“Poor quality and/or quantity of sleep has been linked strongly to dementia, heart arrhythmias, and obesity with recent evidence showing clearly that better and more quality sleep decreases calorie intake via reduced hunger hormones,” says Tom Rifai, MD, the founder and CEO of health education and wellness company RealityMeetsScience Inc. “There are also issues of quality of life. Improved mood, reduced anxiety, reduced pain, are all associated with better sleep.”
While many people rely on prescription pills to help them fall asleep at night, there are concerns about the side effects of these medicines, which is why natural sleep aids are often the first stop for someone looking to get more rest. While they won’t cure medical insomnia, some vitamins or guided meditations can be a way to get a sleeping cycle back on schedule.
“A natural sleep aid is something used to help one fall asleep and stay asleep,” Gameil Fouad, PhD, chief scientific officer at natural-supplement maker Rookie, tells Glamour. “This can range from herbal supplements to meditation to bath soaks.” Most adults need at least eight hours of continuous sleep a night—preferably in a dark, quiet environment, Dr. Rifai adds.
While the most effective natural sleeping aid might change from person to person, Dr. Rifai says it’s most important to keep a regular sleep cycle. “You can be flexible, but avoid completely disregarding it on the weekends. Follow your circadian rhythm, and if you’re always giving up at 5:30, then you should be asleep by 10:30, which means you should likely be in bed by 10 p.m.”
Dr. Rifai recommends that sleeping pills be used “very judiciously,” which is why natural sleep aids are so important. That said, if you’re having enough trouble sleeping that you’re reaching out for multiple natural remedies, then it might be time to “address some serious problems before they get out of hand,” he says. If that’s the case, Dr. Rifai suggests visiting a board-certified sleep specialist; he notes that you can emphasize a preference for “natural, nonpharmaceutical approaches to sleep.” Before seeing a doctor or sleep specialist, Dr. Rifai says, you can fill out the Epworth sleep questionnaire to get a better understanding of your problems.
So, what is the most effective natural sleep aid? Should you be using over-the-counter sleep aids? Is there a cure to insomnia? Continue reading below for things to help you sleep.
Avoid Bright Lights
Dr. Rifai suggests avoiding bright and blue lights—TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets—within two to three hours of bed as well as dimming lights at night and using blue-light filters. He also recommends taking advantage of the smartphone’s night mode and keeping the brightness down “as low as possible.”
Stimulants like soda and coffee, which are filled with caffeine, should be avoided in the afternoon hours, Dr. Rifai says. This will allow the body to adjust to its natural sleep schedule more easily.
Don’t Drink Alcohol
While some people might try a glass of wine at night to help ease them to bed, Dr. Rifai says using alcohol to help you fall asleep only works in the short term and will ultimately reduce the quality of sleep.
No Exercise Before Bed
While Dr. Rifai says brisk physical exercise is great for health and sleep, it should be avoided too close to bedtime, he says: “It can stimulate the brain’s ‘wake’ function.”
Take a Warm Shower
A warm shower or bath before bed can help. “The drop in body temperature after exiting the shower may help trigger a sleep cycle, particularly if you can follow it up with a nice, dark, comfortable place to sleep,” Dr. Rifai explains.
Make Your Bedroom Sleep-Friendly
To make your bedroom more sleep-friendly, Dr. Rifai suggests investing in comfortable pillows and keeping your bedroom ”on the slightly cooler side.” He also recommends removing external distractions like TVs. “Bedrooms should be, for all intents and purposes, for quality sleep and sex only, i.e., not binge TV-watching,” he says. “Otherwise, one can train the body not to expect the bed [to be] a place of sleep.”
Removing intrusive lights like digital clocks and night lights, and even blocking out external light, can help one fall asleep quicker. These “additive lights” can be easily blocked out with dark curtains and shutting the door when going to bed. “Dark is best,” Dr. Rifai drives home.
Try Guided Meditations
Guided sleep meditations can help some fall asleep quicker since they promote relaxation. This is especially helpful for people with busy minds at night. Test sleep apps on sites like Mindful, Headspace, and more to find the right one for you. Listening to ambient noise may also help you fall asleep quicker. Try these sleep songs the next time you’re having a hard time drifting off into dreamland.
Take Power Naps
Dr. Rifai says power naps may help and can be added on to the total seven or eight hours of sleep time needed every day. He notes that these power naps, which should be around 20 to 30 minutes, should not occur within four to five hours of bedtime. “Many of us have a circadian rhythm to feel groggy around 2 PM, a 20-30 minute nap at that time would be fine. Longer can work too but you have to experiment with how your body reacts to naps.” He says some people, like himself, can feel better even after just five minutes napping.
Sleep supplements like Rookie’s were formulated as “a natural sleep aid to help ease the body into a restful sleep,” Dr. Fouad explains. The brand’s supplement, specifically, was made with valerian root, passion flower, melatonin, and magnesium to help get a better night’s sleep naturally. “Your brain produces a neurotransmitter called GABA [gamma-aminobutryic acid]. This neurotransmitter is used to promote deep, restful sleep by relaxing brain activity. Valerian root and passion flower help to increase the amount of GABA in the brain. Magnesium and melatonin regulate our bodies internal clocks. A blend of these four ingredients are the powerhouse to long, restful night’s sleep,” he says.
Note: It’s important to talk to your doctor before trying any sleep supplements, especially if you’re taking any medications.
Say No to Stress
“Avoid stressful topics just before bed,” Dr. Rifai says. He suggests using a worry list to write down things on your mind and then close it before you go to sleep. “By putting them on a notepad, it provides comfort that the topic won’t be forgotten and can be addressed the next day after a good night’s sleep.”
Take Sleep Supplements
As Dr. Fouad explains, melatonin assists with falling asleep, while magnesium helps you remain in “a long, restful sleep.” Dr. Rifai notes that the quality of melatonin can vary and that the dose doesn’t have to be high. He says 1 mg of melatonin within one or two hours of bed can help some people fall asleep.
For people with restless legs syndrome, taking iron can help ease their side effects at night. “It’s a bit of a misnomer because the restlessness can be anywhere in the body,” says Dr. Rifai. “It doesn’t have to be restlessness either. It could be tingly or painful sensations. But they are classically at night when someone is sleepy and often respond to iron supplementation when ferritin is less than 50.”
He adds that people with this condition need to work with their doctor to get a blood test to check their ferritin levels, explaining, “If the ferritin level is less than 50, their restless leg/body syndrome might respond to supplemental iron. We are finding that iron is just as well absorbed with less side effects if taken every other day rather than every day.”
Try Breathing Exercises
Dr. Rifai says diaphragmatic breathing while in bed ready to sleep can help, particularly for people who are anxious. “Try this exercise first: Sit in a chair, lean forward, and place your elbows on your knees. Then breathe naturally. This position forces you to breathe from the belly, so you know what the sensation feels like.” Then, when you’re ready for bed, lie down and place your hand on your chest and stomach and take a deep breath. “Make sure that virtually all or all of the movement is coming from your belly hand. This means you’re engaging your diaphragm muscle, which is innervated by the phrenic nerve. That nerve also has branches that go to the heart and, when stimulated, they slow down the heart rate. This immediately induces a relaxation effect.”
After slowly exhaling through pursed lips—Dr. Rifai says this should last somewhere close to 10 seconds—your heart should be slowed. He recommends doing this 5 to 10 times before bed each night in addition to dimming lights two hours before bed and taking a warm shower. You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing exercises, a mindfulness technique that helps relax the mind and body through trained breath work.
Take CBD Oil
CBD oil is often cited as a solution for sleep, but the official research is incomplete. It may help you relax, but it’s best to talk to your doctor before relying on this natural sleep aid.
For some people, using aromatherapy may help them relax. You can always diffuse a few drops of lavender, chamomile, bergamot, or valerian, or buy a potent pillow spray to help you sleep at night. Just make sure the essential oils you are using are pet-friendly and 100% pure essential oil, not a “fragrance oil.”