It pretty much sucks when you are exhausted and ready for sleep, but your brain is not. You lay there with thoughts running through your head — worrying about what you did or did not do, family members, money, your job, and all the things that you cannot control.
Perhaps you go to sleep just fine, without a worry in the world, but then you wake up with a start at 1 am, then 3 am, then again at 5 am. You get up, grab a coffee (or two), or some other stimulant, and plow through your day running on adrenaline, stimulants and maybe even sugar. Or — you hit the snooze button over and over again and drag though the day in dread because you just can’t seem to put a together a complete thought.
No matter what’s going on, the long and even short term consequences of sleep disruption can have a profound affect on your mental and physical health in a number of ways. Just plug “sleep deprivation” into Google Scholar and studies abound demonstrate the negative effects on brain health, behavior, performance, cortisol levels, immune function, hormones, and more.
Many people turn to over-the-counter and pharmaceutical sleep aids. I did too. As you can guess, these don’t come without side effects. Also, they are a “Band-Aid” fix that are not likely to help long term. Often, I find that sleep aids, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medications are prescribed without ever addressing or considering diet and lifestyle factors first — and that’s a shame.
On my own personal journey to more optimal health, and to get off the multitude of medications I found myself on as I approached middle age — sleep was something I knew I HAD to fix. I knew sleep deprivation was severely impacting my life.
As it turns out, I stumbled upon better sleep as I made some tweaks to my diet and implemented some strategies that I learned reading multiple studies, forums and books. Later, after I turned my health around and pursed my nutrition education, I learned more tips and tricks that continue to help me when sleepless nights kick in on occasion.
I’ve used these strategies with my clients with great results too. These are not my own personal discoveries; I learned these tips and tricks via a lot of research and self-implementation.
So, let’s get down to it. Here’s my list of 11 ways to improve your sleep
- Tweak your diet — This is probably the biggest priority and what influenced my sleep, mood, performance, and overall health the most. I eliminated and avoided gluten containing grains, most dairy, industrial vegetable/seed oils, sugar, and cut my fruit intake (which was excessive). I ate (and still do): hormone and antibiotic free meat & eggs (mostly grass-fed/pastured); wild-caught seafood such as Alaskan salmon & sardines; a huge amount of vegetables (half my plate); fruit (1-2 pieces per day max); nuts, seeds, & olives; and lots of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, & clarified butter (ghee). To add robust flavor, I use plenty of delicious herbs, spices, sea salts, and infused balsamic vinegars.
- Limit coffee & other stimulants (such as tea, kombucha, & chocolate)— Cut back or perhaps remove at least some of these things. I personally find that with my clients, and myself — any more than 1 cup of coffee a morning can disrupt sleep. Also, coffee or caffeinated products in the afternoon are major culprits of sleep disruption – so stick to 1 cup in the morning. Some people can get by with a cup of caffeinated tea or komubcha after lunch, however, this is unique to each individual and I don’t recommend more than 16 oz. I’m not taking anyone’s chocolate away, but if you are consuming it later in the day and are having sleep issues, try enjoying it earlier. I know all this is easier said that done but you NEED SLEEP.
- Cut back or avoid alcohol use — If you are having trouble sleeping and are drinking nightly, this can be a problem (even just a single glass of wine). It may help you wind down but it can also cause a dip in blood sugar, causing cortisol to kick in, waking you up. Another reason to avoid drinking alcohol nightly or even regularly is that your body needs to detoxify alcohol first (same holds true with caffeine). As the toxins in our food, water and environment have increasingly added to our overall toxic load, adding yet another toxin for your liver to process can overburden your liver’s enzymes leading to oxidative stress and free radical production, which can contribute to a host of chronic health conditions I’m sure you want to avoid.
- Natural Calm — Magnesium deficiency is pretty common due to a number of factors including the consumption of sugar, stress, and excessive exercise. Due to nutrient depletion of soil, you are not likely getting enough in your food. Magnesium helps your muscles relax among many of its functions in the body. It’s also a nice treat before bed. Being that it is a muscle relaxer, it can affect your eliminations, so I recommend starting with less than the container indicates as a serving, especially if you are prone to loose stools. If you suffer from constipation, Natural Calm might help you with that too.
- Philips goLite (Or go outside and get natural sunlight first thing in the AM)— I learned about this from Tim Ferris, the ultimate body hacker. I don’t use this regularly anymore unless sleeplessness slips back in but I am certain this was a big factor in resetting my circadian rhythm. It’s a small 7” x 7” square blue light that I used every morning for about 20 minutes while I ate breakfast and drank my coffee. It’s actually touted for improving winter blues, so that’s a bonus. I bought mine at Costco but it’s also available on Amazon. Be sure to check the contraindications for things like eye surgery. A 20 minute walk after sunrise is even better but it’s difficult for a lot of people to do this with work and school schedules.
- Turn down the lights/Use Blue Blockers — To support your circadian rhythm, mimic the caveman. As the sun begins to set, dim your lights and turn them off once the sun is set. Also, avoid having your face in a bright screen. Easier said than done, I know. You can cheat a bit by installing f.lux, free software for your computer, iphone and ipad: “it makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.” I was resistant to Blue light blocking glasses at first because I couldn’t find a style to fit my small face, but when my sleep slipped, I discovered that the market had expanded and I found that the True Dark Day Walkers and the Twighlight classics fit me well and made a huge difference. This small randomized trial is promising too.
- Sleep in total darkness — Besides turning down the lights and reducing your exposure to bright screens at night, when it come to your bedroom (or wherever you sleep), make sure it’s a dark as you can make it. No lights from electronics, the hallway, nightlights, etc. Some people get room darkening shades or even removable panels like these by indow (a must for shift workers), as described in this blog post by Michelle of Nom Nom Paleo.
- Essential oils — I’m a fan of essential oils but am cautious about how I use them. In my practice I use them therapeutically. They can be very potent, so educate yourself before use. I only recommend organic because they are very concentrated plant extracts. A little goes a long way, so more is not better here. Because essential oils are very potent, if you are on medication, I recommend working with a skilled practitioner to help you find what’s appropriate for you. That said, when I experience occasional bouts of sleeplessness or jetlag from travel, I LOVE these two products by Vibrant Blue Oils: Sleep and Circadian Rhythm. They are extremely effective. In fact, I love all of Vibrant Blue’s therapeutic oils! Feel free to ask me about them.
- Reduce Electro-Magnetic Field (EMF) — Turn off all electronics in your bedroom and turn your phone to airplane mode or don’t have it in the room while you are sleeping. Also, turn off Wi-Fi routers and avoid using electric blankets or heating pads during sleep.
- Take a warm Epsom salt bath/Rinse in cold shower— This is essentially a transdermal way to get your magnesium and great for stress relief too. Use about 2 cups of Epsom salt in your bath —additionally, you can add 1 cup of baking soda to help neutralize any chlorine from your water. I like to add a couple drops of lavender essential oil from Vibrant Blue Oils. For a good quality source for a great price, I recommend Saltworks. Currently, shipping is free. You should always shower off after an Epsom salt bath and to sleep better, gradually turn your water until it’s cool to cold. Not pleasant but cooling your core temperature after a hot bath will help you sleep better. Try it!
- Before bedtime meals or snacks — This is highly individual. Sometimes it’s the sugar crash from the sugar hit you took at dinner or dessert (or perhaps the popcorn you’ve been munching on while watching TV) that wakes you up during the night…so, first make sure your diet is dialed in and you’ve cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates. I find that when clients are working to stabilize their blood sugar, they sometimes benefit from a higher carbohydrate whole food at dinner or a snack before bed to keep their blood sugar even during the night. As I said, this is highly individual so you will need to experiment. Try eating a sweet potato at dinner for a couple weeks and see how that affects you. If that doesn’t work, try a spoonful of nut or coconut butter before bed. Often the combo of protein and fat do the trick rather than the starchy carbohydrate. I personally used to do a spoonful of coconut butter, but I don’t need to anymore.
Bonus tip #1: I remembered after this article another tip that works well – sleep in a cool room and/or use a cold gel pack behind your neck/upper back as you sleep. My youngest son and I did this years ago and recently when I was trying to chase down deep sleep, I discovered that doing this also helps me achieve deep sleep, important brain health and function.
Bonus tip #2: Get a sleep tracker such as an Oura Ring to help track your sleep. It motivates you to create and keep healthy sleep habits. This has been really helpful and motivating for me. You can turn it on airplane mode and sync it in the morning so that you are reducing your exposure to EMFs.
We are all unique beings with our own burdens and paths to healing. What works for me may be different from what works for you. I hope you find something helpful in this post. If you have some tips to share, please leave me a comment.
In peace and good health,
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Disclaimer: The information contained herein is not to be construed as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition. These statements made not have been approved by the FDA, nor should they be taken as a substitute for medical advice from a licensed physician.