“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.” —JoJo Jensen
You can add hungry, fat, slow, dumb, mean, angry, sick, and eventually dead to the list of the effects of lack of sleep. It’s true; you’d die of sleep deprivation before you’d die of starvation!
With 30 percent of Americans suffering from clinical insomnia and 83 percent struggling with sleep, it looks as though we can all use some strategies to improve sleep. First, though, it’s important to ask, why does sleep have such a profound effect on our lives?
Sleep is a vital part of our homeostasis or circadian rhythm, which influences the ability of glands and cells in our bodies to produce hormones and neurotransmitters so that our bodies work smoothly. When we don’t sleep, the rhythm is altered, hormones get out of whack, inflammation builds up, our bodies can’t use the food we eat as effectively, and it’s a downward spiral until we get the dream time we need.
Hormonal levels, blood pressure, body temperature and gene activity are all negatively altered by lack of sleep. This means that sleep deprivation will alter glucose control, impair metabolism, elevate cortisol, lead to overall hormonal imbalances (such as lower testosterone in men), delay recovery from exercise, stunt protein synthesis that leads to muscle gains, decrease speed and power on the athletic field, and diminish reaction time and cognitive ability.
Ultimately, sleep deprivation dramatically impairs performance and well being. Fortunately, there are a number of lesser known solutions to sleeplessness, some of which have been tested on athletes and everyday folks. Here are ten completely practical tips for better sleep.
#1: Eat More Protein During the Day & Select Carbs at Night
Improving your diet is your first priority if you want to sleep well. Research shows that sleep, wakefulness and energy levels are regulated by chemical transmitter pathways in the brain, and we can control those pathways with what we eat. You’ll see that many of the foods and nutrients on this list target those sleep-related pathways in the brain.
At the most basic level, eating carbohydrates activates the orexin pathway, which makes us feel sleepy. Scientists have even developed a drug that directly targets the orexin pathway, and this drug is being prescribed as a sleep aid.
When we eat protein, the amino acids will block the orexin pathway, making us alert. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that eating a high-protein diet will cause trouble sleeping. In a recent study, high-protein diets allowed people to sleep better and wake up less frequently during the night compared to high-carb diets. Higher carbohydrate diets allowed subjects to go to sleep much faster after turning off the light, but they were more wakeful during their sleep.
Dietary Tip: Researchers suggest that eating a high-protein diet is ideal for achieving overall better sleep, but eating a meal of carbohydrates in the evening can help you go to sleep quickly. Varied effects on sleep have come from higher and lower sugar carbs. Some studies show high-glycemic carbs shorten sleep onset but may negatively affect sleep quality. A smart move is to opt for whole-food carbs rather than anything baked or processed, such as cookies, cake or ice cream.
#2: Vitamin D3
Taking vitamin D3 to maintain optimal blood levels of D3 year-round is a good place to start to get better sleep. A recent study from the University of Texas found that people need a vitamin D3 blood level between 60 and 80 ng/ml to get the best sleep.
The two-year study gave 1,500 subjects with extreme vitamin D3 deficiency who also suffered insomnia and headaches a high-dose D3 supplement of 20,000 IU a day. The subjects’ insomnia and headaches immediately began to go away. At the point where the group’s vitamin D3 level improved to between 60 and 80 ng/ml, normal sleep was almost completely restored.
In addition, researchers observed that when vitamin D3 blood levels dropped below 50 ng/ml or went over 80 ng/ml, sleep difficulties were reported. Also, supplementing with another form of vitamin D, called vitamin D2, prevented normal sleep in most patients. Avoid this form in favor of the D3 form of the vitamin.
Why D3 Works: The part of the brain responsible for sleep has a large concentration of vitamin D3 receptors, and the entire sleep-wake cycle is disrupted if the receptors are deficient. Vitamin D3 also influences many other hormonal processes in the body that affect body rhythms, including reproduction, metabolism, digestion and cardiovascular health, all of which influence fatigue and sleep regulation.
Supplement Tip: Get your vitamin D3 blood level tested when you get a physical, and supplement to raise your level above 60 ng/ml. This will probably require a daily dose of at least 4,000 IU.
#3: Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is extremely delicious – don’t worry, it’s not sour – and studies show it can significantly enhance sleep quality in addition to reducing inflammation and accelerating recovery from exercise.
For example, a study from the UK found that giving tart cherry juice to 20 healthy young volunteers for seven days significantly improved sleep quality and duration in healthy young men and women. A second study with a similar design found that older people with mild insomnia had similar improvements in sleep quality and duration from drinking cherry juice.
Why Tart Cherries Work: Tart cherries contain high levels of phytochemicals that raise melatonin, a hormone in the body that induces sleep and aids in the regulation of the body’s rhythms. Melatonin can directly influence your body’s core temperature as well as the sleep-wake cycle, making optimal levels at nighttime critical for sleep. Researchers suggest that along with raising melatonin, tart cherries reduce inflammatory markers that inhibit sleep and body regulation.
Dietary Tip: Tart cherry juice provides the perfect dietary alternative to supplementing with melatonin. Choose a pure tart cherry juice without sugar or other juices blended in. The best quality, highly concentrated form is available as a supplement online or at natural foods stores such as Whole Foods.
Take the amino acid taurine to improve sleep. It’s a superior nutrient if you suffer from anxiety and running thoughts that keep you awake. Research suggests that taurine can enhance sleep, and in animal studies it decreases physical activity, indicating a calming effect on the body.
Taurine is only available from seafood, red meat, and eggs – but unless you eat these foods at every meal, you probably won’t get enough taurine. Plus, taurine is easily depleted with stress or intense exercise, so athletes and committed trainees need extra. Vegetarians are at high risk of taurine deficiency.
Why Taurine Works: It raises the chemical transmitter GABA, which has a calming effect on the nervous system. Taurine can lower anxiety and the production of stress hormones that hinder rest.
You may be familiar with taurine because it is in energy drinks such as Red Bull. At first glance this seems utterly senseless because by elevating GABA, taurine decreases energy levels and inhibits neuronal firing. However, research shows that when taurine and caffeine are combined, a low or equal ratio of taurine to caffeine will inhibit sleep, whereas a high ratio (a lot of taurine and little caffeine) will enhance sleep more than when taurine is taken alone.
Supplement Tip: Should you try taking a high-taurine-to-caffeine dose to improve sleep? It’s not recommended. There’s evidence of physiological problems from the combination, including altered heart rate, dysregulated blood pressure and who knows what else. Instead, try taking 2 to 3 grams of taurine before bedtime.
Magnesium calms the nervous system and fights inflammation, high levels of which cause poor sleep. A recent study of people with poor sleep as measured by a sleep quality index found that taking a magnesium supplement improved sleep quality by 60 percent and also decreased inflammatory stress markers.
The researchers emphasize that humans are not consuming enough magnesium in their diets presently – 58 percent of the people in this study had magnesium deficiency, clearly contributing to poor sleep.
Why Magnesium Works: Magnesium decreases sympathetic nervous activity, effectively reducing stress and allowing you to relax.
Supplement Tip: Magnesium is present in many foods: dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, legumes, chocolate and rice. However, surveys show that in the Western world, daily magnesium intake since 1900 has dropped by at least a third, from about 500 mg/day to 175 mg/day, so supplementing with high-quality magnesium can help you get optimal sleep.
Avoid magnesium bound to carbonate, oxide or gluconate because they are cheap forms and poorly absorbed. Opt for a form that is easily used by the body: magnesium citrate, glycinate, taurate, aspartate, malate, succinate or fumarate.
Anecdotal reports suggest a topical magnesium cream or oil is the best form for inducing restful sleep. Rub it on the back of your knees a half hour before bed.
Inositol is a form of sugar that is found in citrus fruits and nuts, among other plant sources. It contains negligible calories and may aid sleep by calming anxiety and quieting mental chatter that keeps you up at night.
Why Inositol Works for Sleep: It activates pathways in the brain that stop your mind from racing – think of it like sweeping up the floor of your brain to create order. Research shows inositol activates serotonin and the orexin pathway to calm your brain and help you go to sleep.
Supplement Tip: Inositol comes in powder form. Take it in water about 45 minutes before you want to go to bed. Good results have been reported with doses of 2 to 10 grams.
#7: B Vitamins and Thiamine
Deficiencies in the B vitamins and thiamine are nutrients that have repeatedly been linked with sleeping problems. Folic acid, B6 and B12 are especially important for a tidy mind and the rest it requires.
Why They Work for Sleep: The B vitamins are intricately involved in detoxification in the body; they also lower inflammation and affect brain transmitters. Thiamine also affects brain transmitters and is closely linked with serotonin, so a lack leads to poor sleep.
Supplement Tip: A genetic variation inhibits many people from absorbing non-methylated forms of the B vitamins, which is a primary cause of B vitamin deficiency, leading to poorer sleep and health. Folic acid is the most important B vitamin to obtain in methylated form; many people have good results from a methylated B complex. Thiamine is found in meat, particularly organ meat, so if you’re not big on liver, get a supplement.
Medicinal plants have been shown to help people with insomnia go to sleep and stay asleep due to their sedative and anxiolytic properties. Individual efficacy is hit or miss with each herb – some people have good results, while others don’t. Valerian takes a while to kick in, typically 2 to 3 weeks before people experience better sleep but, as one researcher writes, it does have “profound beneficial effects on sleep architecture.”
Why Valerian Works: Valerian activates GABA, calming the brain in the same way as taurine, although it has a more sedative effect.
Supplement Tip: Herbal teas will give you a very small dose of phytochemicals from valerian and two sleep aids listed in #9. Concentrated liquid extracts will provide a much more potent dose. Inhaling the aroma of herbs can improve sleep, so try aromatherapy if you don’t want to take an extract.
#9: Chamomile and Ginseng
Chamomile has a sedative effect, and although teas are popular, you may benefit from a more concentrated dose in extract form. Research suggests chamomile can calm the brain and help you go to sleep sooner.
Ginseng is known for reducing stress and enhancing brain activity related to the GABA transmitters to support deeper sleep. Ginseng tea is available, as are extracts and capsules.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in the camellia sinensis tea plant and in an exotic form of mushrooms. Research shows that it can reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition and aid in sleep.
In animal studies l-theanine has been found to help reverse caffeine-induced sleep disturbances. Anyone can benefit from taking l-theanine, but people who can’t sleep and can’t give up caffeine will find it most useful.
Why It Works: L-theanine works by counteracting the effects of caffeine while increasing levels of GABA and boosting serotonin in the brain.
Supplement Tip: It’d be great if you could just rely on green tea for l-theanine, but because green tea contains caffeine, it’s a no-go. However, if you require caffeinated coffee to keep you going, you may want to switch to green tea to get the caff kick, while boosting l-theanine intake. You’ll probably also find that the stimulating effects of green tea are different from those of coffee.
Beyond that, pure l-theanine supplements are available, as are formulated sleep aids in which l-theanine is bound to magnesium. Anecdotal reports from stressed insomniacs suggest great results from magnesium l-theanine.