Last updated by Dr Sarah Brewer on
Many people prefer to tackle sleep problems with natural approaches such as herbal remedies, diet and lifestyle changes rather than prescribed sleeping pills. The following advice includes recommendations for products that, in my clinical experience, can improve sleep quality and help you sleep better naturally.
- Why you need sleep
- Sleep Patterns
- How much sleep do you need?
- Sleep Efficiency
- Select the right mattress to promote sleep
- Insomnia is the most common sleep problem
- Eat To Beat Insomnia
- Dairy products and sleep
- Cherries for sleep
- Chamomile tea for sleep
- Herbs and supplements for sleep
- Lavender for sleep
- CBD for sleep
- Valerian for sleep
- Magnesium for sleep
- 5-HTP for sleep
- Melatonin supplements for sleep
- Other Tips to Help You Wake Up Feeling Better
- Please leave feedback
Why you need sleep
Sleep is a form of unconsciousness that is essential for physical and emotional well-being. Paradoxically, your brain is more active during sleep than when you are wide awake as it processes information and experiences to lay down new memories. Sleep allows your muscles and joints to recover from constant use during the day, and increased secretion of growth hormone regulates tissue repair, regeneration and rejuvenation. As a result, protein in all parts of the body is replenished, and you produce more new cells when you are asleep than when you are awake, including immune cells which fight infection.
Research consistently shows that people who sleep soundly, for seven to eight hours at a time, have the lowest risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, depression, bacterial and viral illnesses.
Out of 21,000 sets of twins followed for over 22 years, for example, those who slept for between seven and eight hours per night lived longer than those who habitually slept for shorter or longer periods. This may be due to effects on mitochondrial stress within cells which hasten premature ageing. Sleep deprivation also affects the ability of blood vessels to dilate, and causes breathing to become more shallowly so blood levels of harmful carbon dioxide increases. Over a long period of time, this may compromise your circulation so the risk of heart disease increases.
There are two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep in which the eyes are constantly on the move, and Slow Wave (or non-REM sleep) in which the eyes are relatively still.
Slow wave sleep is further divided into four stages of which the lightest is stage 1 and the deepest is stage 4. When you first fall asleep, you rapidly pass through stages 1 and 2, then spend 70 – 100 minutes in stages 3 and 4. Sleep then lightens and a short period of around 10 minutes REM follows. This cycle repeats four to six times throughout the night, but as morning approaches more and more time – up to one hour – is spent in REM sleep.
If someone is woken during REM sleep, they will usually say they’ve been dreaming. This is also the phase of sleep in which some people grind their teeth.
Typically you spend the following amounts of time in each stage of sleep:
- Stage 1 5% of the night (light sleep)
- Stage 2 50% of the night
- Stage 3 5% of the night
- Stage 4 5% of the night (deep sleep)
- REM sleep 25% of the night
Interestingly, people who only sleep 5 hours per night get a similar amount of slow wave sleep as those who regularly sleep 8 hours per night – additional time spent sleeping is spent in REM sleep. The longest period of REM sleep ever recorded was 2 hours and 23 minutes.
How much sleep do you need?
Your sleep pattern naturally changes throughout life. As you grow older, you need less and less sleep:
- A baby needs 14 – 16 hours sleep a day.
- A five-year old needs around 12 hours sleep.
- The average teenager needs 9 to 10 hours sleep
- The average adult sleeps for 7 hours 12 minutes per night
- Those over 75 need least sleep of all – often as little as 5 hours
You also spend less and less time in stage 4 (really deep) sleep with increasing age, so that by the age of 70, most people get no stage 4 sleep at all. As sleep tends to be light, it is common for older people to wake several times during the night, though they may not recall this next morning.
Some activity trackers can show how well you sleep based on your movements.
Here’s an example of how I slept last night, according to my Misfit Ray – I have a total of 7 hours 17 minutes sleep, of which 5 hours 4 minutes was deep, restful sleep and 2 hours 13 minutes was light sleep. If I had woken up this would have shown, too.
As you can see, I went straight down into deep sleep (following a chamomile tea) and back up for 4 cycles, then spent more time in light sleep towards the end of the night.
It’s fascinating to see how the different approaches I recommend below, such as taking herbal valerian, or a magnesium salt bath, can affect your sleep quality by tracking it in this way.
Sleep efficiency is measured as the total time asleep divided by the total time in bed. If you fall asleep as soon as going to bed, and have a good night’s sleep, you will have a high sleep efficiency of at least 90%. If you toss and turn before nodding off, then wake several times during the night, your sleep efficiency will be low (eg less than 70%).
Select the right mattress to promote sleep
The surface you sleep on is incredibly important for promoting a good night’s rest. Many people sleep on a mattress that is too hard, too soft or too old and sagging to provide the right level of comfort. Mattresses age and can deteriorate by as much as 70% within ten years of use, so if your mattress is over 7 years old – or simply uncomfortable – it’s worth considering a replacement.
The perfect sleeping surface is a memory foam mattress that naturally moulds to your shape and provide firm support as your body sinks comfortably into the material. They support the natural curves of your back, reduce the load on pressure points and can reduce the number of times you naturally turn during sleep by over three-quarters to less than 20 times. This improves restlessness and helps you wake feeling more refreshed.
If your mattress is in good shape but is too hard, then a memory-foam mattress topper or overlay is cheaper than replacing the full mattress. You can also roll up a memory foam topper and take it on holiday with you if you are travelling by care – I wouldn’t be without mine!
Insomnia is the most common sleep problem
At least 80 different types of sleep disorder are recognised by researchers who analyse sleep patterns, all can affect your ability to function and think straight during the day. An estimated one in three adults have difficulty falling asleep or staying awake, rising to 60% in those aged 70 and over.
Insomnia is a difficulty in falling asleep, or maintaining sleep, and when you do manage to nod off, the quality of sleep is not restorative. Most people have experienced insomnia at some stage of their life, as it is often associated with:
- anxiety and depression
- personal stress
- relationship problems
- shift work
- jet lag
- looking after young children
- financial worries
- menopausal symptoms
- health problems that cause pain and worry.
Sometimes, all that’s needed is to improve your sleep environment. Make sure your bed is comfortable, and your bedroom warm, dark and quiet – noise and excessive cold or heat will keep you awake. A temperature of 18 – 24 degrees C is ideal.
Invest in black out blinds so that the room is dark – or use a sleep mask.
Earplugs will block out any noise that stops you sleeping such as traffic or your partner’s snoring.
Open a window a little to let in fresh air (fit security locks if necessary).
Eat To Beat Insomnia
Eating the right foods at the right time can promote a good night’s sleep by boosting the production of melatonin, your natural sleep hormone. Some foods even contain melatonin and work particularly well if your own melatonin production is suppressed.
Dairy products and sleep
Dairy products promote a better night’s sleep when eaten at any time during the day – not just when enjoyed as the traditional warm, soothing, milk drink before bed. A study, involving 437 older adults found the combination of higher milk or cheese consumption during the day plus light physical activity was linked with less difficulty in falling asleep.
Dairy products are an excellent source of magnesium and calcium, which relax muscles. They also contain bioactive peptides, such as lactium – these protein chains are naturally present to help babies sleep after suckling.They are now available in a concentrated supplement form, too.
Dairy products also supply the amino acid, tryptophan, which is needed for the production of melatonin hormone. Other foods that contain tryptophan include turkey, bananas, oats, honey and pumpkin seeds.
A warm, milky drink just before going to bed will help you to relax – hot milk with cinnamon or nutmeg is better than chocolate drinks that contain some caffeine. Supplements containing the sleep-inducing milk peptides are available, if you prefer.
Cherries for sleep
Cherries are one of the richest dietary sources of natural melatonin. Levels are especially high in the tart Balaton and Montmorency cherry strains, which provided five times more melatonin than other fruit sources such as blackberries and strawberries.
In one study, volunteers consumed either tart cherry juice or a similar tasting placebo for seven days before bedtime, then later switched to the other drink for another seven days. Their melatonin levels were significantly boosted when drinking the cherry juice, but not when drinking the placebo. As a result, the real cherry juice increased their time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency (the ratio of the total time spent asleep at night, divided by the total time in bed).
Research has also shown that drinking Montmorency cherry juice, twice a day for two weeks, increased sleep time in people with insomnia so that those drinking the cherry juice slept for an average of 85 minutes longer than those drinking the placebo.
If drinking the cherry juice before bedtime, use a straw and rinse your mouth afterwards to protect your teeth from acid erosion at night. It’s also a good idea to chew a cube of hard cheese afterwards – the calcium will help to neutralise the acid, the promote sleep for a double benefit.
Despite urban myths, eating cheese at night does not cause nightmares – this tale is believed to have come from Charles Dickens’ character, Scrooge, who blamed his visions of ghosts on eating a ‘crumb of cheese’ before bed!
Chamomile tea for sleep
A soothing herbal tea is often all that’s needed to help you have a good night’s sleep. Chamomile is particularly effective and was used medicinally by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for its soothing, relaxing properties.
A fascinating study involved hospital patients who needed a heart catheter inserted via an artery in the groin. Each agreed to drink a cup of chamomile tea beforehand as their only premedication. The tea was double-strength, made using two tea-bags in 6 ounces of hot water. Within ten minutes of drinking the tea, ten of the patients fell into a deep sleep – despite their anxiety over the medical procedure. While they easily roused, they immediately fell asleep again until the end of the cardiac catheterization procedure, which lasted around 90 minutes. This hypnotic effect was described as ‘striking’ as it was unusual for patients to fall asleep for this procedure.
I drink chamomile & honey tea every night and it helps me sleep well as you can see from my Misfit Ray recording above.
Eat a protein-rich diet and avoid hunger, which is a primitive alerting response that makes it difficult to fall asleep.
Eat your evening meal before 7pm and resist late night snacks, especially of rich food.
Avoid substances known to interfere with sleep such as caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, colas) nicotine and alcohol – although alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, you are likely to have a disturbed sleep once the anaesthetic-like, drug effect wears off.
Don’t drink too much fluid in the evening – a full bladder is guaranteed to disturb your rest.
Herbs and supplements for sleep
A number of traditional herbal medicines and supplements can improve sleep quality, either directly through beneficial effects on brain chemicals, or indirectly by reducing anxiety. The most effective, in my clinical experience, are Lavender, Valerian, Magnesium and 5-HTP.
If you are taking any prescribed medicines, always check with a pharmacist before taking any sleep supplements to ensure there are no known interactions.
Lavender for sleep
Lavender essential oil is extracted from the flowering tops of a herb that is native to the Mediterranean. It has a clean, refreshing smell that is calming, soothing, sedative, analgesic and antidepressant. The diluted essential oil can be added to bath water to promote sleep. Sprinkle a few drops of lavender essential oil on a cotton wool pad near your pillow, or use a lavender pillow spray or sachet to promote sleep.
Pharmaceutical grade lavender oil, extracted from one particular strain, Lavender angustifolia Miller, is now also available in capsule form. At least 15 clinical trials, involving 2,200 people, confirm that it effective at reducing anxiety, through effects on the serotonin 1A receptors in the brain.
One study showed pharmaceutical lavender oil was as effective as the prescribed benzodiazepine, lorazepam, and another showed it was as effective as the antidepressant drug, paroxetine. In contrast, lavender oil has significantly fewer side effects (some people experience burping or mild skin reactions) and it does not cause sedation or have a potential for addiction.
By reducing anxiety, lavender oil capsules can improve sleep problems associated with stress, nervousness and racing thoughts.
CBD for sleep
CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the best supplements to promote refreshing sleep. This natural ingredients is extracted from industrial hemp plants which, although they belong to the cannabis family, do not contain the psychoactive ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that is found in marijuana strains of cannabis.
CBD interacts with your own endocannabinoid system, and enhances the effects of natural brain transmitters, including melatonin, to promote sleep and support refreshing REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. CBD also redues anxiety and stress, helping you to relax and creating general feelings of wellbeing. Read my full review of cannabidiol for sleep here. If you are taking many prescribed drugs, check for interactions before starting cannabidiol to aid sleep (tehre is a useful interactions checker at Drugs.com which includes cannabidiol). Some people experience vivid dreams when taking CBD.
Valerian for sleep
Valerian is one of the most soothing herbs available, and is a traditional herbal remedy to treat stress. It does have a strong smell – likened to ripe cheese or cat’s pee – but as it works so well, most users are happy to put up by this (my husband swears by it, but I have to hold my nose when he opens the pack!)
The sedative action of valerian results from the inhibition of enzymes that break down an inhibitory brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). As GABA levels rise, it damps down the over-stimulation that causes racing, anxiety-driven thoughts that stop you sleeping. Valerian can improve the quality of sleep and reduce stress levels, especially in women whose sleep disturbance is linked with the menopause.
Data from 16 studies, involving over 1090 people, showed that valerian improved sleep quality improved by 80% compared with placebo, without producing side effects. Taking valerian extracts helped people to fall asleep more quickly and wake less frequently during the night than those taking the inactive placebo.
In one trial that compared the effectiveness of valerian extract (600mg) against the prescribed hypnotic drug, oxazepam, both treatment showed similar improvements in sleep duration and quality, refreshment after sleep, and dream recall after six weeks. Interestingly, more people assessed valerian as very good (82.8%) compared with those on the prescribed drug (73.4%). The researchers stated that valerian extracts were as effective as oxazepam for treating insomnia, but did not have a negative effect on reaction times, alertness or concentration during the following day.
The combination of valerian and hops (see Dormeasan below) has a synergistic sedative effect, and in one study allowed participants spend a significant longer periods asleep, including longer periods in refreshing deep sleep after a single dose.
Magnesium for sleep
Magnesium is a mineral that is involved in melatonin production. A study involving 46 older people with sleep problems showed that taking 500 mg magnesium a day for 8 weeks significantly improved melatonin levels, sleep time, and sleep efficiency, compared with placebo, with a reduction in early morning waking.
If you do nothing else after reading this article, please invest in some magnesium bath salts. Put a handful in your bath before bedtime and you are virtually guaranteed an improved night’s sleep – magnesium is absorbed through the skin and has a profound relaxing effect on muscles.
Magnesium oil that can be applied to the skin before sleep is also available and effective.
If you prefer to take an oral magnesium supplement, click here to see my review of magnesium supplements.
5-HTP for sleep
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a unique amino acid that is only found in two places in nature – in the human body and in the seeds of a West African medicinal plant, Griffonia simplicifolia.
Unlike most other amino acids it is not used as a protein building block, but is involved in the production of brain chemicals such as serotonin, melatonin and endorphins which regulating your mood, appetite, sleep and pain perception.
5-HTP appears to improve the architecture of sleep by extending the amount of time spent in REM (rapid eye movement, or dreaming) sleep so you wake feeling more refreshed. In some people it may trigger vivid dreams.
5-HTP is especially helpful for sleep disturbances associated with fibromyalgia as it can improve sleep and reduce pain perception.
Start with a dose of 100mg at night, increasing if necessary to a maximum of 300mg daily. It may take a few weeks to notice the full effects. Use for three months, stop for one month and review.
It is important to select a product made to pharmaceutical standards to ensure there are no contaminants. Check your chosen brand states it is made to GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) in the UK or CGMP (current Good Manufacturing Practice) in the US.
Melatonin supplements for sleep
Melatonin is a hormone made in the pineal gland of the brain in response to low light levels, to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. If your melatonin levels are depleted by illness, medications, age, or lifestyle factors such as jet lag, shift work or stress, this can affect your internal body clock and cause sleep disturbances.
Several studies have suggested that taking melatonin can help to prevent jet lag if taken on the day of departure, but close to the bedtime of your destination. It works best when traveling East and when crossing four or more time zones. Continue taking it for several days.
Studies also suggest that melatonin can improve insomnia, whether you have difficulty in falling asleep or in staying asleep. As a biological hormone, it enhances the quality of sleep, and helps your sleep longer.
Melatonin comes in two forms:
- extended (timed) release, which can help if you tend to wake in the middle of the night
- immediate release (fast dissolve) which can help if your main problem is in falling asleep.
The recommended dose is 1mg to 5mg before bedtime.
Because melatonin is found naturally in some foods, such as cherries, it is available on general sale as a dietary supplement in the US. The UK takes a stricter approach and, because it is a biologically-active hormone, it is only available on prescription (2mg dose) for the short-term treatment of insomnia to be taken one to two hours before bedtime, for up to 13 weeks.
Natural melatonin production can be stimulated by certain herbs. A supplement called NeuroRest, for example, combines 5 HTP with amino acids l-tryptophan and l-taurine, plus magnesium, chamomile and biotin to promote a restful night’s sleep.
Other Tips to Help You Wake Up Feeling Better
Avoid napping during the day as this will make it more difficult to sleep at night
Take regular exercise during the day, but avoid strenuous exercise in the evening which will keep you awake.
Take time to unwind from the stresses of the day before going to bed – read a book, listen to soothing music or have a candle lit bath.
Preserve your bedroom as a place for sleep – don’t use it for eating, working or watching television.
Get into a habit by going to bed at a regular time each night and getting up at the same time each morning.
Set a bed-time routine such as checking house security, brushing your teeth, bathing and setting the alarm clock to set the mood for sleep.
Make sure all electrical devices are at least six feet away from your bed as they may emit electromagnetic frequencies that interfere with sleep. Unplug devices when not in use.
Don’t use an electronic screen before sleep – the blue light emitted by smart phones, tablets and similar devices suppresses melatonin secretion. Read an old-fashioned book before sleep rather than using an e-reader.
If you can’t sleep, don’t lie there tossing and turning. Get up and read or watch the television for a while. If you are worried about something, write down all the things on your mind and promise yourself you will deal with them in the morning, when you are feeling more refreshed. When you feel sleepy, go back to bed and try again. If sleep does not come within 15 minutes, get up and repeat this process.
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Have you used any natural remedies to help improve sleep? Did you find them helpful?
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