The human body restores and resets itself through sleep, and lack of it can affect our health and impair our ability to function well. Unfortunately, using prescription sleep medication on a regular basis can create its own problems. In addition to potential side effects, including dizziness, headaches, digestive disturbances and daytime drowsiness, people may also sleepwalk and engage in other dangerous behavior while not fully awake. Most drugs for sleep carry a high risk of physical dependence and can be psychologically addicting as well.
Fortunately, there are drug-free ways to increase your body’s ability to get deep, restorative sleep, including the following:
- Address your stress. A high amount of stress generally means a low amount of sleep, because stress activates the parasympathetic nervous system, putting us in “fight or flight” mode. Our bodies become vigilant, trying to protect us from dangers, and not allowing us to relax enough to sleep well. It’s not always possible to avoid stressful situations, but we can learn to manage stress in healthy ways. Any activity that moves us from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” is helpful.This can include activities such as mindfulness meditation, prayer, breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. Various types of journaling can also be useful. Writing about stressors, or even just listing them, can make them seem more manageable and under control. Focusing on things to be grateful for is also a powerful tool, and sleep has been shown to improve when people regularly take time before bed to write three things in a gratitude journal.1
- Mind your minerals (and other nutrients). A number of nutrient deficiencies have been associated with insomnia. Some of the most common appear to be related to minerals, specifically magnesium. A study of magnesium supplementation found that it improved multiple dimensions of sleep quality, including sleep efficiency, time, onset latency and early wakening.2Other minerals to monitor include selenium, associated with getting to sleep, and potassium, associated with staying asleep. Non–mineral deficiencies connected with insomnia include vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA.3 Improving nutritional status is often as easy as making dietary adjustments. If you choose to use supplements, it’s wise to work with a practitioner who can monitor nutrient levels, because it’s important to keep vitamins and minerals in proper balance and within healthy limits.
- Nurture your nature. Before the advent of electricity, people generally slept when it was dark and woke when the sun came up. Our internal clock, which regulates drowsiness and wakefulness, is triggered by light cues, and light at the wrong time sends confusing signals.For best sleep, experts recommend a completely dark room for sleeping, and exposure to bright light as soon after waking in the morning as possible. The type of light also matters. Blue light, emitted by many electronic devices, interferes with sleep more than other types of light do.
- Promote new patterns. A bedtime ritual can help tell the brain that it’s time to turn off. Experts recommend setting a regular bedtime and creating a nightly routine. This can include things like gentle stretching, a warm bath and relaxing reading from a physical book or an e-reader that doesn’t emit blue light.Daytime patterns and schedules can also affect sleep. Avoiding or limiting caffeine, especially late in the day, is wise. Exercise is beneficial, but some people find that a hard workout too close to bedtime can backfire and interfere with sleep, so experimentation with timing may be necessary.
- Train your brain. One very helpful tool for those who struggle with persistent insomnia is a psychotherapy approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I. Research finds that the effectiveness of CBT-I is equal to or better than the effectiveness of prescription medications like Ambien and Lunesta.4 Generally, CBT-I involves meeting with a therapist once a week for six to eight weeks, with each session lasting about an hour.One of the goals of CBT-I is to learn to associate your bed with sleeping well. The approach involves getting up and doing something else if you haven’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes. Engage in a low key and soothing activity, and when you’re sleepy, return to bed. If another sleepless 20 minutes pass, get up again. CBT-I also involves limiting sleeping and being in bed to certain hours of the day. CBT-I is covered by most health insurance plans.
Many physical health conditions can interfere with sleep. If sleep challenges persist, it’s wise to visit a doctor to rule out or address any possible medical complications. Among the conditions associated with sleep difficulties are heartburn, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea.
1 Dalla-Camina, Megan. “Can’t Sleep? 7 Drug-Free Strategies to Try.” Huffington Post, April 19, 2014.
2 Abbasi, Behnood, et al. “The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, December 17, 2012.
3 “Higher levels of omega-3 in diet are associated with better sleep, study shows.” Science Daily, March 6, 2014.
4 Corliss, Julie. “Cognitive behavioral therapy offers a drug-free method for managing insomnia.” Harvard Health, June 10, 2015.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.