In last week’s article we defined insomnia and good sleep along with the benefits that our bodies reap from getting the proper type of shut eye—if you haven’t read that article, I definitely suggest starting there, especially if you think you might have issues with your sleep.
Most people I talk to see sleep as a separate part of their lives than their waking daytime person—which means you might too. So before we launch into the optimal sleep journey suggestions, I want you to work on a paradigm shift with me.
Take a few moments before moving on and realign your thinking. Your waking self and your sleeping self are not separate. They are part of one cycle and they have a huge impact on each other along with your health as a whole. When you go to sleep, your brain is activating differently (though many of your bodily rhythms are very similar to your waking state) and you need that type of activation as much as you need your daily stimulations.
Okay—got it? Awesome! You’re ready for the part of the lesson where we’ll talk about ways to change the waking behaviors you can control, to help you get the best sleep possible.
6 Lifestyle Tips for Insomnia
What keeps you up at night? For an insomnia sufferer, changing the lifestyle is often the best (and hardest) solution to the problem. That’s because a lot of sleep issues come along with daily anxieties coupled with overwork and artificial light and/or screen time (yes, I’m about to tell you to put your phone away at night).
1—Follow the Sun
This one often has the biggest impact on people that have a hard time sleeping—and there’s a little bit of science involved so bear with me.
Our bodies create a hormone called melatonin, which has lovely antioxidant and stress hormone reducing properties, but for our purposes we’ll just look at how it regulates our circadian rhythm (the wakefulness and sleep rhythm we have). Our bodies produce this hormone based on our exposure to different light frequencies—you see where I’m going with this?
Blue light, like we see in the middle of the day, suppresses melatonin while red light, like we see at sunset tells our body that it’s time to activate the melatonin production and wiggle down into sleep.
I’m going to take a minute to have you think again about the 24 hour cycle and the wakefulness and sleep connection. Now think about the evolution of our species as it relates to and connects with the sun cycle. We can’t see at night, so our bodies evolved to sleep during those hours.
Now think about this, our lights, computers, televisions, cell phones—every screen and bright thing we have all produce blue light. Our evening melatonin production is totally thrown off by the addition of screens, and for a lot of people, it causes issues sleeping.
The solution: While it’s very difficult for most people living in current societal normalcies not to use artificial light in their homes after the sun sets, purchasing a color changing bulb is a great way to keep blue light down and bring the sunset into the house. Using orange, yellow, or red lights in the evening instead of bright overhead lights provides enough light without being too bright. It isn’t nearly stimulating and with some of LED color changing lights, you can actually set a sunset timer and it will simulate the sun setting in your house.
As for screen time? Try to limit yourself to screen time in the daylight hours. If your job has you working late on the computer most browsers have daylight screen options like .flux or screen shader. Try to turn the screen off (including tv) at least an hour before bed.
2—Go to Sleep at the Same Time
Along those same lines of keeping the circadian rhythm intact is going to sleep and waking up around the same time everyday. Many people ‘sleep in’ on the weekend, which feels good, but it can offset the sleep/wake cycle and create a pattern of grogginess and sleep disruption.
I’m not telling you to miss the party or not to have lazy days in bed every once in a while, but generally keeping the same cycle all week around is better for your body.
3—Create a Sleep Den
Creating a comfortable space in which to sleep in is crucial for the insomnia sufferer, especially those of us that are easily distracted from sleep. Try to remove any distractions from the bedroom like televisions, computers, cell phones, or bright bedside clocks (for me, anything with a blinking light has to go).
Sleeping in a dark environment can make all the difference. If you’re a sleeper that sees light and immediately your waking brain gears start turning, try an eye mask or blackout curtains (especially if you have an East facing window).
4—Make a Sleep Ritual
As humans, we’re able to train ourselves to respond to specific stimulus with a desired action (this is a bit Pavlovian, but very true). Creating an evening ritual you can rely on is a great way to work with insomnia.
Some people light a short incense stick with a scent that calms them, other people drink a cup of tea or read. As long as you do the same thing every night, your body will learn to wind down and fall asleep.
My best suggestion: make it simple, and something you can do while traveling. A book, or a drop of essential oil on your pillow—something mobile so that when you’re not at home you can still have your ritual.
5—Set the Alarm Differently
Setting the alarm based on your sleep instead of based on the time can be a difficult concept to master and it has a daily math equation involved but it can be really helpful for feeling better after sleeping and getting a good night’s rest. This is especially helpful during the initial stages of healing a circadian rhythm.
Sleep comes in cycles—it’s about 1.5 hours per cycle and we ideally have 4-6 sleep cycles in one night and it’s hard to wake up in the middle of a cycle. Set your alarm so that you’re waking up 6, 7.5, or 9 hours after you fall asleep.
6—Exercise in the Morning
Exercising increases circulation and boosts energy. For the insomnia sufferer, exercising in the evening can mean being up late with a ton of energy (again). Moving the exercise routine to first thing in the morning boosts mood with the release of endorphins, offers fresh blood circulation which can help with morning time grogginess (especially after a sleepless night), boosts energy, and gives a definitive start to the day.
3 Diet Suggestions and 2 Helpful Supplements
What you fuel your body with is a crucial piece of keeping your body rhythms in check. Remember that we’re working with a 24 hour system, not just a nighttime problem.
1—Eat Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Reminder: sleep is part of your daily cycle. Making sure that you’re eating all three meals everyday is important because the goal is to regulate the cycles of the body.
The word breakfast is relevant because it literally is ‘breaking the fast’ from the nighttime. Eating breakfast allows our bodies to start metabolizing and creating new energy for the day ahead. Lunch time is crucial for sustaining energy throughout the day, and dinner is for that second evening time wind and feeds the brain for all of the sleep time processes it goes through.
2—Timing is Everything
For those of us that suffer with sleep cycle imbalance, it’s important to control the cycles we can. Our diet is one of the few things we can control and changing the time we eat, when we eat them can be a big help.
Regulating your eating can also help regulate your blood sugar. Issues with blood sugar can throw off sleep cycles (and sleep imbalances can throw off blood sugar).
Eat your main protein sources in the morning. Protein breaks down in the body slower than other macronutrients, provides lasting energy, and builds muscle. Eating the main protein source for the day with breakfast sets the tone for easy metabolism and sustainable energy throughout the day. Eating a big protein-based meal at night means that the body is focused on digesting the food and turning it into long-lasting energy when it should be working on relaxing and drifting off to sleep.
Stop eating a couple of hours before bed. Remember that the goal here is to regulate body cycles so that sleep can come more easily. Night eating or eating too close to bedtime can cause a surge of energy that can keep someone experiencing insomnia awake for hours. Stopping eating even just a couple of hours before bedtime can help signal the body to get ready for the bed because there will not be anything new food to breakdown in the stomach.
3—Lower Consumption of...
Caffeine. This is probably obvious, but caffeine consumption, especially in the afternoon or evening, can cause major sleep issues. Try sticking to 1-2 cups of coffee in the morning and then switch to an herbal tea in the afternoon.
Cut back on alcohol, cigarettes, and other drug consumption. This goes without saying but using toxic substances recreationally and/or to regulate sleep can cause insomnia to get worse. Many drugs create a physical dependence and can be difficult and dangerous to quit too quickly but it can be extremely helpful for insomnia sufferers to understand their natural cycles and get a fresh start.
Fish Oil Supplements. Studies show that fish oil supplements help with increasing and balancing Omega-3 DHA. Low levels of DHA have been linked with lower levels melatonin. An increase of DHA helps to ease anxieties about sleep and increase melatonin, which helps to balance the sleep-wake cycles in the body.
Magnesium. Most people are deficient in magnesium and magnesium is one of the most calming and best anti-anxiety minerals available. Studies show that magnesium helps to decrease insomnia by improving melatonin, serum cortisol, serum renin, sleep efficacy, sleep time and onset.
7 Herbs for Insomnia
Diet and lifestyle changes are—by far—the most helpful for chronic, long term insomnia, but having help from the plant world for those extra-tough nights is always great.
Chamomile is the classic go-to herb to help relax and get to sleep for good reason. It’s an anti-inflammatory nervine that helps to aid in digestion and clear toxins. It’s very gentle and often times it takes the edge off just enough to drift off to sleep. It’s best in a warm infusion, I usually suggest pouring almost boiling water over chamomile and letting it steep for about 20 minutes. It’s going to be a bit bitter so add a little bit of Sanandi’s Regenerating Rest Honey to your infusion and you’ll be off in no time.
Lavender is another great anti-inflammatory nervine. It helps with feelings of anxiety and worry and it clears heat from the body. Lavender ends up in most of my tea blends because it’s relaxing and it smells so nice, but my preferred method to work with it in insomnia is in a foot soak or using the essential oil on my pillow (this is great for the sleep ritual you’re making)
Vervain is easily the most helpful remedy I have seen for people to get to sleep. It’s especially helpful for the overactive mind. It helps the body move into a natural state of calm, aids digestion, protects the liver and it’s cooling. It makes a very relaxing tea infused strongly in the evening, but since this plant doesn’t work to make you drowsy, it’s also nice to drink throughout the day to combat stress.
Valerian is another classic herb for getting to sleep. It is specific for insomnia that comes from emotional unrest or anger. It has been used for hysteria and can have a pretty strong sedative effect. Valerian has a pungent flavor on its own but it makes a wonderful addition in a tea blend, especially with other nervines that have a softer touch like chamomile and lavender. A word of caution with valerian is that some people find it stimulating and for others using valerian can cause some dependency.
Ashwagandha is wonderful for people who wake up and have a hard time getting back to sleep—especially if they’re dealing with chronic stress. It is an adaptogen so it helps the body process and work through stress by nourishing the adrenals. For the insomnia sufferer, working with ashwagandha long-term could be a godsend because it not only eases anxiety and tension that cause insomnia, it helps create space for the body to heal some of the issues that insomnia can cause like hypertension, memory loss, trouble concentrating, and nervous debility.
To use: Put a teaspoon of the powdered root in daily mineral smoothies.
Tulsi is wonderful for rejuvenating the spirit. It is mineral rich and works well as a nervine and for adrenal stress. Growing tulsi and adding it to food is the preferred way to work with it because it’s so delicious but working with the dry herb in a tea is lovely too.
Linden is known as a calming heart tonic, it is also a diaphoretic and a diuretic. Linden is great for tension in the body and for letting worries go. This is especially good for kiddos and for those sadnesses in life and love that cause unrest. Add it to your vervain tea and you’ll feel calm and accepting—ready to drift away.