Everybody has experienced difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep at some point in their lives. Sleep issues can range from mild to severe and recurring, and is becoming a serious problem worldwide. The good news is both the importance of sleep and the mechanisms involved are becoming better understood. As an insomniac, researching ways to fall asleep has become a lifelong journey of trial and error. There are so many over the counter sleep aids, strange names and different brands that its easy to get confused about what works. We hope that our experiences and recommendations can provide some sleepy relief.
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We will not be discussing prescription drugs or medications. It is important that you consult with a medical professional before purchasing over the counter sleep aids and find the root of your sleep problems.
Eating fatty foods before sleeping will keep your belly full and stabilize blood sugar levels during your sleep. Healthy fats such as coconut oil, eggs and avocado will help produce necessary sleep hormones.
It is best to avoid eating sugary foods or carbohydrates at night because it will result in blood sugar spikes and crashes. This causes food cravings and difficulties falling asleep or relaxing, potentially making you wake up in the middle of the night due to blood sugar drops.
Melatonin is probably the most famous and well-known sleep aid you can buy. It is a powerful, natural hormone that is produced at when it starts to get dark at night and is associated with the onset of sleep. Blood melatonin levels sync with your circadian rhythm to tell your body when it needs to be alert (less melatonin during the day) and when you need to sleep (increased melatonin at night). When travelling and dealing with different time zones, melatonin can be used effectively to reset your sleep-wake cycle.
Lack of potassium has been linked to problems with staying asleep. Potassium is also synergistic with magnesium, a combination that helps eliminate leg cramps and restlessness. Try starting with a small dosage and see if it helps you stay asleep.
Magnesium is a common deficiency in many people, with as many as 75% of Americans lacking the important mineral. Magnesium content in soil has been declining for years resulting in less magnesium in your everyday foods. The worrisome part is that magnesium is critical for bone density, a regular heartbeat and overall cardiovascular health. Therefore its important to get enough magnesium for a healthy sleep. Having enough magnesium will help you relax easier and reduce overall coristol (stress) levels providing a calming effect. We recommend starting with a 400mg daily dose.
In over the counter sleeping pills, anti-histamines use either diphenhydramine or doxylamine succinate. Both are interchangeable ingredients and inhibit the same neurotransmitters to induce drowsiness. This is the same reason why allergy medicine makes you sleepy. Between the two chemicals, we would recommend doxylamine succinate over diphenhydramine as a regular sleep aid. However it should not be used if you need to get up early. The reason is because doxylamine succinate is eliminated more slowly from your system allowing the sleepy effect to last longer and you may still feel drowsy in the morning. Most people also do not build a tolerance to doxylamine succinate and it can be taken frequently. In contrast, diphenhydramine is cheaper but is known to lose its sleep aid effectiveness after a few nights in a row due to tolerance buildup. Its also eliminated quicker and doesn’t give you a sleep hangover in the morning. If you only need these for occasional use then diphenhydramine will be fine.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate nerves and suppresses the excitability of neurons. It is one of the primary mechanisms for inducing sleep in your brain and is the method by which Xanax and Valium works (by increasing GABA). By taking GABA, you can help relax your muscles and reduce overall brain activity (and therefore insomnia), moving your body into a state of physical relaxation. In general its great as a stress reducer.
L-theanine is an effective anti-anxiety supplement for improving sleep quality. It won’t extend sleep length but promotes relaxation and helps falling asleep. 200mg taken 30-60 minutes before bed time work very well.
Ornithine is a non-essential amino acid that helps to improve falling asleep and overall sleep quality. It helps with fat metabolism, ammonia detoxification and liver rejuvenation which contribute to less stress and cortisol in your body.
Vitamin B6 is important for supporting healthy homocysteine levels, regulating anxiety levels and increasing serotonin levels. A vitamin B6 deficiency can cause sleeping problems, but excessive vitamin B6 can also cause insomnia. We would suggest consulting your doctor before taking vitamin B6 supplements.
Chamomile is well-known for its tranquilizing and sleep-inducing effects. It increases glycine which is a chemical that acts as a mild sedative relaxing nerves and muscles. Chamomile comes from a flower and is a popular type of tea, but can also be found in capsule form. For some the effect is weak while others find it works well. We suggest trying it as an evening tea to see if it helps at all.
Valerian root helps make your fall asleep faster and improves overall sleep quality by promoting relaxation and reducing stress. It acts as a natural sedative by increasing the chemical GABA in the brain. As a result, this has a calming anti-anxiety effect. It is also known to lower blood pressure and suppress muscle spasms. Valerian root extract is often combined with other herbs to create powerful sleep aids.
Passionflower was originally used for treating inflammations, skin irritations and burns. However it was later found useful for relieving anxiety, agitation and insomnia among other ailments. It boosts GABA allowing you to relax and have better sleep quality. It also helps reduce insulin levels, reduce inflammation and help lower blood pressure. It can be drank as a tea or taken in capsule form. Passionflower also works well when mixed with other beneficial extracts and herbs and is particularly effective when combined with Valerian root.
Lemon balm is a popular herb part of the mint family for treating restlessness, digestive problems, insomnia, reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation. It has powerful antioxidant effects and has also been used in treatments of ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. The leaves provide a pleasant aroma, similar to lemons that works well when combined with other herbs. Very safe to use and works well as a mild sedative.
Hops flowers are frequently used to treat anxiety, restlessness and sleep disorders. It also helps to increase appetite, increase urine flow and treat indigestion. These are the same hops flowers that are used when brewing beer. When treating insomnia, hops flowers are combined with Valerian extract to help fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality.
Aromatherapy, or essential oils such as lavender, sandalwood, bergamot, frankincense and mandarin are used to calm or stimulate depending on the oils used. These essential oils are taken from parts of plants (flowers, leaves, roots, etc.) and mixed with other ingredients to create strong tinctures that can be sprayed in the air, inhaled or massaged into skin. This type of aromatherapy can help treat a wide range of conditions including depression, insomnia and high blood pressure. Aromatherapy is not known to cure illnesses but to provide relief. You may find that it helps you get into a state of relaxation and sleepiness before bed. Those with chronic illnesses should consult a doctor before engaging in aromatherapy.
Below we have included a chart of popular sleep aid brands and proprietary blends with their active ingredients listed next to them. Take the time to read and understand the ingredients beforehand, and then see which products might suit your sleep needs best.
Dealing with blue light
Light is the most powerful external cue for resetting your circadian rhythm and establishing the sleep-wake cycle. The problem with modern technology is the constant exposure to short-wavelength blue light that is emitted from all our devices, such as phones, TV screens, digital clocks, Kindles and even modern compact fluorescent lightbulbs and LED lights. It has been found that humans are especially sensitive to blue light which suppresses melatonin production because your body thinks it is day time. This can cause serious sleep problems or disrupt your sleep cycles due to the lack of proper melatonin production. Therefore it is important to reduce or eliminate artificial blue light during the evening and before bed. This also applies to anyone who works overnight shifts and unconventional hours.
We recommend the reasonably priced Uvex S0360X Orange UV Glasses to see if eliminating blue light will make a difference for you (it will). Wearing a pair of blue light blocking glasses will also help reduce digital eye strain, visual fatigue, headaches and other problems that are the result of too much computer use. If you want something a little more fashionable, checkout the Gamma Ray 003 to minimize eye strain and blue light. If you’re willing to pay the price, check out the Swanwick Blue Light Blocking Glasses. These will block out more blue light than any other glasses and have anti-reflective and anti-glare coatings. If you are a heavy computer user at night time, these are fantastic and will help you get back on a regular sleep schedule or at least make you fall asleep faster. These glasses are a way of adapting to the new way of life of constant technology and blue light, which is becoming a growing problem with little awareness. We recommend limiting the amount of technology or screens you use an hour or two before you sleep.
Other sleep aids
One easy fix is to install F.lux on your computer. It helps reduce blue light from your computer screen and adjusts the color of your screen throughout the day to time it with your circadian rhythm. Its one of the first things I install on any new computer and doesn’t take up much resources.
Your environment is another incredibly important aspect of any good sleep. If there is a lot of light or noise where you’re sleeping, it is always better to insulate yourself from external stimuli. That’s where sleep masks come in. They will help block out light and other visual cues that will can still shine through your closed eyelids. It will also help you relax and not worry about what’s around you. To complete this, we also recommend Drift to Sleep ear plugs for those noisy occasions when the world just won’t be quiet. Noisy environments prevent you from falling asleep, lower sleep quality and might also wake you up early. Being able to completely close yourself off to your immediate environment allows you to withdraw into your own internal bubble and de-stress. Both sleep masks and ear plugs are invaluable on long plane rides and trips where there might be a few too many crying babies or noisy machinery for you to fall asleep.
If you’re in your own home you might want to go a more comfortable route. Some people don’t like using ear plugs or keeping a sleep mask on their face. The alternatives are blackout curtains and white noise machines. Blackout curtains are excellent for anyone who loves to sleep in or who keeps odd hours, such as working the night shift and sleeping during the day. These polyester curtains block 99% of sunlight and reduce outside noises, helping to keep your room nice and peaceful and distraction free. It will also help with your circadian rhythm because your body won’t start suppressing melatonin when sunlight starts entering your room (which will reduce sleep quality). By blocking outside light, blackout curtains will also keep your room cooler and the temperature more stable which effects sleep quality.
White noise machines on the other hand, generate sound to mask background or outside noise to help you sleep. They are also incredibly useful for someone who has bad tinnitus like myself. There are times when I need to have some sort of distraction so that the ringing in my ears will subside to let me sleep. Normal room fans also work good for this, but sometimes your room might already be too cold or the noise your room fan makes isn’t enough. A white noise machine on the other hand can generate different types of soothing sounds such as the ocean, thunderstorms, or tropical rainforests. Everybody has their own type of preferences to block out your noisy neighbors or street sounds. If you’re hesitant about this, we suggest trying out some websites that generate relaxing sound or music.