How to Improve Sleep Naturally

Ways to Improve Sleep Naturally How to Improve Sleep Naturally

Recently, I posted about balancing stress hormones and the dramatic impact this can have on overall health. Today, I’m elaborating on one of the most important and most-often missed aspects of reducing stress.

I’ve written before about the importance of sleep, and I’m sure you’ve read it many other places as well. Yet, statistically, most of us (me included) don’t always get enough quality sleep. Some of us struggle to fall asleep, others to stay asleep, and others to make time to actually get enough sleep.

Not surprisingly, sleep is a hormone dependent process, and with all the variables in our lives that can affect proper hormone balance (foods, toxins, artificial light, etc) it makes sense that many people struggle with sleep. This is also why times when hormones change often have a negative effect on sleep (menopause, puberty, pregnancy, etc)

While mainstream thinking might recommend a pharmaceutical option to help deal with sleep issues, artificially augmenting the hormone system to induce sleep isn’t without its problems (just check out the side-effects and warnings list!) and can have an impact on other hormone functions as well.

Often, lack of quality sleep stems from one or more lifestyle causes, and it is important to address these underlying issues as they can impact more than just sleep.

The Problem

Lack of sleep = Stress on the body = weight gain, premature aging, hair loss, hormone imbalances, infertility, and lowered immune function.

Hormone problems that cause sleep disturbances don’t just begin at bedtime, and they can’t be fixed by just addressing them at this time. Ever noticed that animals don’t have trouble sleeping and waking when they are supposed to? They don’t toss and turn to fall asleep and they don’t need pills to help them do so (speaking about outdoor animals… I don’t have any, but indoor animals could potentially have some of the same struggles that humans do).

Proper sleep hormone production (melatonin) depends on proper hormone function during waking hours (serotonin and others). As the endocrine system is a complete system, hormone imbalances (PCOS, Endometriosis, etc) can often lead to poor sleep and vice versa.

Stress hormones can have a tremendous impact on the sleep cycle as well, and it is a two-way street. Lack of sleep elevates stress hormones, and stress hormones can cause sleep problems.

Optimize Sleep While You Are Awake

To optimize sleep during the night, one must also optimize factors during waking hours including food, supplements and exposure to light/outdoors.

Getting a quality night of sleep actually begins when you wake at the beginning of the day and there are many factors that can have a dramatic impact on sleep length and quality.

-Foods for Sleep

Just as foods can impact health in other areas, foods can contribute to good or bad sleep. To help improve your chances of quality sleep, these are the best foods to consume:

  • Healthy Fats- such as coconut oil, organic and pasture raised meats, eggs, avocado and butter all help provide your body with the necessary building blocks to manufacture sleep hormones.
  • High Antioxidant Foods- Also important for hormone production and removal of toxins that can impede sleep. Focus on vegetables, high nutrient fruits, and herbal or green teas (green tea early in the day only).
  • Quality Proteins, especially at dinner: For best sleep, it is better to stop eating at least 4 hours before bedtime, and preferably by 6pm every night. Your evening meal should include proteins, vegetables and healthy fats. Eating enough protein at this meal will help prepare the body to enter the sleep cycle.

Avoid:

  • Sugars: Sugars and carbohydrates, especially at night, can cause a blood sugar spike and crash that will lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. Many people crave carbohydrates (chocolate, anyone?) in the evening, which is a sign of an underlying hormone problem to begin with but eating carbohydrates late at night can cause problems falling asleep or lead to waking in the middle of the night when blood sugar levels drop.
  • Grains- I’ve written before about the negative effect grains can have on health, and if you have an intolerance to grains, this can cause physical stress in your body, which alters the hormone cycle and can impede sleep.
  • Vegetable Oils- No one should ever eat them anyway, but I have a theory that just as these artificial fats can cause problems in new skin formation (skin cancer) they can cause problems in the hormone cycle, as hormones need (saturated) fats for production and giving the body the wrong building blocks for hormones can wreak havoc with hormone production.

-Supplements for Sleep

Sadly, it is often difficult to get enough nutrients from foods as our soil is depleted and foods are picked before ripe so they can be shipped around the world. Especially if you struggle from a health challenge or sleep problem, it is often helpful to supplement some key nutrients, at least in the short term, as you build your body back up.

  • Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend  (also great for remineralizing teeth)-I have personally noticed a difference in my sleep quality since adding this to my regimen. I take it in the morning and at night (about 1/2 tsp each time) and don’t sleep as well when I don’t. The presence of fat soluble vitamins A, D and K plus Omega-3s can explain why this particular supplement is great for promoting hormone production and improving sleep. For this reason, it also helps balance other hormones (in cases of infertility, etc) and is great for growing children.
  • A couple tablespoons of coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day can help give the body the building blocks to make sleep hormones
  • Magnesium- Many people are deficient in Magnesium and this particular deficiency can have a big impact on sleep quality. Some people find that just adding a product like Natural Calm about 30 minutes before bedtime can really improve sleep.
  • Gelatin- Many of us eat a disproportionate amount of animal muscle meat compared to bone broths, organ meats and marrow. If you aren’t a fan of consuming liver daily, drinking natural gelatin (from grassfed sources) can help balance your intake. Consumption of only muscle meats, which are higher in stress hormones, can cause problems in the sleep cycle. Personally, I often drink a cup of chamomile or herbal tea with a tablespoon of gelatin dissolved in it each night a couple hours before bed.
  • If you have a solid diet and are already taking the things above, specific sleep related herbs might help your fall asleep. Try my sleep tincture, or some chamomile or catnip to help you relax.

-A Healthy Daily Routine

A daily (and nightly) routine can make a big difference in how easily you fall and stay asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you but here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends to keep your hormone cycle regular.
  • Eat a high protein/high fat snack a few hours before bed (7pm or earlier) or consume a lot at dinner.
  • Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
  • Install F.lux  (it is free) on all computers and devices to reduce blue light and help you sleep better (it is also easier on the eyes!)
  • Drink enough water during the day and stop drinking about 2 hours before bed so you don’t have to wake up to use the bathroom.
  • Take a soothing salt bath about an hour before bed with some relaxing music or a great book.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day (even if you aren’t trying to get your vitamin D). The exposure to the wide-spectrum light during the day boosts serotonin levels, which will help improve melatonin levels at night
  • Avoid artificial light as much as possible after the sun goes down.
  • Pray, meditate or find a way to reduce stress.
  • Give yourself a massage before bed to release stress and help relax (Personally, I love this for home-massage)
  • Stretch before bed to relax muscles.

-Cold Therapy for Improved Sleep

If lack of sleep is really affecting your life and you are willing to try anything to improve it, consider cold therapy (and you might lose some weight too). Popularized lately by Dr. Jack Kruse, this method has been around for a while and if done correctly, it can help you sleep like a rock.

Mark Sisson has written about it before, and some research shows that it could also help with a host of problems like Chronic Fatigue, heart issues, and even possibly cancer/tumors.

From what I’ve read, full immersion in a cool bath (below 60 degrees) is most effective, though even a cold ice back on the front and back of the neck (as suggested by Tim Ferriss) can be helpful for improving sleep and weight loss. I’m still working up to full-body immersion (which I dread) but I’ve noticed a difference from using cold therapy two ways:

  • After dinner, sitting with ice packs on the front and back of my neck for 30 minutes
  • After dinner, dipping my face in a bowl of very cold water (about 50 degrees) and holding underwater for as long as I can, up to 30 seconds. I do this several times and it definitely helps reduce stress/improve sleep. There is a theory that this activates the dive reflex, which helps reduce stress.

The Sleep Environment

Your sleep environment is also extremely important for sleep quality. Artificial light, warm temperatures, sudden noises, and EMFs can all effect sleep quality, but these things are almost always fixable. Again, you’ll have to experiment to figure out what works best for you, but in general, here are some tips:

  • Remove ALL artificial light, including the light on your alarm clock, TV light, phone, etc. I use blackout curtains because we have artificial light outside, and cover my clock light with a towel. Our kids don’t have night lights, and they typically sleep very well.
  • Keep the temperature around 65-68 degrees and always below 70 degrees.
  • Try some white noise like sounds of rain, ocean or our kids’ favorite, Gregorian Chant (though if any of them ever decide to become a cloistered religious, they will have trouble… chant always puts them to sleep!)
  • Trade out your jolting buzzing alarm clock for a gentle sunlight alarm clock that will wake you up much more gently. I don’t know about you, but my dread of the sound of the alarm clock sound always caused me to wake up a few times in the early morning in anticipation of it
  • Try an earthing mat. I am still experimenting with this one, but there is some evidence that sleeping on a grounding mat reduces your exposure to EMFs and improves sleep quality. While I have noticed a big difference on myself, I don’t know how much is mental, so I’m experimenting with having the kids sleep on it without them knowing what it does. The book Earthing explains more of the theory behind this method and I’m working on finding a good source of the mats. According to the book, you can also create the same effect by spending time barefoot outside on dirt, grass or rocks daily for at least 30 minutes (If you garden barefoot in the middle of the day, you’ll get three benefits in one! Exercise, Vitamin D and the negative electrons from the earth)
  • Going to bed before 10pm (or transitioning to this schedule) will also greatly impact your body’s healing ability, as there are supposed to be additional benefits to sleep before midnight.

Additional Info

This is definitely a complex topic and different methods will work for different people. A couple of books that might provide more helpful information are  Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, and  Earthing. Robb Wolf also talks a lot about sleep importance and quality in The Paleo Solution. Though not specifically health-related, the book A Mother’s Rule of Life has been incredibly helpful to me in developing a schedule and routine that actually allow me to get to bed on time.

Do you have trouble sleeping? What is your sleep routine like? Any good tips? Share below!

Reader Comments

  1. laura says

    I *know* how important sleep is and I have a dilemma:  a night-nursing toddler interrupts my sleep all night.  I need my sleep but I don’t think either of us is ready to night wean.  *sigh*

  2. Sleepy Mama :) says

    Wow, thanks!  I am new to your blog, and a lifelong insomniac… even as a child.  Thanks so much for the info as there are many things I’ve never thought about or known about.  I’ve JUST started taking baths with bath salts and supplementing with magnesium.  I also take melatonin, which isn’t ideal but better than ambien!

     I’ve always thought I might have a gluten/dairy intolerence, so maybe I need to do a little experiment with it..  never thought about it being connected to sleep.  And, reading this made me realize it might be the most likely since I’ve had troubble since childhood. I’ve never even heard about taking gelatin or including certain healthy fats.

    The most helpful to me for insomnia has been EXERCISE!  When I ran or power walked a few miles a day, I slept much, much better.  That, and having absolutely no visual or overstimulating media a few hours before bed. 

    THank you, thank you for this post!

  3. says

    I found it incredibly helpful to learn that for most of human history, people would wake up for an hour or two in the middle of the night.  (This article gives a good overview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16964783)  So it’s actually more biologically ‘normal’ to wake in the middle of the night, than to sleep a solid 8 hours.  Helps me not stress out so much if I’m lying awake at 2 am and see it as an opportunity to meditate without interruption!

  4. Cecilia Capehart says

    Great post; I’ll bet many mothers of babies/toddlers use the time before bed to use the computer because the kids are asleep.  This post is a reminder to avoid that at night.  One thing I’d add- sleep supplements aren’t a  good idea but there are some cases where they may be less harmful and to a certain degree ‘necessary.’  Many children who have an autism spectrum disorder do not produce melatonin at the right times of day and hence can take hours to fall asleep, be up for lengthy times in the middle of the night and arise very early.  For these children I don’t think melatonin supplementation is as unadvisable since you are providing their body with something it’s not able to make correctly.   Just wanted to add that in case you have other readers (I’ve got a daughter with high functioning autism) who have poorly sleeping asd kids and might be hesitant to use melatonin.

  5. Tamara Thiersmann says

    Great tips and hints; my biggest struggle right now is with my job. I work 4-5 night shifts a week and have a family and want to have time in the kitchen, outside in the sun, to run errands and just veg out…my sleep schedule ends up being very erratic! I just switched over to the Traditional diet outlined by the WAPF and Sally Fallon; actually have been doing it for 2 months now with some leaps and some setbacks; I have lost 15 pounds (my satiety and cravings are pretty much managed) but I have also found I get dizzy when I stand up too fast or stretch too deeply (a real bummer as the reason I switched my diet was to get away from the hypoglycemic-esque dizzy spells I had when I didnt eat every few hours)! I cut out caffeine and it seems to be helping…but the progress is very slows so I wonder if there is another problem; I feel like my crumby sleep schedule is the missing piece to fixing this issue (as well as my digestive issues) but I don’t know how to get around this damned shift work! Do you have any suggestions? Thanks! :)

    • Kristie says

      Sometimes dizzyness when getting up is a sign of adrenal fatigue, which can be caused by a variety of things.  (heavy metal problems or chronic low grade infection).  Sometimes just resting with your eyes closed is helpful even if you aren’t sleeping.  Also, Certain supplements and lifestyle changes can help alot!  Also, Joyce Meyer helps me alot!  She has been a Christian for a long time, and been through about everything you can imagine!  I hope you start feeling better very soon!

  6. says

    I struggle with where I live, actually. The sun doesn’t go down until about 10:30 pm here in Norway, and both me and my 4yo are sensitive to that light. This week, she hasn’t been able to sleep before around 10, and I can’t seem to drag my hiney into bed before well after midnight. I’m usually exhausted during the summer, spending the day trying to get energized, without succeeding before it’s nearly time to go to bed again, desperately longing for October when I start feeling more rested.

    We really need to work on the curtain thing, not only on our bedrooms, but also in the living room, I guess. And I’ve just installed f.lux (thank you for that tip!), as my screens probably aren’t helping much either. :)

  7. says

    Great post! I have one question though… what is the basis to this temperature you suggest? Living in a tropical place (Brazil), I feel way more comfortable at around 80. If it’s bellow 70, I have to put on a lot of clothes and a “serious” blanket. And yet it’s hard to feel comfortable, because it annoys me to breath the “cold” air.

  8. kyla says

    I have back pain that only allows me to sleep 4-5 hours before I can’t stand the pain anymore, any suggestions, I have seen a chiropractor, bought a new bed etc….

  9. says

    f.lux.. just downloaded it. I can already feel a difference just looking at the screen. Time to start trying some of your other suggestions. I’ve been a serious insomniac the last few years. I just had surgery to reduce the pain which use to keep me up, but I can’t seem to stay rested any more. Hopefully this will help!

  10. Amber Manzo says

    I don’t have trouble sleeping but my twins do which means I end up awake putting them back to sleep. I’ve tried co sleeping but a queen bed with two 17 month olds just doesn’t work . I’ll have to night wean to get more sleep … any herbal teas that will make them not want to nurse at night?

  11. sarah says

    I have a question regarding the artificial light… we got rid of all the artificial light in our rooms at night several months ago with no problems, but I have a 4 year old who has recently started getting night terrors. Every night we have to keep her night light on to get her to go to sleep (and it’s a struggle even with the night light- she cries and says she is scared of the dark) and then we turn it off when she goes to sleep but then she wakes up several times in the middle of the night screaming that she is scared so we have to turn it back on or else none of us get any sleep. Do you have any suggestions? I really don’t want to expose her to the artificial light but it seems that is the only way she will sleep. Are there any options for natural light night lights?

  12. Katie Flynn says

    i purchased the sunrise alarm clock about 2 years ago. Huge Difference!!! on days off i used to sleep through my alarm. on work days i would jump awake, not in a good way (530am ugh!) now with this alarm it is so much easier to get up. wish i got one a long time ago!

  13. Kathryn says

    How do you adjust your kids to sleeping in the dark? We have ours only on the weekends and I can’t control the environment at their mothers house, but our 8 year old will have crying fits if her FOUR night lights aren’t on, the hallway light must be on (its on a dimmer though so its at the lowest setting) and she would live to have the kitchen light on as well. Her bedroom looks into the kitchen where there is a window above the sink which she says scares her to see out of. I’ve offered to move her bed, but she wants to be able to see out the door. I’m at a total loss because I know that the lights being on us disruptive to her sleep, but I don’t know how to find a compromise… And if I waited until she was asleep to turn all lights off, she wakes in the middle of the night and would absolutely have a meltdown… Can you offer any advice?

    • says

      I’d at least make sure there is no blue light (alarm clock, fluorescent bulb, etc and get as soft of a yellow night light as possible… maybe one with a dimmer switch?

  14. Cathy says

    Katie, I love all your suggestions but as an Acupuncturist and herbalist I find that for some folks they still have trouble turning off their mind when they are trying to stay asleep. Like many I fall asleep easily from a long day but sometimes wake up in the middle of the night. There is nothing worse it seems than spending hours ruminating over … well, just about anything under the sun. What works for me in this scenario is a Traditional Chinese herbal formula that has been used for over 800 years. I now always keep a packet of iSleep Herb Pack next to my bed just in case. It’s safe to take every night, although I rarely do. It stops the over-thinking mind and there are no side effects taking it in the middle of the night. I still wake up alert and ready for my day. Thanks for all your sleep suggestions! It seems sleep, as we get older is just not as easy as it was when we were kids.

  15. Diana Holbrook says

    This came at a perfect time. My college daughter is suffering from insomnia and the dr. just put her on an antidepressant. While it’s helping, it’s also a problem waking up in the morning. I don’t want her to grow dependent on antidepressants (and neither does she). I tweeted this article for her and she loves it! Thank you!

  16. kezia hall says

    Brilliant info – I have always slept well but recently wanted to get into a better routine and make it a priority – I will point my readers in your direction! Thank you

  17. Stacey Judith says

    I’m never able to sleep at night.. I always end up staying awake the whole night, sleeping at 4 or 5 am and waking up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon.. I’ve tried putting myself to sleep at 10pm or around that time but always end up waking up between 2-4am.. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing case when I do sleep during the day I sleep well and am very rested but I miss out on all the sunlight.. I’ve always had a problem with sleep even as a teenager but since I have hormonal imbalance problems I’m trying to find a better sleep pattern for myself.. I already do a majority of the things suggested but it’s just that I think my body feels so much more happier and restes when I sleep in the early mornings as opposed to conventional sleeping times..

  18. Lauren Baldwin says

    I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the Himalayan Rock salt lamps? I have a few for air purifying and relaxation effects, but I believe the light has to be on for it to work, so there is some artificial light when I sleep. Thoughts?

  19. Priscilla says

    In reference to your cold therapy bit…

    http://news.jobbook.com/2013/03/12-fabulous-reasons-to-take-cold-showers/

    I’ve been taking cold showers 2-3x daily for about two weeks…I feel like a different person! My energy is higher and I’m more motivated. I feel like a new person every time I get out of the shower plus it always feels like I’ve accomplished something. In the morning I take only cold and at night I switch up between cold and really hot then finish with cold…if I’m lucky I get a cold one in midday too…Mmm love it

  20. Paula McKinney says

    Love your blog! So much great information! I’m a dental hygienist and thought I would mention the use of nightguards. I speak to patients daily who have obvious signs of wear on their teeth. When I ask if they sleep well, the answer is almost 100% no! Night grinding and clenching can wake you from a good sleep. Wearing a custom nightguard (made at your dentist’s office) can solve that problem. I wear one every night and it makes a big difference in my sleep!!

  21. LysiJoy says

    Please help! My cousin’s 18-mo old baby girl is having a lot of trouble sleeping, which means so does Mommy, and she’s 7 mos. pregnant so she needs extra rest. Which she’s not getting so she’s always exhausted. Daddy helps a lot, taking care of Baby when she wakes at night, but she’s apparently very loud so Mommy can’t sleep. I’m concerned about the effect this is having on her health, since she’s also still working for the next 2 months and then Baby #2 will be here!

    I just found your sweet dreams tincture recipe but she needs help much sooner than that would be ready. I do have a chamomile tincture and a lavender tincture, and magnesium flakes so I could make some oil. Is there anything else you or anyone could recommend to help Baby sleep? Thanks so much! :)

    • Sylvia says

      I’m reading this several mos. later so this may not be helpful at this time.

      I recommend Mack’s earplugs, sold at Walgreens. They will block out at least 50% of noise.
      They are like a pliable wax that you stretch out over the opening to your inner ear.
      Does not go into the ear hole, so please read instructions very CAREFULLY.

  22. AJ Perez says

    I used to be able to get to sleep with little problems, until I got my pet mice and rats. I love them to death, but they are constantly running on their exercise wheels while I’m trying to get to sleep (even the supposed ‘silent’ wheels, make a lot of noise). Of course all that noise sets off my dog into a barking/growling frenzy. Any advice on ways to reduce noise distractions? I really don’t have the option to move the animals to another room.

  23. Melissa says

    I work 3 nights a week and the have trouble sleeping the other nights. I often use melatonin in my herbal tea at night and have been wondering if it is such a good idea. What is so bad about melatonin? I will make your remedy and use it. Thanks!

  24. sarah says

    Hi ive also been put on amitriptyline antidepresents for chronic insomina not helping much going to try these tips thankyou. Has anyone else got any more suggestions as iam really struggling at the moment ?? Due to lack of sleep my bodys gone down hill immune system and muschels ache and seem to have a temp at night. Any advice would be very grateful please xxx

  25. Deb says

    Hi my name is Deb and i’m Menopausal! Have found your your advice very good and have started to put into practice a few things already. If you have anything for menopause specifically please; 10 yrs and still hot flashing and taking a sleeping after many herbs vitamins you name it! Thanks so much!

    Deb

  26. Jake says

    For how long can you change your habits ? The only thing that can be permanently changed right away is your mattress , just buy something like that and you’re all set ( any of those 8 inch mattresses is good , I’ve bought this one cause it’s Amazon #1 top rated and 1100 reviews of 5 stars can’t be wrong – and my review is one of those 5 stars ;) ) …

    Hope I saved your night :)

  27. Tammi says

    Hey Katie! I’ve decided to finally sort my lifestyle out and have been going through every single article! You’re amazing!
    The only issue I have is I work long hours in a bar, which also means a lot of the time I don’t get in until at least 3am and then I’m back up again at 8/9am. I’m usually really hungry when I get in from work, so need to eat (something very easy and quick as I’m so tired), then all I want to do is go straight to sleep, so I get as much rest as possible.
    The problems I have are needing food to fill me up that won’t keep me awake, and also getting to get my brain to shut off. No matter how tired my body feels, my brain is wide awake! Any advice? xo

    • says

      That is really tough… any kind of late night or shift work definitely makes it more difficult. Maybe try a sleep induction mat to help you get to sleep more quickly and consume some source of healthy fats and protein (and maybe incorporate gelatin in some way as it promotes sleep). Soup is a great option that you can make ahead of time and drink on the way to bed.

  28. Kate Richardson says

    Have any of you used the SleepCycle app in the itunes app store? It is amazing. It is very fun to see how many hours of sleep you actually get…. very motivating too!

  29. Jessica says

    Do you know of a non-toxic blackout curtain? The research I am doing is showing that the blackout liner is treated with chemical flame retardants. Thanks!

  30. Samantha says

    Being a teenager with an overactive mind, sleep eludes me more often than not. I never agreed with the idea of sleeping pills, I try to use natural remedies. Chamomile tea with honey work for sometime, but even that started to wear off. I went through a two-three week period with no sleep at all, I even blacked out a few times during the day. The third week I decided to spend all the extra time awake to do extensive research on insomnia. In my research I stumbled upon valerian root. I discovered that valerian root slows down the pace of the mind, meaning that instead of me having racing thoughts all night my brain could relax. I bought some valerian root and started with one capsule and for the first night in weeks I sleet. I would keep valerian root by my bed, so if I had a night where I couldn’t I would take 1-3 (3 being the recommended number to take). I would highly recommend this herb for trouble sleeping(beware though, the name means “to be strong” in reference to its smell).

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