Natural Sleep Aids

Sleep deprivation is a public health epidemic that has been recognized by the CDC. Around 48% of adults in the USA report having trouble sleeping on an occasional basis. And experts suggest 22% of adults deal with this issue almost every night. This is an issue that affects nearly half of the population in the USA. And what’s worse, sleep deprivation can cause serious damage to your health if left untreated.

But before we talk about how to treat bad sleep, we need to discuss what causes it. After all, treating the symptom will not help you get rid of the underlying problem.

Possible causes of poor sleep

There are a number of reasons why you’re unable to fall or stay asleep at night. Some of these issues can be helped with a few changes to your lifestyle, whereas others might need some serious medical attention. Let’s have a look at the most common examples.

Stress

Stress can have a huge impact on your sleep quality. It’s the most common cause of sleep deprivation. The American Psychological Association’s study found that on average up to 43% of adults report having trouble sleeping due to stress. This, in turn, usually causes even more stress and can get you stuck in a “stress-sleep” cycle. 

The stress-sleep cycle is vicious and can be tough to break—the best way to tackle it is to start managing your stress levels, especially before bedtime. Practicing relaxation techniques, limiting electronics, and eliminating caffeine is a good start. 

Jet lag

Jet lag is a common issue impacting people who travel often or far. Changes in time zones cause your body clock to “lose track” of time, throwing off your internal systems. Your body clock is called the circadian rhythm, which as NIH explains, mainly regulates our sleep patterns. 

Your circadian rhythm is influenced by natural factors. Our environment (such as light and darkness) is just one influencer. A disrupted circadian rhythm can cause not only sleep deprivation, but also hormonal imbalance and digestion issues—that’s what makes jet lag a very nasty thing to deal with. And while you can take steps to make the transition a little smoother, there’s not much you can do to avoid it completely.

Unbalanced hormones and minerals 

Sometimes an imbalance of certain hormones and minerals can cause trouble sleeping. For example, melatonin (also known as the sleep hormone) encourages relaxation as evening time approaches. It lowers your body temperature when you’re getting ready to sleep and signals the body that it’s time to rest. 

Lack of melatonin in the body can make it difficult to relax. Your body might have trouble understanding that it’s rest time and just keep actively functioning as it did during the day. This, in turn, would make it hard to fall asleep and wake up. 

Another example is a lack of magnesium. According to NCBI, magnesium helps to regulate our circadian rhythm mentioned above. A lack of magnesium can throw your circadian rhythm off, confusing your body about when it should be sleeping and when it should be awake. 

Underlying medical conditions that can cause sleeplessness

Sometimes your inability to fall or stay asleep can be caused by a more serious issue. There are many underlying conditions that can disrupt your sleeping pattern as a side effect. These underlying conditions can be separated into four groups—sleeping disorders, chronic physical disorders, mental disorders, and neurological disorders.

Some of them might not react to natural sleeping aids and may require prescription sleep medication. But it’s always good to give natural remedies a try first.

Sleeping disorders

The most common sleep disorder is insomnia. It stops you from falling asleep and/or staying asleep no matter how tired you are. As NIH explains, insomnia can last from a few nights (acute) to years (chronic). Without proper treatment, it can seriously affect your quality of life. 

Another sleep disorder that’s fairly common is sleep apnea. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, this condition causes you to involuntarily stop breathing when you sleep. This might last for a minute or longer and can happen more than a hundred times a night. There are three types of sleep apnea—obstructive, central and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is caused by a blockage in your airways. Central sleep apnea is caused by your brain failing to send a signal to your muscles telling them to inhale. And mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the two. 

Perhaps a little less common but still known is Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). This condition causes a weird and tingly sensation in your legs, urging you to move them. And if you’re busy moving your legs around through the night, you’re obviously not sleeping. 

Chronic physical disorders

Chronic physical disorders like heartburn or nocturia (the frequent urge to urinate) can keep you awake night after night. They may not be directly related to your sleep deprivation, but rather keep you awake as a side effect. 

The same goes for conditions that cause chronic pain. Medically they may not be related to your sleep problems, but constant pain can definitely disrupt your sleep schedule.

Mental disorders

Mental disorders can have a huge effect on your sleep. Chronic insomnia is a very common side effect of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, ADHD and some others. The Harvard Medical School estimates 65 to 90% of adults with major depression experience some sort of trouble sleeping. And over 50% of those with generalized anxiety disorder have trouble falling and staying asleep. 

What’s more, a lack of sleep can worsen the effects of mental disorders. It’s a vicious cycle that may require medical advice to get out of. 

Neurological disorders

Neurological disorders such as dementia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and others can affect your sleeping pattern majorly. For example, the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry did a study where they found a link between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) behavioral disorder and Parkinson’s disease. 

A similar study was done with kids who have epilepsy. In his e-journal Neuropediatrics, Bernhard Schmitt explains that in certain epilepsy syndromes, seizures occur only in sleep and awakening. The study found that sometimes these seizures can be completely missed as they resemble parasomnia. However, the machines measuring brain waves showed clear results it was epilepsy.

Negative effects of bad sleep

Being tired and grumpy is not the only effect of a lack of sleep. Serious underlying disorders aside, studies have shown the effects on your health can still be massive. 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine split these effects into three categories.

Sleep deprivation effects on the mood

Not enough sleep has an effect on your mood. You become more irritable and lack motivation. Symptoms of sleep deprivation can also mirror those of anxiety (high stress levels, fatigue, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating). Similarly, it can also mimic the symptoms of depression (pessimism and helplessness, loss of interest in things, digestive problems, and reckless behavior). 

Sleep deprivation effects on performance

Same as with the mood, lack of quality rest can have an effect on your daily performance. Here are the main ones AASM mentions:

  • Lack of concentration
  • Attention deficits
  • Reduced vigilance
  • Longer reaction times
  • Distractibility
  • Lack of energy
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Poor decisions
  • Increased errors
  • Forgetfulness

This can make everyday tasks, such as driving and performing well at work, very difficult. In the long run, these effects can lower your overall quality of life, leading to mental and/or physical health issues.

Sleep deprivation effects on health

Long-term sleep issues can seriously affect your physical health. Various studies have shown a connection between sleep deprivation and these health problems:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • High blood pressure

NCBI explains that lack of sleep can also have a negative effect on your immune system; this can then lead to a number of illnesses that your body is simply too tired to fight.

Natural sleep aids

As you can see, sleep deprivation is a serious problem. It can cause significant mental and physical health issues. Good night’s sleep is crucial for a productive and healthy life. And sleeping pills don’t always have to be the answer.

Please note: Some serious underlying disorders require medical attention and prescription sleep medications. In this article, we only talk about natural sleep aids that can assist you in falling asleep. However, most of the natural sleep aids can also interact with certain medications and conditions. It’s advisable to always consult your physician before taking any of the sleep supplements mentioned below. 

Valerian 

Valerian is one of the herbal supplements native to Europe and certain parts of Asia. Studies show that valerian root shows improvement in sleep for those who usually have issues falling and/or staying asleep. It also seems to have a natural calming effect. This makes it suitable for other stress-related illnesses, like anxiety and depressive disorder.

Valerian can also be bought over the counter or online. Its long-term usage effects have not been recorded officially. But short-term use of valerian is safe for children and adults. 

Valerian could have possible side effects including:

  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Mental dullness
  • Heart disturbances
  • Sluggishness

However, it’s important not to take valerian if you’ve taken any other sedatives. Other medications can react to valerian in your system and make you extra drowsy and sleepy. 

Magnesium supplements

Magnesium is an essential mineral for our bodies. It’s needed for proper muscle, nerve, and enzyme function. Magnesium is involved with over 300 chemical reactions within our bodies. One of those is the production of melatonin (mentioned above). 

As Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. explains, healthy levels of magnesium encourage deep, restorative sleep. It’s believed that it not only helps with insomnia but with the Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) as well.

Magnesium supplements can be bought over the counter and online. However, they are found to have an effect on certain medications. So if you are taking any of the medications mentioned below, you should consult with your physician first.

Medications that interact with magnesium supplements:

  • Antacids
  • Antibiotics
  • Anticoagulant medications
  • Biphosphonates (medications that treat bone density)
  • Digoxin, a medication that treats heart failure and atrial fibrillation
  • Gabapentin, an anti-convulsant and anti-seizure medication
  • Medications for diabetes
  • Medications for high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Water pills

Overall, the effects of magnesium overdose can be pretty serious. You should always do a blood test to see if you have a deficiency of magnesium before taking this supplement to improve your sleep.

Lavender

Lavender is a mild sedative that can be a great first option of natural sleeping aids to try. There have been studies that prove lavender’s effects on our sleep. One of them was done by NCBI on 31 young adults, which proves that exposure to the lavender essential oil before bedtime provides a deeper and better quality slow-wave sleep (SWS). It can also increase stage 2 sleep (light sleep) and decrease REM sleep. 

Lavender essential oil can be bought in most organic shops and online. It’s one of the most popular essential oils on the market so purchasing it is relatively easy. Lavender essential oil is also very potent, so it’s advised not to use it on children or women who are pregnant or are breast-feeding. 

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. warns that lavender oil can potentially interact with these medications:

  • Anti-hypertensive drugs
  • Chloral hydrate
  • Pentobarbital
  • Sedative medications

This is because most of these medicines either lower your blood pressure or can act as mild sedatives. Their effect added to that of lavender can make you too sleepy and drowsy. 

But whether you’re taking any of the medications listed above or not, it’s best to always talk to your physician first before starting to use lavender essential oil.

Glycine

Glycine is an amino acid that encourages growth and the production of various hormones and enzymes. It is also known for offering a calming effect on your brain, which can improve your overall sleep habits.

The Japanese Society of Sleep Research did a study that proved glycine’s positive effects on sleep. They found that a small (3 g) ingestion of glycine just before bedtime lowered daytime sleepiness. It also significantly improved the subjective quality of sleep and shortened its latency at night time.   

There is no proof of glycine supplements interacting with other medications, except for Clozaril (clozapine). The effects of this medication (which is used to treat Schizophrenia) might be decreased by glycine. So if you’re taking any form of Clozapine, you must consult with your doctors first.

Glycine supplements can come in the form of powder and pills. They’re easily acquirable over the counter and online. However, not enough is known on glycine supplement effects on pregnant and breastfeeding women. If you find yourself in this category, you should take the safe road and avoid taking it.

Other practices that can improve sleep

Alongside natural sleep aids, we encourage other practices that can help you get better rest at night. Some of these small changes to your daily routine can help your body find natural ways to better sleep. 

Limited exposure to bright light

As discussed above, a balanced circadian rhythm is crucial for good sleep. Luckily, there are steps we can take to help our bodies get there. 

NCBI’s study found that exposure to bright light, such as sunlight or even artificial bright lighting at day time, improves our sleep at night time. The effect of “daylight” sends a signal through our nervous system. This signal encourages hormones to produce energy for our bodies. And that allows our bodies to understand better when they should be active. In other words, when it is “daytime” and we need to be awake and aware. 

This, in turn, encourages our bodies to relax quicker once that light is gone. Our Circadian Rhythm gets the message that “daytime” is over. It automatically rewires our hormones and allows us to fall asleep faster.

Avoiding blue light 

Blue light is most commonly found on the screens of our electronics, such as phones and tablets. This blue light automatically affects the melatonin levels in our bodies, tricking them into thinking it’s still daytime. 

Now if your body still thinks it’s daytime when it’s already late, your circadian rhythm gets thrown off balance. And this inevitably affects your rest, taking you longer to fall and stay asleep. 

The best way to tackle this issue is to download an app that filters blue light from your electronic devices at night. Or better yet, avoid electronics before bedtime in general; this will not only get rid of the blue light issue but help your brain wind down quicker too.

Avoid caffeine

Caffeine can kick start our days helping us feel awake faster. It is a nervous system stimulant and that makes our brains work faster and more efficiently. As great as it is for the mornings, this effect is awful at night when you’re trying to fall asleep.

A study found that the effects of caffeine can last for up to six hours. This means that you should stop drinking coffee and other caffeinated drinks at least six hours before bedtime to sleep better.

Change your bedroom environment

Last, but certainly not least, you should make sure that your bedroom environment is sleep-friendly. You’ll want your bedroom to be quiet and dark, free of blue light, and a comfortable temperature. And most importantly, make sure you have a good mattress that’s suitable for your sleeping position and body type. 

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

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