Natural Ways to Optimize Sleep

Food, water, sunlight, companionship, exercise, and sleep are the fundamentals of good health and should be the foundation of any treatment plan. They’re integral components to happy and healthy human beings. This is where I start with my patients.

And, yet, Americans aren’t sleeping. At least 35 percent of them report that they’re sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours. Adults that sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to develop heart disease, Type II diabetes, and obesity. Furthermore, when they are sleeping, many struggle with insomnia, sleep apnea, frequent waking, or poor sleep quality. Insufficient sleep or poor quality sleep can make you irritable, crave carbohydrates, binge eat, gain weight, decrease work productivity, and limit cognitive performance.

In a fast-paced society that seems to put constant motion on a pedestal, it’s important to realize and respect the natural rhythms of the body. In doing so, we prioritize ourselves, our happiness, and ultimately ensure we’re living to live, not living to work.

When we’re sleeping, we actually are in motion—biochemical motion. The body is flooding itself with sleep hormones and decreasing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that keeps us awake and alert. The body sends out chemical messengers called cytokines that act as immune regulators and decrease inflammation. We are filing away new memories and learnings from the day; sleep is integral to how we remember and think. It’s also been well studied in improving muscle recovery, cardiovascular outcomes, and improving mental health.

Here I outline four natural ways to start optimizing your sleep.

Block Out the Blue Light

We sleep better in darker rooms. The reason being is the body’s strong sensitivity to light. Before electricity and well-lit homes, our day was structured according to the sun. When the sun was out at its brightest, we were wide awake. When the sun was down, we were asleep.

The sun is one of the most prominent sources of blue light in our environment. Blue light acts on the photoreceptors in our eyes to trigger a sense of alertness and boost attention. Our bodies work best when they have slowly increasing exposure to bright light, such as the sun rising, and then decreasing exposure to bright light when it’s close to bedtime.

Unfortunately, exposure to phone screens, televisions, and tablets provides these same receptors with artificial blue light. The eye responds to these screens as if this blue light came from the sun and this disrupts natural sleep rhythms. Imagine laying in bed thinking the day was over only for your eyes to think the sun has risen again while you scroll through The Epoch Times website on your phone.

To sleep better, you can start with downtime from all screens at least an hour before bed. You can also ensure your room is as dark as possible. Most department stores now offer a wide array of black-out curtains. Additionally, while this isn’t condoning blue light scrolling, there are various “blue light blocker” apps that you can put on your computer and phone which help diminish the intensity of blue light and may lessen the impact on your photoreceptors.

Ensure Adequate Nutrient Intake

In order for the body to produce adequate amounts of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, it requires specific nutrients. Folate, zinc, magnesium, B6, and iron are all needed as cofactors for the production of melatonin. Cofactors are essentially “helper molecules” that help the body create different things.

Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods that contains all of these nutrients. However, for those unwilling to fry up chicken livers, there are other options. Beef, pork, poultry, salmon, and tuna are all rich in B6. Beef, nuts, and seeds have large amounts of magnesium, iron, and folate. And most seafood, such as scallops and oysters, is rich in zinc.

It’s not enough to consume a couple of servings and expect miraculous results. Many people consume enough calories in a day, but most of these calories lack nutrient density. Ensuring regular dietary nutrient density to correct underlying deficiencies will help you over time. I’m a strong proponent of food to heal first, prior to supplementation. However, supplements can often be an effective tool. Many over-the-counter sleep aids contain these nutrients in varying amounts.

Stick to a Routine

The body does best with routine. While the human body is drawn to the thrill of new things, it can also be taxing on the body not to have balance around natural biological rhythms like sleep.

The nervous system learns the patterns of routine and knows what to expect and how to respond to the day. The nervous system in turn “talks” to other aspects of your body to increase or decrease alertness and arousal.

Making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends, can help improve your overall sleep quality. It can often take up to two weeks to adapt to a set sleep schedule, so give it at least that long.

Consider Common Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids

Melatonin is one of the most common sleep aids. If you are chronically sleep-deprived, lack essential nutrients, or suffer from a gamut of other factors that cause low melatonin levels, direct supplementation can be helpful.

There are rapid-release and slow-release forms of melatonin. The latter is often more beneficial to individuals that wake frequently at night as it allows for a more continuous release of melatonin over the course of the night. Typically, one to three milligrams is best, as larger amounts may impair the body’s natural production.

Magnesium is also well-tolerated, and many stores offer magnesium supplements targeted toward sleep. These are often flavored and become fizzy when mixed with water. There are varying forms of magnesium, but magnesium citrate is the most readily available and often well tolerated. Healthy adults can tolerate 500 to 800 milligrams daily.

Various herbs offer sleep support by helping gently sedate the body, as well as decrease feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and promote drowsiness. Most “sleepytime” teas contain ingredients like passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile, and kava kava, which all help sedate the nervous system and promote relaxation.

For teas to be taken therapeutically, they need to be steeped for at least five to 10 minutes and the liquid squeezed out of the teabag. This helps ensure that the active ingredients in the plant are best extracted. It’s also important to make sure your tea is fresh so that the herbs still contain active ingredients. Many of these herbs are also available in capsules or liquid forms and in combination with sleep aid products that often contain melatonin, magnesium, and B6.

Your body is constantly listening and responding to the environment and stimuli like food, temperature, and routines. The changes above work best over time as they aren’t quick fixes. The aim is to retrain the body and nudge it back to its more optimal natural state. Prioritizing your sleep helps prioritize your health and happiness.

Dr. Allison Williams is a naturopathic doctor and professor. She has a passion for helping people improve their health and well-being so that they can live life to the fullest. She works with patients in Arizona, as well as, offers consultations out-of-state and internationally. For more information, visit ​DrAllisonWilliams.com.