Our sleep is precious time that allows our bodies to heal and rejuvenate, and without enough sleep, our health suffers. That means we must find ways to get proper rest. Unfortunately, many people either can’t sleep or don’t get enough sleep, which is where natural sleep aids come in.
The amount of sleep needed each night varies, but for adults, getting at least seven hours every night is crucial to having a healthy mind and body. And when we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies aren’t the only things that suffer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a whopping 49.2 million people have trouble with focus due to lack of sleep, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrationreported that millions nod off while driving! (1, 2)
Luckily, this problem doesn’t have to continue. It’s all about making some lifestyle changes, like using the following safe, natural sleep aids and focusing on getting the sleep you need, in order to stay refreshed, alert and at your absolute best.
Natural Sleep Aids
We have a natural sleep-wake cycle called circadian rhythm. By being in sync with that rhythm, we can easily improve our sleep. A regular sleep/wake pattern helps you feel refreshed and ready for your day.
Having good sleep hygiene is crucial, such as avoiding stimulants like too much coffee to prevent caffeine overdose, and we’ve all been told to get those electronics far from the bedroom — both for better sleep and to avoid nomophobia.
Thankfully, good sleep hygiene combined with natural sleep aids can make all the difference in getting some body-craving restful sleep. Calcium, magnesium, valerian root and a few more I’ll talk about below all help to naturally put you to sleep.
1. Sleep-Promoting Foods
It’s a well-known fact that having a heavy meal just before bed can cause you to have a poor night of rest, but did you know that there are some foods that could help you sleep better? That doesn’t mean you need to add calories necessarily or eat a huge meal right before bed, but it could mean that you can incorporate some of these foods into your dinner or as a small after-dinner snack.
Probably the most commonly known characteristic that can help through food is tryptophan — yes, that sleepiness from the Thanksgiving turkey is no joke. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can help the brain get into a relaxed state, similar to serotonin and melatonin. You can obtain tryptophan and serotonin from carbohydrates, particularly 100 percent whole grain oats, brown rice, corn or quinoa.
A study published in Sports Medicine out of France was conducted to help better understand ways to improve the sleep of elite soccer players given their chaotic schedules, late-night games and need for recovery through a good night of sleep. The study found that by consuming carbohydrates — such as honey and whole grain bread — and some forms of protein, especially those that contain serotonin-producing tryptophan like turkey, nuts and seeds, it helped promote restorative sleep. Even tryptophan-filled tart cherry juice, which also contains healing properties like antioxidants, could be a great option. (3)
2. Calcium for Relaxation
Did you know that calcium has an affect on our sleep cycle? It’s true.
According to the European Neurology Journal, calcium levels are at their highest during our deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep periods. What this means is that if you never get to the REM sleep phase or if it’s limited, it could be related to a calcium deficiency. Researchers indicate that the calcium is important because it helps the cells in the brain use the tryptophan to create melatonin — a natural body-producing sleep aid. (4)
A glass of warm goat’s milk kefir could do the trick by providing calcium and magnesium, both of which work best when consumed together.
3. Magnesium May Help You Get the Slumber You Need
Now let’s roll into more about magnesium and how it can help with that your sleep state. If you have trouble sleeping, it could be due to a magnesium deficiency.
Studies have shown that higher magnesium levels can help induce a deeper sleep, and as I noted, this is especially true when taken together with calcium for better absorption. Research from the Biochemistry and Neurophysiology Unit at the University of Geneva’s Department of Psychiatry indicate that higher levels of magnesium actually helped provide better, more consistent sleep since magnesium is a calming nutrient. In addition to the goat’s milk kefir, foods like spinach, pumpkin seeds and even dark chocolate can help since they’re loaded with magnesium. (5)
Here are a few snacks to consume for getting a good night of sleep: (6)
- Half a banana with a few almonds
- Crackers with almond butter
- Gluten-free oatmeal with honey and dark cherries
- Small Ezekial wrap with turkey and cranberries
- Small glass of warm goat’s milk kefir with turmeric and a dash of cinnamon
- Chamomile, passion flower and valerian tea
- Small glass of tart cherry juice
4. Essential Oils for Sleep
It’s no secret that essential oils are a natural method for just about anything you can think of, and sleep is no different. Prescription medications can cause numerous side effects and make you feel jet-lagged upon waking, among other negative side effects. Essential oils, on the other hand, don’t cause these adverse reactions.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice was conducted with cancer patients, a common group that has serious issues with sleeping well, to better understand whether aromatherapy using essential oils could help provide some much-needed healing shut-eye. Aromasticks were given to patients over a 13-week period. Of the participants, 94 percent reported using the aromasticks with 92 percent reporting that they would continue use. Bergamot oil and lavender oil, in addition to sandalwood, frankincense and mandarin, were combined to create the useful sleep-inducing blend. (7)
5. Passion Flower for Calming and Restful Sleep
In my article about passion flower, you can see the numerous benefits, including calming and anti-anxiety effects. When we have anxiety, it can greatly affect how we sleep because you just cannot seem to turn the brain off — especially while you’re trying to rest. Passion flower can provide the calming effect needed to help stop that vicious circle of thought.
Clinical trials have shown that passion flower can reduce anxiety as effectively as the prescribed drug known as benzodiazepine oxazepam. A four-week, double-blind study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder compared passion flower to the common anti-anxiety drug. While the oxazepam worked a little faster, both were the same in terms of effectiveness — however, the passion flower did not cause problems with job performance, such drowsiness while on the job, unlike the oxazepam. (8)
This shows that passion flower is one of the most powerful anti-anxiety natural sleep aids that doesn’t cause lingering tiredness the next day.
6. Valerian Root to Induce Sleep
Valerian root is a plant with roots that contain many healing properties, in particular for a relaxation and sedative effects. It’s often found in combination with chamomile in a tea. By increasing the amount of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA), it helps calm the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. GABA works by blocking brain signals that cause anxiety and that ongoing trickle effect that can come from it. This calming effect has made it a favorite natural remedy for anxiety too. (9)
If you’re not fond of the tea, you can go with a capsule form that can be found at your local health food store.
7. St. John’s Wort May Help Provide Sleep Through Less Depression
Depression is a common characteristic that can lead to lack of sleep. St John’s wort may be able to help.
More recent studies indicate that chemicals, such as hyperforin and adhyperforin, are found in St. John’s wort, acting as little messengers in the brain that drive mood and work as powerful antidepressants. (10)
The National Sleep Foundation reports that insomnia is common among those who are depressed and notes that people with insomnia have a much higher risk of becoming depressed. (11) Research from the Department of Psychology at the University of North Texas shows that depression may affect many aspects of sleep, from getting to sleep to staying asleep. By treating depression using St. John’s wort, you may be able to find that restful sleep your body and mind longs for. (12)
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
It’s no secret that good sleep provides better function at work and home, along with even better fitness and athletic performance. The National Sleep Foundation released a poll taken in 2015 that clearly indicated quality of life is far better for those who had a good night of sleep of at least seven hours. (13, 14)
The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following amount of sleep for varying age groups: (15)
- Newborns: 14–17 hours
- Infants: 12–15 hours
- Toddlers 11–14 hours
- Preschoolers 10–13 hours
- School-aged children: 9–11 hours
- Teens: 8–10 hours
- Adults: 7–9 hours
- Older adults: 7–8 hours
Symptoms of Insomnia
How do you know if you have a true case of insomnia? This may seem like a silly question, but it’s common that most people experience some form of insomnia, known as acute insomnia, without it truly being a chronic problem.
Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and is often considered chronic if it happens at least three nights per week for three months or longer. The question remains: How do you know if you have insomnia that requires treatment?
While sleeping pills can seem to be the perfect quick fix, you might be surprised to learn that there are numerous natural remedies for insomnia, with little to no side effects, that provide better sleep long term.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests these guidelines, which were derived from a physician group. If you have one or more of the following symptoms, you may need to seek some sort of treatment and take more natural sleep aids: (16)
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
- Trouble getting back to sleep
- Waking up too early
- Not feeling refreshed after sleep (non-restorative sleep)
- Feelings of fatigue, low energy or being always tired
- Struggles concentrating
- Mood swings, aggression and irritability
- Problems at work, school or in relationships
Problems with Sleeping Pills
As I mentioned above, sleeping pills are a quick fix, but why use them if natural sleep aids can solve the problem better? It’s really important that you take the time to understand why sleeping pills may not be the best idea.
They’re placed under a category called sedative hypnotics and include benzodiazepines and barbiturates. You’ve probably heard of the benzodiazepines, or psychotropic drugs, called Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Librium, which are also known as common anti-anxiety medications. Because they can induce drowsiness, they can help people sleep, but these drugs can be addictive too — and that’s not a good thing.
Barbiturates can cause a sedative state because they relax the central nervous system. These are more commonly called sleeping pills and usually the drug of choice for heavy sedation in anesthesia. There are also less powerful, yet still sleep-inducing, drugs that are over-the-counter prescriptions, such as Lunesta, Sonata and Ambien.
If you know me, you’re well aware that I always suggest a natural remedy over a synthetic option, and the reason is pretty clear. In the case of sleeping pills, they typically slow your breathing and may cause you to breath much more shallow than normal. This could be problematic, and even dangerous, for someone with asthma or other lung-related problems like COPD, a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that makes it hard to breathe. Sleeping pills also commonly have numerous side effects, such as: (17)
- Burning or tingling in the extremities, such as hands, arms, feet or legs
- Changes in appetite
- Gas, constipation and/or diarrhea
- Dizziness and problems with balance
- Drowsiness during the day
- Dryness in the mouth or throat area
- Difficulty doing common tasks the next day
- Trouble with memory
- Stomach pain
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Affected dreams
- Feelings of weakness
Recipes for Natural Sleep Aids
There are several different ways you can create your own natural sleep aids. Start with the following recipe:
Bedtime Kefir with Turmeric and Cinnamon
- 1 cup goat’s milk kefir
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- Dash of cinnamon to taste
- Dash of nutmeg to taste
- Place the kefir in a mug.
- Add the turmeric and blend well.
- Top with cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Sip before bedtime.
If you decide to warm the kefir, make sure you don’t boil it. Regardless, heating it causes loss of useful probiotics, but it won’t cause the loss of the natural sleep aids magnesium and calcium.
Here are a couple more recipes that double as natural sleep aids:
Risks and Side Effects
Always make sure you start with small amounts of any new food, herb or essential oil, as different people have different reactions to certain foods. If you notice anything unusually, stop the treatment immediately. Also, if you have been on prescription medication for sleep or any other medication, please consult your doctor first.
Sleep is a crucial part of our health and healing. Take it seriously, and seek out the help of a functional medicine practitioner if you can’t get your sleep under control.
Stay away from synthetics and stimulants, and try the following natural sleep aids instead:
- Tryptophan and serotonin foods
- Essential oils
- Passion flower
- Valerian root
- St. John’s wort
In addition, consider using a journal to track the results so you can better determine what works for you, and make sure you get a good night’s sleep every night. Your health depends on it.
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