The need to constantly be engaged at all times and connected via technology like our cellphones has likely led to more difficulty achieving a more restful and mindful sleep.
If you experience sleep disturbances or have difficulty falling asleep at night, you are not alone. It is reported that a sizable percentage (around ~30%) of both Americans and Canadians have experienced issues with falling asleep, getting an adequate amount of sleep or achieving a good quality sleep.
Not only is this true for such a vast amount of the population, but both those that are older and women seem to be at an increased risk of developing insomnia (~40%) or sleep-related disorders later in life.
Sleep is extremely important to your overall wellness and sense of well-being.
Sleep is central to proper learning, memory, and overall cognitive function. Research demonstrates that better sleeping habits (i.e., a longer duration of sleep, like the recommended amount of 7-9 hours for adults compared to less than 7) results in improved cognitive performance, memory recall, and learning capabilities.
While research in this field is vast and has been on-going for centuries, it is thought that synaptic connections in the brain, related to memory and memory consolidation (remembering something that happened or academic material, for example) are strengthened during sleep.
Coincidentally, sleep is also linked with the ability to better focus and remain concentrated on tasks. Poorer performance outcomes and lack of attention is routinely reported in studies related to academic performances for adults, teens, and children.
Insomnia, poor sleep quality and difficulty sleeping are also linked to more concerning health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and high blood pressure. As sleep is integral to allowing the body to rest – including vital and important organs, depriving the body of sleep leads to more stress on them, without the ability to recover.
It may not seem like it, but poor sleep or lack of sleep can trigger inflammation within the body, and this can lead to all types of issues including atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries.
Heart attack and stroke risk are indicated as an increased risk for those who sleep less than six hours a night, experience chronic insomnia, or have difficulty staying asleep and repeatedly wake back up.
Before looking into supplementation, there are some things you can consider in your home environment and sleeping space that can be changed to better instill more appropriate night-time behaviors.
One of the most important factors many people disregard is their exposure to blue light directly before bed (or while in bed!) from electronic devices and screens.
We have such an attachment to technology in our present lives, sometimes it can become difficult to recognize when it can be negatively impacting our health.
These screens give off artificial light – this blue light can impact circadian rhythms, your natural internal clock that helps align your body. When exposed to this blue light directly before bedtime, it can drastically impact our natural circadian rhythm that used to be more closely aligned with sunrise and sunset. This light stimulates us and makes us feel more alert, and also reduces the body’s natural production of melatonin.
While this is helpful during the day when we need to be productive, at night it can be a hinderance to falling asleep easily.
Primary sources of artificial blue light are things such as LED bulbs, smartphones, television screens, laptops and computer monitors, tablets and e-readers, gaming screens, portable devices, and fluorescent lights.
The easiest way to reduce exposure is also the most obvious – to simply give yourself time to stop using devices or any screens 2-3 hours before bedtime. While this may be difficult for many, especially with the temptation to reach for your phone while in bed, it is important to instill good habits to prevent unhealthy sleeping patterns from forming.
If this is not possible, you should look into using glasses that specifically block out blue light, that are now easily available. As well, there are many programs and apps for computers, phones and tablets that allow blue light to be dimmed, reduced, blocked, or controlled.
It is best to try and reduce blue light exposure to a minimum 2-3 hours before bedtime.
There are other fairly easy things you can implement that may help you attain a more restful night’s sleep.
Avoiding caffeine during the evening (stopping consumption around ~6:00 PM), reducing or avoiding mid-day naps or rests, increasing exposure to natural light during day-time hours, avoiding alcohol consumption directly before bed, and altering your bedroom environment to be more pleasing and mindful can all drastically help to improve sleep quality and quantity.
While actively working towards improving your actual sleep quality by changing patterns of behavior or your sleeping environment, there are some supplements that can help you attain a more restful night that also have demonstrated effectiveness.
Essential oils can be extremely beneficial for soothing anxiety, and inducing relaxation. They can promote a calmer and more restful environment before bed, and can be used to help encourage a deeper sleep. Lavender is an affordable option and has been shown to enhance sleep quality and duration – simply smelling it prior to sleep seems to provide benefit, especially to sufferers of insomnia.
Lavender also seems to prevent recurrent waking and the amount of sleep disturbances associated with those who find themselves unable to fall back asleep – particularly in the elderly.
While there isn’t a substantial amount of research to indicate lavender will completely solve sleeping issues or insomnia, current studies seem to demonstrate lavender as a safe and cost-effective tool that can be used to improve sleep time and quality of sleep, in addition to alleviating nervousness or anxiety (both factors that may be harming the ability to get a good night’s rest).
The most popular natural sleep aid, without any doubt, has to be melatonin.
Melatonin is generally quite safe. Unlike with prescription sleep medication, you will not experience the same dependency, less effectiveness over time, or many of the unpleasant side-effects that come from traditional sleeping pills.
With prescription medications, like Ambien, there can be harmful side effects and reduced functioning when it comes to short-term memory recall or learning capabilities.
While commonly available in pill or capsule form, sublingual tablets or lozenges (or a liquid form) that will dissolve with help with quicker and more efficient absorption.
Melatonin essentially helps the body to regulate sleep and wake cycles – darkness or low light helps the body to naturally produce more melatonin (which is a hormone) to let it know it is time to sleep, while brightness or exposure to light (both natural and artificial) decreases production of melatonin and increases alertness or wakefulness.
As certain behaviors, diet, lifestyle, or hormonal imbalances can cause the body to produce less melatonin or low levels of melatonin, increasing the amount by taking a supplement may help better regulate your body’s internal sleeping cycles and promote a more restful sleep.
Melatonin also seems to reduce the length and period of time needed to fall asleep, which can help promote sleep for those that struggle to fall asleep easily. Taking 1mg-5mg has been shown to be effective and safe, depending on the age of the person using the supplement and the duration of use. Anything exceeding doses of 5mg should be confirmed with a medical professional or health care practitioner.
As melatonin can interact with various other medications, if you are currently on any prescription medications such as diabetes medication or anti-platelet drugs, it is important to consult a doctor or practitioner before use.
Other supplements reported to be effective in aiding sleep are valerian root, GABA, glycine, kava, chamomile, l-theanine, magnesium, 5-HTP, hops, passionflower, tart cherry juice, tryptophan, and magnolia bark.
Of these, chamomile and tart cherry juice would likely be the easiest to incorporate, as you can have a simple cup of chamomile tea before bed, or a couple tablespoons of tart cherry juice. Tart cherry juice (extracted from sour cherries) naturally increases the bioavailability of tryptophan in the body, and also increases production of melatonin while reducing inflammation. Chamomile can be taken as a tea, or in an extract form via capsule or tincture. Studies show those who took chamomile daily reported improved sleep quality and duration. For centuries, chamomile has been known to reduce anxiety, and treat insomnia. While a lower dose of extract or a cup of chamomile tea may not be as effective as melatonin, it may help contribute to a more restful night.
Valerian root, passionflower, lemon balm, kava are all herbal extracts that have been demonstrated to improve either sleep time or quality. Of these, research shows passionflower and lemon balm to likely be the most safe and effective.
L-Theanine, glycine, and l-tryptophan are amino acids that seem to promote restfulness and sleep quality. You’ll often find l-theanine combined with other sleeping supplements as it seems to work better when combined with GABA.
The most important thing you could do to help improve sleep quality provided you do not have a pre-existing medical condition is ensure you are being mindful of the space that you sleep in. This means ensuring it is comfortable to you and your needs, and invites relaxation. Adjusting for temperature, using relaxing scents and essential oils, and using a proper mattress suited to your body will all drastically improve sleep. Cutting back on things that can impact or hurt sleep quality like caffeine and alcohol several hours before bed, as well as reducing blue light exposure in the hours leading up to sleeping is important in conjunction with supplement use.