We all know that getting enough sleep is crucial to our health, but many of us don’t get as much sleep as we should thanks to stress, overstimulation from everyday life, and worries that go around and around in our minds just as our heads hit the pillow.
But we need to get a grip on our sleep issues—before they trigger health problems ranging from colds and flu to heart disease and even cancer. “Sleep is necessary, but people don’t respect it in the same way they do diet and exercise for better health,” says Jill Creighton, assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Stony Brook University Hospital in Hampton Bays, New York. “Sleep is so incredibly important for our health, both mental and physical. It helps protect against everything from anxiety to obesity and even cancer.”
The Power of Sleep
Why is sleep so powerful? It’s during sleep that our bodies rejuvenate and repair cell damage in everything from our hearts and blood vessels to our muscles and tissues. “Lots of positive things happen during sleep, particularly deep sleep, which occurs within about an hour of falling asleep,” says W. Christopher Winter, Medical Director of Charlottesville Neurology & Sleep Medicine in Charlottesville, Virginia. “So many systems recover during this time.”
Proper sleep helps maintain a healthful balance of hormones—from the hormones that regulate hunger (when we’re sleepier, we eat more) to those that control blood sugar (with less sleep, blood sugar levels rise—as does risk of obesity). It’s also during deep sleep that we secrete growth hormones, used by the body for growth and cell regeneration.
Getting enough sleep is also critical for proper immune function: Get enough shut-eye and we’re better able to fight off infections and illnesses. In fact, in one study in the journal Sleep, those who averaged between seven and eight hours of sleep nightly (the amount recommended) were sick less often.
Sleep is critical for normal brain functioning, too, according to recent research from the University of Oxford. Sleep serves as the “brain’s housekeeper,” helping restore and repair the brain, researchers found. Poor sleep over time causes brain shrinkage and problems with reasoning, planning, memory and problem solving.
So the question remains: how to get a better night’s sleep? Many people reach for sleep medications—both over-the-counter and prescription—so they can function in their busy lives. But these shouldn’t be taken long-term, as they can cause dependency and other health issues (for example, French and Canadian researchers found that long-term use of benzodiazepines such as Klonopin is linked to Alzheimer’s disease).
We talked to sleep experts to come up with these 10 medication-free, happy slumber how-tos:
1. Focus on the moment. “We often don’t live in the present,” says Kristine Gedroic, founder of the Gedroic Center for Integrative Medicine in Morristown, New Jersey. “We’re always someplace else in our minds. We have to put our stuff (electronic gadgets, TV, work, newspapers, etc.) down and learn to be mindful in our everyday lives. This helps the body and mind relax so we can get to sleep.”
Meditation is an effective tool we can use to become more mindful. Aim to do just seven minutes of mind-quieting meditation before bed. Find guided meditations to get you started at Chopra Centered Lifestyle. You can also download Pzizz, a free app for smartphones. It generates guided meditations designed to help you nap efficiently or sleep more deeply. If you find meditation challenging at first, instead try calming breathing exercises before bed. Read 5 Simple Breathing Exercises to discover sample breathing exercises.
2. Create a tea ritual. Many herbal teas can be our allies in finding restful sleep—and the ritual of having a cup of herbal tea at night helps calm the mind and body and prepares the body for sleep. Alvita makes several organic herbal teas perfect for supporting sleep. Try chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower or valerian root.
3. Turn off electronic devices an hour before going to sleep. Any artificial light can confuse the brain—that’s why it’s a good idea to dim or turn off lights at night so the brain understands it’s time to go to sleep. (If you want to read before bed, set aside the e-reader and pick up an old-fashioned book instead; it can help quiet the mind and help us forget real-world worries before sleep.) Creighton points to a University of Colorado study done with campers. Out in the wilderness with no exposure to artificial light, the campers slept better (longer and more soundly) than they did at home.
This advice is particularly important for children: A recent National Sleep Foundation survey found that kids who leave their electronic devices on at night sleep an hour less than kids who shut off their devices.
4. Drink tart cherry juice. Recent research shows that drinking 8 ounces of juice made from Montmorency tart cherries, twice daily, helped subjects get an average of 84 more minutes of sleep per night. Why? Tart cherry juice contains naturally occurring melatonin—a hormone that helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythm and is therefore critical to sleep. (Montmorency cherries have the highest concentration of melatonin of all tart cherries.)
5. Replace your corded clock with a battery-powered one. “All corded devices should be at least six feet away from the bed,” Gedroic says. The reason: All electronic devices emit electric and magnetic fields (commonly called EMFs) that some people believe may interfere with the sensitive electrical impulses in our own bodies.
When Rodika Tchi, an internationally renowned feng shui expert based in Vancouver, British Columbia, makes over a bedroom, she removes corded and electronic devices, and replaces electronic clocks with battery-operated ones (which emit lower frequencies of energy). “We need nourishing, cocooning energy in the bedroom that will help our bodies regenerate when we sleep,” Tchi says.
“I’ve found that any kind of electronic devices, including wireless baby monitors, in the bedroom can interfere with truly restful sleep.”
6. Create a sleep schedule—and stick to it. “We set bedtimes with children, but forget to do it as adults. Everyone—kids and adults alike—needs to have a predictable routine for sleep,” Creighton says. A consistent sleep schedule keeps our circadian rhythms functioning properly; this internal clock drives the release of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Winter is also an advocate of setting a regular wake time—during the week and on the weekends. “The brain works very well on a schedule,” Winter says. “If your body is waking every morning at the same time, you’ll feel more awake, have more energy and be in a better mood. Plus, you’ll be able to get to sleep better at night.”
7. Eat that turkey. Hungry after dinner? Opt for protein snacks, which contain tryptophan—a natural precursor of melatonin. A few slices of turkey breast or a glass of warm milk are good options, Creighton says. But don’t eat too much and definitely avoid sugar before bed; both can interfere with the body’s digestion and keep us awake.
8. Try journaling. Writing in a gratitude journal before bed may help improve your sleep, according to several studies. In one study, participants who listed items for which they were grateful before bed reported longer, more refreshing sleep. In another study, grateful thoughts at bedtime were associated with dozing off faster and sleeping longer. Reinforcing positive thoughts throughout the day, but especially at bedtime, seems to correlate with better sleep.
9. Get some air. Being outdoors exposes us to natural light, which our bodies use to manufacture vitamin D (a hormone that’s essential to immune function and helps protect against daytime drowsiness). “Go for a walk, exercise during the bright light of the day—not before bed,” Creighton says. “Doing so helps regulate your circadian rhythm.”
10. Make sure your bedroom is cool. “The cooler it is, the better you’ll sleep,” Winter says. “The mid- to lower 60s is ideal.”
Bottom line: “Sleeping well is a skill. Practice good sleep habits—and then don’t think too much about it. Your sleep may not be ‘perfect’, but in the end, what you’re getting will be right for your body,” Winter says.
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Design Your Bedroom for Better Sleep
It’s not just what we do during the day, or at night, that can help us get sounder zzzs. Practitioners of feng shui— the ancient Chinese philosophy of arranging our spaces for better health and fortunes—believe the arrangement of our bedrooms matters, too. International feng shui experts Anita Rosenberg and Rodika Tchi gave us these tips, below.
Clear the clutter. “Excess stuff is a sign of insecurity and fear,” Tchi says. Get rid of the clutter in your closets, by your bed, and most importantly under your bed.
Use paints with soft, neutral tones, from soft white to chocolate brown. These colors can help us relax, Rosenberg says. She suggests bringing in other colors—including fire reds, pinks and corals—as accents such as pillows, bedding, candles, artwork and other subtle elements.
Limit the plants. One is fine, but more than that can interfere with the peaceful energy you want in the bedroom. According to feng shui, “too many plants symbolize growth and movement—which can interfere with sleep,” Tchi says.
Don’t place chandeliers or ceiling fans above the bed. “You don’t want anything hanging over your head while you sleep; this represents a threat to you, which can disturb sleep,” Rosenberg says.