Need to Improve Sleep Quality? Add A Natural Sleep Aid!
Sleep. We all need it. And we all know how terrible a poor night of sleep can leave you feeling low emotionally, with less physical energy, and some pretty good brain fog. In fact, countless studies have shown that low sleep levels can interfere with a range of biological processes, including learning and memory, your ability to ward off illness and disease, and take you into depression and emotional instability. Yet many of us are experiencing less than optimal sleep on a regular basis. So much so that many of us think that the dysfunction from lack of sleep is normal.
Why are so many of us sleep deficient?
The reason is often multifactored. Hormonal disruption, nutritional deficiencies, lack of exercise, stress... And yet, for many, sleep can be disrupted from common, simple behaviors and environmental factors like light, temperature, noise, and tension.
If simple behaviors can disrupt sleep, what simple behaviors can support sleep?
Let's start with light. Light on your skin and especially into your eyes play a role in how alert you are during the day and how readily you can fall asleep at night. In fact, light is one of most involved parts of your body’s circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are cycles in the body that occur roughly across a 24 hour time frame. Bright light during the day drives hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that tells your body to be awake and alert. Bright light also inhibits the release of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body to relax and prepare for sleep.
As evening rolls around and darkness begins its veil, the flood of melatonin should be telling your body to relax into a calm state that will allow you to fall asleep. The problem, many of us live in a dark-deprived society. We are brightly lit well into late evening pushing our bodies to maintain high levels of cortisol, the awake hormone, and suppressing melatonin, the relax hormone. In the presence of bright light, instead of feeling restful you will feel alert and awake. Research has well established that nocturnal light negatively alters circadian rhythms and sleep quality in humans (and animals).1
Reducing the amount of light you experience in late evenings and night time can profoundly improve your ability to fall asleep, your quality of sleep, your ability to stay asleep, and therefore your overall health.2,3
How can you help yourself?
The simple way of assisting the release of melatonin and calming yourself into sleep is to reduce the brightness and amount of light in the evening and through the night. Starting about an hour before your designated bedtime, dim the lights in your house and turn off lights that do not need to be on. If you tend to watch programs or use a screen in the evening, begin dimming those screens with an amber light. Many modern computers, phones, and tablets now have built-in light timers that help reduce the amount of bright blue light emitted from those screens and replace it with amber light. Another option is to use an app like f.lux. I initially started using it to reduce eye fatigue from long work hours and now it is used to make sure we are not stimulating our cortisol in the evenings if we decide to watch a program. Best option is to turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime.
Once in bed, make sure all sources of light are covered or removed. Since it can be difficult to shut out all light, especially if you have a partner or spouse who is not on the same sleep cycle or likes to be in bed with a screen, or if you are a person who works evening or nighttime hours, a sleep mask can be simple inexpensive option to allow your natural melatonin to do its job.
Side-note: Taking supplemental melatonin is currently pretty trendy. We see lots of supplements with melatonin, especially in the 2-5mg range. People take it thinking they are helping get better sleep by taking these megadoses. The first problem is that people are often taking melatonin to deal with their insomnia, the inability to sleep. But melatonin's job is to help induce sleep. Sleeping and staying asleep is different than falling asleep. And the amount of melatonin the body naturally produces is closer to the 30 micrograms per day. So, if you are supplementing keep the dosage under 3mg per day and talk with a health care professional that is knowledgeable about nutrition to make sure you are not in the do not use category of people that melatonin can be harmful.
For those of you who think you just cannot wear something on your face, trust me when I say, you will adjust to it. It took me about three nights of feeling a little awkward, but once I started sleeping better there was no turning back.
Here a few tips on finding a comfortable mask:
I recommend sleep masks made from natural breathable fabric like cotton, bamboo, or silk. Heavy or synthetic materials are just too hot for all night sleeping.
Eye pressure can be a deal breaker for some. Look for varieties that have a cup over the eye. These will look like little bras...hehe. These are especially good if you have long eyelashes. I absolutely love Manta Sleep Masks especially the silk one. These are very comfortable and no one bit of light comes through them!
Noise = Stimulation
Noise is a stimulant that causes your body to release cortisol as well. Back in caveman days, if you were asleep and did not wake up with a noise you found yourself part of a bear's dinner. Now, most of us sleep in the safety of a house with no real threat to limb and life, but we are still wired to react to many noises as a threat or at least something to be awake for. And if you live here in this glorious part of Montana, you know that trains run through the night and the wind howls! And while you may not fully wake-up, those noises may still be taking you out of deep sleep. Less than enough deep-sleep can create a cascade of health problems the next day like feeling mentally dull with memory and learning deficits, decreased immune function, diminished ability to repair bones, muscle, and soft tissue, difficulty regulating glucose, and lessened ability to adapt to challenges in environment and new situations, and a lessened emotional resilience to handle normal life tasks. 4 Wow!
The most obvious noise makers are our electronic devices. Turning down noisy music, movies, and programs are a good start to decreasing this stimulation. Plan to turn off screens about an hour before bedtime, so you can wind down and not be too upset at the latest barbarian killing or feel like rockin' it out. Again, the body needs time to allow cortisol to drop and your natural melatonin to raise up so you feel like sleeping.
Ear Plugs to the rescue:
Less obvious noises come form trains, wind, animals, dishwashers, refrigerators, heaters, fans, spouses, etc. I love ear plugs! No really, ear plugs have been a game changer for me. I am very sensitive to noise and find the slightest noise wakes me just a little. I first tried a pair out when I had to sleep in dorm style room for a few nights with a real snorer. She brought everyone a pair hoping we would not want to kill her the next morning. And again, it took me a few minutes to adjust to the awkward feeling of having a strange foam thing stuck in my ears. But after a couple of nights, they just were not that big of a deal. So I started with the basic foamy kind. These are ok, but they are not really designed for smaller ears and would fall out part way though the night and I could still hear some of the louder gusts or train whistles. Then a friend recommended silicone plugs that mold to the opening of the ear. These are much more comfortable, last longer, and block more noise (likely due to fit more than anything). AND then I decided to give a natural wax variety a try. Natural wax ear plugs last longer, are the most comfortable, very cost effective, and the most noise blocking of all of them. I can still hear my husband breathing next to me, but not a single blast of wind, train whistle, or noisy late night driver has woken me since using then. Did I say how much I love ear plugs?!
Some people run hot, some run cold, but everyone sleeps better when the ambient temperature in the bedroom is between 64-68 degrees. Our body temperature is tied to our circadian rhythm as well and it is programmed to experience a two to three degree dip in core temperature in the evening. This cooling is another signal to the body to release melatonin and will help initiate sleep and help keep you asleep through the night. Modern heating can keep our body abnormally warm, so turning the thermostat down an hour before bed and keeping it lower through the night may help with temperature regulation and better sleep.
How can you regulate night time temperature?
Set the thermostat between 64 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit: Experts consider this temperature range the best for sleeping. If you find yourself feeling too hot or cold within these parameters,
Try different types of pajamas and bedding: One study found people were likely to fall asleep faster while wearing wool bed clothes as compared to cotton or polyester garments. Bamboo and eucalyptus sheets have a cooling effect and can help displace heat during the night (they are also so silky).
Keep the bedroom well-ventilated: Natural ventilation has been linked to better sleep quality, particularly during the transitions between seasons. People also tend to sleep better in bedrooms with fresh, circulating air.
Take an evening shower or bath: Warm showering or bathing an hour or two before bed produces a cooling effect that can help you fall asleep more quickly and promote longer deep sleep through the night. It sounds silly to cool the body with a warm bath, but the warm water brings blood from the core to the surface of the body. Then that core heat can be released primarily through the hands and feet thus cooling your core temperature.5 Additionally, many people find warm baths relaxing to tired muscles and help to reduce 'monkey mind.'
Avoid eating a meal one to two hours before bed: Digestion takes blood back into your core and heats the body. This rise in core temperature will make it more difficult to fall asleep and can disrupt sleep later in the night. Plus, a large meal late in the evening can also create GERD or heartburn causing irritation that can cause breathing difficulty and stress (remember that cortisol is released during stress and cortisol's job is to wake you up).
Lastly, monkey mind and stress can really be problematic to getting to sleep and sleeping well through the night. If this is you, taking action to manage stress and calm the mind can help. We will address this is another article soon. But the information in this article can still help! Remember, light, noise, and temperature all put stress on the body. So, give these sleep aids a try since even decreasing minor additional stressors can make a difference.
If you are still experiencing sleep problems, schedule an appointment with Dr Dobelbower or a health care provider that can help determine the reason for your sleep issue and can work with you using safe, natural, and non-additive supplements to get you back on track. Sleep is one of the most important habits to stay healthy and vibrant!
Kathi is a light sleeper and is easily stimulated by light and noise so all of the information has been tested and found to be personally helpful. Habits can help you be your best. She loves helping you better understand your health and how to have better health so you have more possibilities in life.