Insomnia is a bane to the human existence. Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and many other notable figures had plenty to say about it. Thankfully, there are some easy fixes. Some fixes are nutritional, some fixes are therapeutic, and some fixes require DIY home decorating. None of these fixes advocate for Rxs, and all of these fixes are blended with scientific rationale.
There are two key components for falling asleep naturally:
1. Establish a routine.
…..and make it as militant as possible. As a neuroscientist, I have studied the human body clock for the past ten years. Our bodies and brains have sets of self-sufficient, self-operating, and self-sustaining biological clocks. These biological clocks tell us when to eat, when to wake up, when to sleep, and when we perform our best. These body clocks are sensitive and adapt to their environments. Light is the most potent environmental cue for our body clocks, but other basic needs work just as well in cueing and re-setting our body clocks: food, exercise, sex, and even stress. Thus, if you can plan your meals, plan your workouts, and plan your stress (if it’s inevitable) around certain hours of the day, your body will adjust its physiological demands accordingly. Everyone should have a bedtime (and even rise time) ritual. I have a scientifically supported one for you (see below).
2. Avoid Light (and Noise).
.....start this process an hour before bed. Bright light disrupts melatonin release. Melatonin is the “hormone of darkness.” Melatonin release is triggered by darkness and dim light. Ever feel extra sleepy in a swanky restaurant or bar even in the absence of libations? That’s the dark lighting telling your body that it’s time to wind down. Melatonin is released to help us fall asleep and stay asleep. I’ll say it again: put away those smart technologies, turn the TV off, and dive into a classic novel an hour before bed. The less light you see before bed, the better.
Here Are a Few Bedtime Rituals You Can Integrate to Help Your Body Naturally Fall Asleep More Quickly:
1. Eat some Tryptophan and Vitamin B.
The amino acid tryptophan produces serotonin: a neurochemical driver of sleep. Tryptophan is found in high abundance in our bodies. But, there’s nothing wrong with having some extra tryptophan in the tank. A healthy protein snack high in tryptophan (turkey) before bed prevents blood sugar levels from spiking during the night partly due to its slow digestion. Spikes in blood sugar levels can wake you up. Vitamin B is well-known to promote energy and alertness, but do you know that it can also promote sleep? Vitamin B aids in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. One lesser-known but potent source of Vitamin B (and other valuable nutrients) is blue-green algae. A great source of this is green kombucha tea.
2. Supplement with Magnesium
Magnesium directs many biochemical actions of the body. It also helps to promote sleep. Foods rich in magnesium include almonds, cashews, Spinach, and pumpkin seeds.
3. Create a Sleep-Friendly Environment.
Minimize light, minimize noise, sleep on a firm and cooling mattress, and design your room layout to your liking. No one wants to sleep and wake up to neon green painted walls (which I actually did for a long time until I realized how unfriendly the color was for sleeping).
4. Alter your Thermoregulation, Slightly.
For years, doctors have recommended heat before bed to induce sleepy-like blood flow. Nowadays, scientists are finding that brief exposure to cold has anti-stressful, pro-sleep effects. Regardless of hot or cold, a slight but routine change in your core body temperature can be beneficial.
5. Blast Yourself with Sunlight in the Morning.
Nothing jolts your body clocks awake and keeps them ticking (entrained) throughout the day like 15-30 min of sunlight in the morning. Sleep scientists from the University of Colorado took students camping for a few weeks and discovered that our body clocks are more sensitive and stabilized by natural light compared to artificial light.
By Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager is a neuroscientist specializing in the physiology and genetics of sleep and performance. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain which debunks the myth of the "dumb jock" and serves as a manual for optimizing athletic performance through neuroscience. Outside of the laboratory, she is a former D1 varsity athlete, Crossfit Games team athlete and still competes in track and field: pole vault and hurdles.
Other resources for optimizing sleep:
1. My book, “Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain” describes some describes several "neurohackers" for bettering athletic performance through science.
2. Podcast related to Meathead: http://brutestrengthtraining.com/podcast/10x-your-recovery-with-the-science-of-perfect-sleep-w-dr-allison-brager.