“We know that sleep makes us feel better, and we know it’s better for us. And we even know how to measure our deep sleep. But how do we get it?”
We all know how lousy it feels when you don’t sleep well, but science tells us it can be a health risk, too. During sleep, your body not only repairs muscles, it removes plaque and waste created in the brain, and it processes emotions and stores memories. Not getting the recommended 7–9 hours a night hurts concentration, memory, coordination, and mood. Over time, sleep deprivation raises your risk for weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and also lowers your immunity. It can even make you more vulnerable to mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. You need good sleep.
There’s evidence that the quality of sleep matters as well. Healthy adults need 1 ½ to 2 hours of deep “slow-wave” sleep per night, which is about 20 percent of your total sleep. Wearing a Fitbit Versa or Oura Ring for a week will help you discover where you are, sleep-wise—without a trip to a sleep lab.
So, we know that sleep makes us feel better, and we know it’s better for us. And we even know how to measure our deep sleep. But how do we get it?
We know that sleep makes us feel better, and we know it’s better for us. But how do we get it?
If falling asleep or staying that way are a problem, lifestyle changes could help: Limit caffeine and sugar intake during the day and stop eating and drinking alcohol three hours before bed. Get regular exercise. Install blackout curtains and cool your bedroom to about 64 degrees (or buy a ChiliPad to cool your side of the bed). Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Hint: Set an alarm for an hour before you want to sleep to turn off screens and create a calming bedtime atmosphere. Your bedroom is your best healing sanctuary, and you want to feel safe, secure, and comfortable.
And diet matters. As one example, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that a diet low in fiber but high in saturated fat or sugar reduced the quality of slow-wave sleep. Better food can lead to better sleep.
You may also find relief through these three supplements proven to help you fall asleep and stay asleep:
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland and circulated throughout the body, operates on a circadian cycle to put the body into a relaxed state at night and a wakeful state toward morning. But melatonin secretion varies throughout your life, and decreases markedly with age, particularly in women after menopause. Its production is also suppressed by dim light, making a strong case against for turning off electronic devices like phones or tablets before bed. Supplemental melatonin (typically 0.3 to 3 milligrams) is one of the most studied natural sleep aids and has been found to be particularly helpful for delayed or interrupted sleep patterns, such as during travel or doing shift work. It may also improve the quality and length of sleep overall, but don’t take it for more than a couple of months. Melatonin is found naturally in some food sources, including tart cherries, and is a derivative of L-tryptophan, an amino acid plentiful in poultry, eggs, and shrimp.
Magnesium is a mineral involved with hundreds of biological functions, including sound, restful sleep. Through the regulation of neurotransmitters, and by binding to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, it helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to feel calm and relaxed. It also regulates melatonin. Magnesium is abundant in high-fiber food sources, including green vegetables, nuts and seeds, and unrefined grains and cereal. But older adults—as well as people with digestive issues or diabetes, and those who drink alcohol—are often magnesium deficient and have trouble sleeping. A 2012 study by researchers in Tehran found that magnesium supplementation in people over 60 improved both “subjective and objective measures of insomnia.” A typical dose is 250–500 milligrams at night, which you can also achieve through your skin from an Epsom salt bath. Too much magnesium may produce side effects including nausea, diarrhea, and muscle cramps, and may interfere with certain medicines, including blood pressure medication, muscle relaxants, and antibiotics.
Ashwagandha is a small shrub native to India and North Africa, its leaves and roots traditionally used to promote relaxation and calm. It’s a staple in Ayurvedic medicine, viewed as an adaptogen, or natural tonic, that helps the body adapt to stress; it is helpful for anxiety and other agitated mood states. Recent studies done mostly in India show its effectiveness in stabilizing blood sugar, reducing cortisol levels, and easing insomnia related to stress and depression. (Ashwagandha’s Latin name is Withania somnifera—somnifera meaning sleep inducer.) It is often taken in pill form (300 mg once or twice a day) and can be made into a tonic tea.