We all know the groggy, grumpy feelings that follow a night of tossing and turning. The effects of poor-quality sleep affect more than just our day-time alertness and mood. Research has shown that a lack of sleep contributes to reduced immune function, increased inflammation, and a heightened risk of a variety of physical disorders. Moreover, a consistent lack of sleep has been linked to a heightened risk of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and some neurodegenerative conditions. Understanding how to get better sleep naturally is important for our overall health and daily performance.
Problems with sleep can be caused by a variety of factors. These issues are commonly recurrent, meaning that it’s important to find ways to resolve problems over the long term. It can be tempting to reach for some over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals to deal with sleeping problems. However, these interventions don’t yield a ‘natural’ form of sleep, meaning that we can’t reap all of the associated benefits. Importantly, these medications often come with a myriad of negative side effects. Considering this, it’s sensible to investigate how to sleep better at night naturally.
Sleep issues can be heightened when stressed or under altered physiological conditions, such as during pregnancy. Struggling to obtain sleep can be a source of anxiety for many of us. Luckily, sleep scientists have discovered some helpful and natural techniques that can get us back on track for a solid 8 hours of night-time rest.
Throughout this article, we’ll explore some of the science-backed tips and tricks which promote naturally better sleep.
Find A Stable Rhythm
Our bodies have natural sleep-wake cycles, or circadian rhythms, which are driven by a variety of internal and external cues. Internal cues are biological factors such as neurochemicals and hormones which act to increase or reduce alertness dependent on the time of day. These rhythms are subject to natural biological variation and will differ between individuals. However, external factors have a huge contribution to these rhythms too.
One powerful way to improve sleep quality is by getting in sync with these rhythms. By keeping a regular sleep schedule, we can entrain ourselves to sleep for a stable number of hours during specific times.
When setting regular sleep and wake times, you should listen to the natural cues and signals from your body. Research has shown that individuals can have slightly altered circadian clocks. These clocks can be ‘later’ or ‘earlier’, akin to the ‘night owl’ and ‘early bird’. You can naturally assess your natural rhythms by keeping a journal of how sleepy and awake you feel during certain times of the day and evening. It might also be helpful to document your productivity levels throughout the day. Together, these should give an indication of where your circadian rhythm or ‘chronotype’ lies on the spectrum of the early bird to the night owl. For optimal sleep, try to set sleep-wake times which are in keeping with these chronotypes where possible.
Over time, with a stable sleep-wake cycle, you’ll find yourself awakening without an alarm. This is a positive sign that you’re sleeping for enough hours and in a suitable pattern for your chronotype.
It’s important to stick with this schedule, even on weekends! Waking up at the same time every day is probably the most important part of this rhythm. It’s understandable that weekday and weekend schedules differ. However, if you miss out on some sleep during a weekend night, having a short daytime nap is better than sleeping in. This enables you to pay off some of the ‘sleep debt’ accrued by going to bed late without compromising the stability of your sleep-wake cycle. If you chose to nap, try to take these no later than mid-afternoon and nap for a maximum of 30 minutes.
Implement a Good Sleep Hygiene Routine
Sleep hygiene refers to a set of habits and practices which help in obtaining optimal sleep. These practices are designed to improve our evening routines. Sleep hygiene habits don’t necessarily mean an entire evening routine overhaul. Instead, these can be small and easily implementable changes that fit with your pre-existing routine, lifestyle, and preferences.
Sleep hygiene practices include:
- Avoiding caffeine and stimulants after 4 pm
- Limiting blue light exposure from smartphones and other devices in the evening
- Reducing exposure to harsh light in the evening
- Taking a warm bath in the evening
- Engaging in relaxing activities such a reading, gentle yoga or meditation before bed
- Setting a cooler bedroom temperature (18°C is optimal for most people)
- Not eating or drinking 1-2h hours before bed.
- Avoiding nicotine and alcohol before bed.
- Ensuring darkness and comfort within the bedroom
If you’d like to learn more about good sleep hygiene, check out our dedicated blog post.
Harness the Power of Light
Some of the external cues that influence our circadian rhythms come from natural light exposure. Melatonin is one of the key players in our sleep-wake cycles. Increased melatonin drives feelings of sleepiness and the production of this hormone is driven by exposure to light. Melatonin production occurs when it’s dark and is inhibited by light. This is why exposure to blue light or other unnatural light during the evening hours can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Here are some science-backed tricks which harness the power of natural light to keep your circadian clock in sync:
During the day:
- Exposure yourself to bright sunlight first thing in the morning. This type of light exposure will help to boost alertness and keep your sleep-wake cycle in sync. Early morning light is also more heavily composed of blue light frequencies. This gives early morning light an extra awakening boost.
- Spend more time outside during the day. Take regular walks, exercise, or eat outdoors. Exercising throughout the day has also been linked with better sleep. Outdoor exercise may provide a powerful trick for naturally better sleep.
- If you live in a region with poor weather or darker days, consider a light therapy box. These lightboxes can simulate sunshine and can be helpful in mimicking the awakening effects.
- Avoid all screens 1-2 hours before bed. This includes phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs. These blue-light emitting devices are incredibly disruptive to melatonin production and have a huge impact on sleep quality. If you must use a device, consider installing a light-altering software to filter out some of the blue light spectra. Consider switching away from your backlit kindle or tablet when it comes to bedtime reading, and reach for paperbacks instead.
- Keep lighting low throughout the home during evening hours to foster melatonin production. If you wake up during the night, don’t switch on bright lights.
- Aim to sleep in complete darkness. Consider blackout curtains if you live in a city with bright street-lamps or outdoor interference.
Healthy Sleeping Positions
Sleeping position can be particularly important for some people when trying to achieve good quality sleep. This advice may differ between individuals, and it is worth experimenting with what’s best for you.
It’s well-known that sleeping on your back can cause disruption to the airways. This can result in snoring, disrupted breathing, and, in some cases, sleep apnea. Instead, trying sleeping on your side and experiment with pillow height and position.
Sleep position is especially important during pregnancy. The best medical advice suggests that the safest sleeping position during pregnancy is on your left or right side. This is particularly important after 28 gestational weeks, as research suggests that constantly sleeping on your back after this point can double the risk of stillbirths. Don’t worry if you wake up on your back, just aim to sleep on your side as much as possible. You may find that supporting your bump with a pillow increases comfort and sleep quality.
Optimize Your Sleep Environment
Having a relaxing and safe sleep environment is vital to getting better sleep naturally. Here are some quick science-back tips and tricks that can improve your environment and aid sleep:
- Reduce room temperature to around 18°C.
- Open a window to improve air quality. If the environment outside is loud, consider investing an air purifier.
- Ensure a clean and decluttered environment
- Block out external light
- Incorporate relaxing fragrances, such as lavender, into your room
- Make sure your bedding is fresh and clean
- Choose a supportive mattress and pillow
- Reduce noise. Don’t sleep with the TV on as this prevents us from obtaining some stages of deep sleep. If you can’t sleep with silence, then try an ambient white-noise machine which can produce soothing and non-invasive noise throughout the night.
Control Stress and Anxiety
Many of us will be familiar with the experience of night-time worries or overthinking. The association between stress and poor-quality sleep has been well established. Hence, it’s important that we work to lower these negative emotions before bed. Some natural methods of calming the mind are:
- Gentle yoga
- Deep breathing exercises
- Meditation or guided meditation
- Visualisation exercises
- Avoiding work tasks and difficult or emotionally driven situations close to bed-time
Natural Sleep Aids
We discussed the problems with many of the pharmaceuticals prescribed to help sleep earlier in this article. Sleeping pills don’t induce a natural form of restorative sleep and so cannot act as a substitute. Moreover, many of these interventions have negative side effects and interactions with other medications.
If you’ve tried all of the tips and tricks above and are still struggling with sleep, you may wish to explore some natural supplements. These natural supplements are backed by research and have been shown to provide some benefit to sleep.
- Gingko Biloba
It’s vital to remember that supplementation is not a replacement for good sleep hygiene. These supplements are natural but it is important to understand whether they are appropriate for your particular needs. If you have an underlying health condition or are taking any other medication, you must speak to your doctor before implementing any supplement. Moreover, pregnant women should be aware of whether the supplement is suitable for them and should discuss this with their relevant healthcare practitioner.
A good night of rest is critical for the mind and body. How to get better sleep naturally doesn’t have to involve huge life overhauls. By implementing a few small changes to your lifestyle and sleep hygiene, you may find some huge benefits to the quality of your sleep