16 Simple Sleep Tips: Natural Ways to Get Better Sleep
Everyone’s tired these days. And while we know that a lack of good quality sleep isn’t the only culprit, it’s certainly one that needs improvement for most of us. The restorative and healing benefits of sleep are so great that it’s one of the five foundational pillars of any of my clients’ treatment protocols. But what can we do to improve the amount and quality of sleep we get each night?
I’ve put together a list of my favourite sleep tips and recommendations that I give to my clients. Keep in mind that not every recommendation will work for everyone, especially if you have a gut infection like a parasite, SIBO, bad bacteria or yeast like Candida (more on that later). But they should give you a place to start and some ideas on how to improve your sleep habits.
What to eat for a good night’s sleep
No caffeine after noon.
Caffeine is a stimulant and that afternoon pick-me-up stays in your system longer than you might think. If you keep your daily coffee fix for the morning, you’ll be giving the effects of caffeine enough time to wear off before bed time.
Night caps are for naps, not sleep.
Your grandma probably swears by her daily ‘night-cap’ before bed, but it might not be exactly what you’re looking for. Yes, a small drink of alcohol can help people fall asleep, but it actually does little for the quality of sleep you get. By delaying the REM cycle, you’re likely to wake up without feeling rested. You’re better off improving your sleep through these other tips before turning to alcohol.
Go easy on the late night snack.
A big meal close to bedtime is likely to have your digestive system working overtime while it should be resting for the night. Try to avoid eating closer than three hours before bed to give your digestive system a chance to do its thing.
Avoid liquids and the loo to sleep right through.
No need to go dehydrating yourself, but keep in mind that too much liquid before bed will likely result in sleep-disturbing midnight trips to the loo. As with food, consider cutting off the water supply a couple of hours before bed if you find you’re not lasting through the night.
Carbs might be the perfect snooze food.
Carbohydrates have a dual sleep effect. Firstly, they make tryptophan, a natural sleep-aid, more available to the brain. Secondly, carbs trigger a prolonged release of the hormone insulin which is an antagonist to cortisol. And given cortisol is our fight or flight stress response hormone, the lower it is at bedtime, the better.
The best carbs to eat in the evening are whole food, complex carbs like starchy vegetables and properly prepared whole grains. Steer clear of the poor quality refined and processed carbs (breads, cookies, ice-cream, etc.) and try and eat about four hours before bedtime for the best effect.
Sleep tips in preparation for bed
Go to bed earlier.
This sounds so obvious I feel a bit silly for saying it. But there are two key reasons going to bed earlier might make all the difference. The first is that your wake-up time is probably set the same each morning due to work commitments, so the earlier you go to bed, the longer your sleep. It’s basically the same as saying ‘sleep longer’. The second reason relates to the saying “an hour before midnight is worth two after”. This has to do with the difference between restorative ‘slow wave’ sleep and dreaming REM sleep.
Set an alarm to go to bed.
If you struggle with the suggestion above, consider setting yourself an alarm to go to bed. Yep, you read that right. No more excuses for losing track of time and wishing you’d hit the hay earlier! In the Clock app for iPhone, you can activate a feature called ‘Bedtime’. Once you set your bedtime, it will remind you fifteen minutes to an hour before to give you time to finish up what you’re doing and prepare for sleep.
Power down an hour before bed.
Dim the lights and avoid electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. The blue lights from laptop screens, televisions and smartphones can make our brain think it’s daylight and time to be awake and alert. This impairs melatonin production, our main sleep hormone, and makes it difficult to fall asleep. If you can’t bring yourself to ditch the smartphone before bed, at least turn on Night Shift mode (on iPhone) which gives the screen an orange tinge and reduces the sleep-disturbing blue light levels. You can get apps for Android that do the same thing and a program called f.lux for your computer or laptop.
Develop a relaxation routine.
It’s hard to sleep when your mind is going a million miles an hour. In fact, researchers believe that around fifty percent of insomnia cases are emotion and stress related. For this reason, it’s so important to give yourself at least thirty minutes before bed to relax and prepare for sleep.
Here are a few things that work for my clients:
> Journal before bed as an outlet to clear your thoughts from the day.
> Yoga, meditation and deep breathing techniques are all great ways to relax the body and mind.
> Take a warm bath - your raised temperature will cool quickly once you get out mimicking the natural drop in temperature caused by the brain in readiness for sleep .
> Experiment with aromatherapy.
> Replace your English breakfast tea with known sleep improving varieties like lemon balm, valerian root and passionflower.
> Try progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
Exercise, just not right before bed.
Research shows that people who exercise regularly get better sleep. Which is just one more reason to keep active throughout the week. The caveat is: just don’t exercise too close to bedtime. The mental and physical stimulation of exercise can leave your nervous system feeling on edge and make it difficult to calm down in the two to three hours that follow a work-out. So scheduling your sweat sessions for the morning or afternoons is generally a good idea.
The perfect sleep environment
Keep it cool.
Most people sleep best in a cool room. Somewhere between 18-22ºC. Experiment and find the temperature that works best for you. This will also be affected by the type of linen and sleepwear you choose. Flannel sheets or a thick duvet/quilt cover can cause you to overheat, leading to poor quality sleep.
Quiet... but not too quiet.
A quiet space is definitely helpful for a good night’s sleep. But if it’s so silent you could hear a pin drop than every random movement can become disruptive. Whether it’s too noisy or too quiet, you could consider using earplugs or employ the consistent hum of ‘white noise’. A fan works great for me but others use actual recordings to keep the peace.
Don’t be scared of the dark.
Everyone’s sensitivity to light varies, but even the dimmest glow, like that from an alarm clock or a neighbour’s outside lights, can disrupt your shut-eye. Do what you can to remove all light sources from the bedroom, use block-out curtains, or consider using an eye-mask to force the issue.
Use your bed for sleeping (and intimacy) only.
Getting to sleep quickly is in large part a mental game. If your bed is just for sleeping then your body knows exactly what to do when you get under the covers. If your bedroom is a multi-purpose space designed for working, studying, playing computer games, reading and/or engaging on social media, your body might be getting mixed messages when it’s time to actually sleep. Keep it simple; when you go to your bedroom, go there to sleep.
Make sure your pillow and mattress are doing their job.
This one seems obvious but a lack of sleep may be less about you and more about what you’re lying on. If your mattress is too firm, too soft or worn out then this is going to make sleeping difficult, regardless of whatever else you do. And the same goes for your pillow. This is why hotels now offer pillow menus as one size definitely does not fit all. If you don’t know what works best for you then you might need to experiment. And know that a mattress is designed to last five to ten years and a pillow only twelve to eighteen months… so you might be well overdue for an update.
Don’t let the gut bugs bite.
Don’t you mean ‘bed’ bugs? While those might be an issue if you’ve checked-in to the cheapest hostel in Morocco, it’s gut parasites that you might actually need to worry about. Here’s three ways parasites can affect sleep:
> Many parasites are active while you sleep, which increases cortisol production as your body tries to fight them off. And with increased cortisol comes disrupted sleep, all because of our fight or flight stress response hormone.
> Parasites can affect the nervous system and cause insomnia
> Some parasites can cause anal itching, which disturbs sleep
If you have a good sleep routine and still find yourself waking in the middle of the night (likely from 2-3am) then a parasite might be to blame. If so, reach out to a functional health practitioner (like me!) and get yourself tested.
Share your own sleep tips!
Do you have any sleep tips that work really well for you? It’s so individual, but sharing what works for you may help others. And let’s face it, we could all do with a little extra quality sleep in our life.