect. Because of its calming effect, it is also extremely popular as a natural anxiety remedy-prescription anxiety medication also increase GABA, albeit much more than valerian. It’s easy to brew up a cup of tea, but if you find the odor too strong, it is also available in capsule form.
You will need…
- 1 tsp of dried valerian root
- strainer or infusion device, such as a tea ball
- 8 oz. fresh water to boil
- 8 oz. fresh water, hot from the tap
Fill either the mug you wish to steep your tea in with the hot tap water to get it warmed up (warming it up like this can help keep your tea toasty for longer.) Put 1 tsp of valerian root in your infusion device-if you are steeping the root loose, wait to do anything with it. Boil 8 oz. of water in your kettle, remove from heat, and empty your mug of the hot tap water. Place your infusion device or the loose root in your mug, and pour the hot water over it. Cover and steep for 15 minutes. Uncover, remove device or strain, and get ready to enjoy a peaceful night. Add milk or honey if you’d like for flavor.
4. Get Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one of the main components in traditional Chinese medicine (TMC), and one of the oldest healing practices in the world. It is thought that stimulating specific points corrects the balance of energy or the life force by opening up channels called meridians, which close off when stress inflames and contracts vessels. The thin needles, upon insertion, open up these blocked channels and allow your brain to better understand that it’s time to go to sleep. It also signals the release of neuro-endocrine chemicals (like tryptophan/melatonin) to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
5. Make Your Bedroom Your Bedroom
Your bedroom is a place of rest. It is your retreat to restore your mind and body by sleeping. It is not a place to watch T.V., or a second office. If you have them, the computer and T.V. have to go. They not only keep you awake, but they don’t give a sense of relaxation. They carry stress into your room, and stress does not help you sleep.
6. Stick to a Schedule, Establish a Ritual, and Keep a Diary
Humans are funny creatures of habit, and our bodies usually work quite well when something is done ritualistically. For example, exercising randomly every few days won’t do much, but exercising every day for 30 minutes will over time make a huge difference. The same thing goes for sleep. Establish a calming ritual that you do every night before crawling in bed, and you will probably find it easier to transition from being awake to being sleep. The ritual is also a time to relax and let go of stress and thoughts that crowd your head and keep you up.
Some ideas include…
- Drinking a cup of warm tea a half an hour before bed
- Doing a series of gentle stretches
- Reading 1 chapter exactly of a book every night
Take a warm bath: There’s nothing quite like sinking into a warm tub to wash the stress of everyday life away and it also feels great to crawl into bed nice and clean. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil (lavender is great) to get the soothing benefits of aromatherapy as well.
Sip something: Making up a nightly drink to help you fall asleep has the double benefits of the drink itself lulling you off to dreamland, and the ritual of drinking it which tells your brain and body “ok, it’s time to relax.” Doing something like reading while you drink your night time beverage adds a nice dimension to this habit.
Meditate: Take some time before you crawl in bed to meditate and clear your mind of cluttering thoughts. Thinking too much, as we all know, can keep you awake for hours as you churn over the same thoughts again and again. Getting a good night’s rest is not just about your body-with how complex our thinking process is, our minds need just as much help (if not more) to get ready for bed.
7. Get More Melatonin
This chemical is oh-so-important to sleep, but our body needs outside sources to get it. While it can be taken as a natural supplement in pill form, here are some foods that will help boost production.
Cherries: Not too hard to guess since cherry juice was one of the first things listed, but they also contain tryptophan which is metabolized into serotonin and finally melatonin
Bananas: I remember before a solo I had to do in band class, my teacher told me to eat a banana 30 minutes beforehand, because they helped calm you down. I think it must have done something because my solo got an honorable mention, and I never do well performing under pressure. Bananas contain tryptophan, and potassium and magnesium as well, which are muscle relaxants. Have one a half-an-hour before bed every night and up your magnesium levels while simultaneously relaxing your muscles.
Exercise on a regular basis, and you will sleep better. Not only will you sleep better, but you’ll have more energy when you’re awake-and not just because you slept better, but because exercise has a weird way of helping us go to sleep and giving us more energy. For this reason, don’t work out right before bed, or you’ll likely end up more awake.
9. Drink a Cup of Chamomile
Chamomile has long been a reliable remedy for helping people doze off. It relaxes your muscles, and is thought that, potentially, a substance called apigenin can bind to GABA receptors which affect the central nervous system and sleepiness. Other studies have disagreed with apegign theory, and think other constituents in the chamomile are what act as a sedative. Either way, it’s tasty and it makes you tired. You can, of course, buy chamomile tea from the store, but I personally love it fresh as well.
You will need…
- A rounded ¼ cup of fresh chamomile flowers OR 2 rounded tablespoons of dry flowers
- Honey (optional)
- Milk (optional)
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
There’s nothing quite as delightful as a cup of freshly brewed chamomile on a chilly night as you settle in for bed. If possible, try to use fresh flowers (German variety, preferably) but you can use dried as well if you cannot harvest fresh.
If you’re using fresh flowers, use only the flower heads and compost the stems. Place the flowers in a teapot, and in a separate pot bring 4 cups of cold water to a rolling boil. Pour the water in the pot over the flower in the tea pot. Let steep for 5-6 minutes and serve hot. Do the same process for dried as for fresh, but use 2 rounded tablespoons of dried flowers. Add a little bit of honey and milk to taste. Squeeze in the juice of a freshly sliced lemon to taste as well.
10. Make a Lavender Sleep Sachet
Aromatherapy has a number of different uses, but is perhaps used most often for relaxing or creating a sense of drowsiness. Numerous studies have resulted in science giving a nod to the validity of aromatherapy. People who were exposed to the scent of lavender in the trials experienced better moods, and one study followed brain activity with an EEG machine, which showed the subjects undergoing lavender aromatherapy did in fact show brainwaves suggesting drowsiness, while other scents increased alertness. If you find yourself having a hard time drifting off at night, try making a lavender sleep sachet to stash under your pillow or on a bedside table to help you relax and drift off.
11. Get Your Carbs
This may sound like a negative thing, but it’s not really. Tryptophan, in order to have any effect on sleepiness, needs to cross the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a filtering mechanism of the capillaries that carry blood to our brain and spinal cord tissue, and blocks the passage of certain substances. This was proven by a study done more than 100 years ago, in which scientist’s injected blue dye into animal’s bloodstreams. It was discovered that the tissues of the entire body except the brain and spinal cord turned blue, thus confirming the theory of the blood-brain barrier. It is theorized that eating carbohydrates makes it easier for tryptophan to cross the barrier, since it has to compete with other amino acids to make it through. The release of insulin in response to the carbs directs the other amino acids to muscle, leaving tryptophan a clearer passage into the cerebrospinal fluid.
You will need…
- A relatively small amount of carbs e.g. some cereal or a piece of bread
About 15 minutes before bedtime, have your snack to divert those large chain amino acids to the muscles and help tryptophan do its thing.
12. Magnificent Magnesium
Magnesium is one of the most vital minerals, and yet most of us are lacking it. You can thank increasingly poor diets for this one. Magnesium plays a huge role in the functioning of GABA receptors, which is the primary neurotransmitter that calms your central nervous system, relaxes you, and can help prepare you for sleep. GABA won’t necessarily make you drift off to sleep magically, but you can be pretty sure you’re going to have a hard time sleeping without it. While the best way to up magnesium is to eat a balanced diet, taking supplements can greatly help.
You will need…
- Magnesium supplement
Follow the Directions for dosing.
13. Utilize Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is one of those ancient herbs that people have turned to for centuries. Once thought to be an “herbal-cure all”, it was used to treat anything from asthma to snake bites. These days, it’s used primarily to lift mood and promote calmness and relaxation. Since depression is often related to insomnia, probably because of a lack of serotonin, lemon balm can help you achieve sleep by promoting mental and physical health. Several studies have confirmed its sedative effects, however it should be noted that too high of a dosage (1800 milligrams) actually increased anxiety. Here, it is made into a mild, uplifting, and relaxing tea.
You will need…
- 2 tablespoons of dried lemon balm, or 8-10 tablespoons of fresh lemon balm
- 2 teaspoons dried chamomile
- Honey to taste (optional)
- 8 ounces of fresh water
Place the loose herbs in a mug and cover with 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes, strain, and drink 30-45 minutes before bed.
14. Saint John’s Wort
Like lemon balm, Saint John’s Wort is used frequently to help with depression, and in turn helps with disrupted sleep. Its main constituent-hypercine- is thought to work by reuptake inhibition, which raises the overall level of serotonin in the brain. More serotonin = more melatonin= better sleep. You can take it in capsule form, or prepare a strong tea to use as a sleep aid.
You will need…
- 2 teaspoons of dried Saint John’s Wort (herb top/flowers)
- 8 ounces of freshly boiled water
- honey or lemon to taste (optional)
Place the herb in a mug and cover with boiling water. Steep for 5-10 minutes, strain, and drink once daily (either morning or 30-45 minutes before bed.)
15. Hops Into Bed
The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word hops is probably beer, but this quick growing vine is also an excellent remedy for calming nerves and promoting relaxation (not in the form of beer, sorry!) Rather, it can be made into a strong tea and drank right before bed, or made into a sleep sachet and placed under your pillow at night (just replace or add it to the lavender).
You will need…
- 2 tablespoons of dried hops
- 4 cups of boiling water
- A quart glass jar with a tightly fitting lid
Place the hops into a glass jar with a tightly fitting lid and cover with boiling water. Allow it to steep for at least 5 hours, or overnight, and then strain. Reheat or chill and drink a cup 30-45 minutes before bedtime for an easy and restful slumber. This will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days.
16. Make Some Noise
Some people need to sleep in complete silence; while on the other hand, some need a little background noise. For many (myself included), the dripping of the faucet, the hum of electricity, the sound of themselves breathing, or the blankets rustling as they toss and turn stresses them out and keeps them awake. So what’s the deal? Technically speaking, white noise is a consistent noise that comes out evenly across all hearable frequencies. When you get jarred awake or bothered by a noise at night, it’s not really the noise itself, but the abrupt inconsistency in the noise that you hear. The fact of the matter is you still hear when you sleep, and white noise can mask those inconsistences. The scientific aspect set aside its just plain soothing, filling out the silence that makes you feel trapped with racing thoughts or excess energy.
You will need…
- Something that creates white noise
When you go to sleep, turn on the white noise. My personal favorite is a fan, but there are even white noise machines tuned specifically for the purpose of drowning out sound.
17. Sip A Glass of Warm Milk
Does milk actually make you sleepy? In short, probably not on a chemical level. While there is the sleep inducing amino acid tryptophan in milk, studies are debatable that it actually does do anything. Much like turkey, the levels aren’t such that they would have much of an impact. But all of that doesn’t mean it won’t make you sleepy at all, and there is still reasoning behind a glass of warm milk, mostly in terms of psychology. Many people find the warmth soothing and relaxing, helping them unwind both physically and mentally. The routine of a glass of warm milk is like any other routine that you need to complete before bed, getting you one step closer to falling asleep.
You will need…
- 1 glass of warm milk
Roughly 30 minutes before bed, start winding down. Turn off electronics, read a book, and heat up a glass of milk to a toasty warm, but still comfortable, temperature.
18. Cozy Up with Catnip
Catnip, a plant that is a member of the mint family, isn’t just for cats-it works a treat when it comes to having a sedative effect on humans. The compound responsible for catnip’s effects across both species is called nepetalactone. While it can make cats frisky and wild, it can make people relaxed, drowsy, and ready for bed. Enjoy it in the form of a warm tea before bed with a little bit of honey.
You will need…
- 1-2 teaspoons of dried catnip OR 3-4 teaspoons of fresh catnip
- 8 ounces of boiling water
- Honey to taste (optional)
Place catnip in a mug and cover with boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes, covered, and then add honey to taste if you like. Drink 30 minutes before bedtime.
My experience with insomnia…
I’ve faced a battle with insomnia for almost 4 ½ years, and I know when bedtime rolls around all you want is magic sleeping aid to make you fall asleep without having to do anything. The (painful) truth is that if you want to be healthy and get a good night’s rest, you may have to re-learn how to put yourself to sleep. The things that knock you out cold are nothing more than scary medications that only cause suffering-they don’t solve your sleepless nights. We need our rest, perhaps now more than ever in our crazy world, and taking the time and dedication to find natural ways to drift off is vital in making sure you get to sleep, stay asleep and wake up refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to lead a life filled with good energy.
Tips from Personal Experience:
• Practice meditation if racing thoughts keep you up at night. Meditation takes patience, but it is invaluable. Among so many other things it can teach you to simply let go of a thought and leave it powerless, which leaves you undisturbed and able to rest.
• Really do try the cherry juice, it’s darn tasty and makes for a sounder sleep in my experience. Make sure to drink it about 30 minutes before bed so you don’t have to go the bathroom in the middle of the night.
• Chamomile tea with milk and honey has put me to sleep more effectively then sleeping medications at times.
• Habit. Habit. Habit. Form a relaxing habit that tells your body “time for bed now” and it will, at some point, start to listen. This includes setting a bedtime, and wake-time, and sticking to them.
• Get any form of a screen out of sight after a certain hour. It has been proven many times over that this will disrupt your sleep.
• I bow down to a sleep mask. It’s gentle weight over my eyes and the ensuing darkness is the only reason I am able to fall back asleep when I wake up too early in the morning-remember, levels of light determine how much melatonin you make.
• Never reach for sleeping pills, especially prescription. They will cause anguish and strife and many, many, more sleepless nights.