8 Tips to Improve Sleep and Fight Insomnia | Chris Kresser
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8 Tips for Beating Insomnia and Improving Your Sleep

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Do you have trouble sleeping? Make sleep a priority by following these eight tips that will help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

beating insomnia
Getting a full night's sleep is vital to optimal health. BartekSzewczyk/iStock/Thinkstock

You’re probably aware by now how important sleep is for good health. Inadequate sleep is a major stressor on the body and has been implicated in obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, impaired cognitive function, and numerous other health complaints. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

It doesn’t matter how dialed in your nutrition and exercise are; if you don’t get enough sleep, your health will suffer. (7)

The trouble is, making sleep a priority—although an important step—doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll get a restful 8 hours per night. Many people can’t fall asleep at a reasonable hour, wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, or consistently wake up too early. According to a review published in 2013, an estimated one-third of the adult population reports having at least one symptom of insomnia. (8)

Luckily, there are several things you can do to improve your sleep. In this article, I’ll give you eight tips to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

Most of us could use more sleep. How can we make regular, quality sleep a reality for everyone? Health coaches play an important role in helping people build healthy sleep habits like going to bed at a reasonable time, making room in their schedules for eight hours of sleep, and limiting blue light before bedtime.

Want to know more about sleep and how health coaches support healthy sleep habits? That’s part of what we teach in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. The program includes world-class instructors, a curriculum based on learning research, and an emphasis on hands-on practice so that you graduate with the skills and confidence to be a successful health coach. Find out more about the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

1. Restrict Artificial Light at Night

This first tip is one you’ve probably heard me talk about before: restrict artificial light at night. This means devices like computers, smart phones, and TVs, but also ambient indoor lighting. Light from all of these sources—particularly blue light—has been shown to disrupt the production of melatonin, which is the primary hormone involved in sleep regulation. (9, 10, 11)

One easy way to mitigate this effect is to install f.lux on your devices, which will automatically change the display of your computer or smart phone at night to reduce the amount of blue light it emits. However, a better option is to buy amber-tinted glasses to wear after dark, which will reduce your exposure to blue light from ambient room lighting as well. Studies have shown that these glasses are extremely effective at preventing melatonin suppression and improving sleep quality and mood. (12) Uvex and Solar Shield are two popular, inexpensive brands.

Can’t sleep? Check out these 8 tips for getting your 8 hours.

2. Try Eating More Carbs at Dinner

Melatonin is synthesized in the brain by the pineal gland, along with serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is also involved in sleep regulation. An important raw material for this synthesis is the amino acid tryptophan, and carbohydrates increase the amount of tryptophan available to the pineal gland.

Studies have shown that eating a carb-rich meal a few hours before bed can shorten sleep onset, and higher-glycemic carbs in particular seem to have the greatest effect. (13, 14, 15) If you have insomnia, and particularly if you’re on a low-carb diet, adding some carbs at dinner could be an easy and effective way to improve your sleep.

On the other hand, high-protein meals can decrease the availability of tryptophan because other amino acids compete for transport across the blood-brain barrier and into the pineal gland. (16) However, the glycine-rich proteins found in skin and gelatinous cuts of meat don’t have this effect, and studies have shown that gelatin consumption before bedtime (say, a mug of bone broth) can improve sleep quality. (17)

3. Keep Your Bedroom Cool and Dark

You may have already discovered that sleeping in a cool, dark environment makes it much easier to get a good night’s sleep. One of the physiologic hallmarks of sleep onset is a decrease in core body temperature, which the body achieves by increasing blood flow to the skin and allowing heat to disperse into the environment. (18) If the sleeping environment is too warm, it can hinder this decrease in core body temperature and adversely affect sleep quality. (19)

It’s also important to keep your bedroom as dark as possible. We’ve already discussed how exposure to artificial light before bed can impair sleep, and exposure to even small amounts of light during the night can disrupt the circadian rhythm. (20, 21) Installing black-out shades and covering any other lights in your bedroom is one option, but an eye mask is a good alternative.

4. Manage Your Stress during the Day

One common reason people cite for not being able to fall asleep at night is that they can’t “turn off their brain.” Is this really a surprise, considering how busy and scattered most of us stay during the day? If the sympathetic nervous system, better known as “fight or flight” mode, is consistently activated during the day, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to switch to parasympathetic—or “rest and digest” mode—the instant your head hits the pillow.

Shifting the balance in favor of parasympathetic activation during the day by managing stress makes it much easier to fall asleep at night, and common stress-management practices such as yoga and meditation have been shown to help eliminate insomnia and improve sleep. (22, 23, 24) I also recommend a program called Rest Assured, which has breathing and movement exercises designed to promote daytime relaxation and a good night’s sleep.

5. Exercise and Get Plenty of Light during the Day

Supporting your circadian rhythm by avoiding artificial light at night is important, but don’t forget to enforce it during the day, too!

The most important environmental factor regulating the circadian rhythm is light entering the eye, so it’s important to let your body know that it’s daytime by exposing yourself to plenty of bright light. (25) Try to spend some time outside every day, in the morning or around lunchtime if possible.

Compared to outdoor light, which usually ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 lux on a clear day, ordinary indoor light is a pitiful 10 to 300 lux, not nearly bright enough to have the strong circadian-entrenching effect we want. (26)

Exercise during the day has also been shown to improve sleep quality at night. Several studies have found exercise to be effective at reducing symptoms of insomnia, and some evidence indicates that exercise may be as effective as sleeping pills. (27, 28, 29, 30)

6. Go Camping

Because the circadian rhythm is regulated primarily by exposure to light, the best way to reset your sleep schedule and get in line with ancestral health is by exposing yourself to as much natural light as possible, with plenty of bright light during the day and no light at night. And one of the best ways to accomplish that is by going camping.

One study found that being exposed to only natural light for a few days realigns the circadian rhythm with sunset and sunrise, resulting in an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep. (31) And if you’re wondering about exposure to moonlight at night, it doesn’t appear to hinder these effects. Despite the fact that the moon can seem quite bright, moonlight is only around 0.1 to 0.4 lux. (32, 33) For comparison, a candle one meter away is 1 lux.

7. Address Sleep-Related Issues like Sleep Apnea and Restless Legs Syndrome

It’s also possible that you can’t sleep due to a health condition such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome (RLS). I recently wrote an article sharing several potential causes, as well as ways to address it.

But while RLS is usually easy to identify, people can suffer from sleep apnea without even realizing it. If you have excessive daytime sleepiness that you can’t figure out or you wake up frequently at night, it’s worth having a sleep study done to rule out sleep apnea as a cause. This is especially true if you are obese, have high blood pressure or diabetes, or have a history of snoring, all of which are risk factors for sleep apnea. (34) Remember, you don’t need to be overweight to develop sleep apnea, so see a sleep specialist to get tested for this common condition. (Side note: I will be discussing alternative treatments for sleep apnea in the near future.)

8. Try Some Natural Remedies

Finally, there are several supplements that can be helpful for relieving insomnia and improving sleep. These are the supplements I’ve found helpful in my practice and are safe for most people to try, listed in descending order of what to try first. (Always check with your personal physician before starting any supplement protocol.)

Magnesium. Magnesium has calming effects on the nervous system, and several studies have found magnesium to be effective in treating insomnia and improving sleep. (35, 36, 37, 38) Many people have success with 1 to 2 teaspoons of Natural Calm before bed, while others do better with chelated forms like magnesium glycinate or magnesium taurate (400 to 600 mg). It’s important to note that magnesium may have a laxative effect, and the chelated forms are usually better tolerated by those with sensitive guts.

L-theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea that has been shown to have calming effects on the brain. (39) The recommended dose for improving sleep is 200 to 400 mg, taken an hour before bed if you have trouble falling asleep, or just before bed if you have trouble staying asleep. 

Taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that reduces cortisol levels and increases the production of GABA, which is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter—our bodies’ natural “off” switch. Try taking 500 mg before bed. Using magnesium taurate allows you to get both magnesium and taurine with a single pill.

5-HTP. 5-HTP is the precursor to melatonin, and the recommended dose is 50 to 100 mg an hour before bed. (Note: do not take 5-HTP if you are taking SSRIs or other antidepressants.)

Melatonin. If 5-HTP doesn’t work, you might consider taking melatonin itself. It’s more likely to be effective if your melatonin levels are low. At lower doses of 0.5 to 1 mg I believe it is safe and unlikely to cause dependence (which may be a concern with higher doses). Also, it’s worth pointing out that many people find lower doses more sedating than higher doses. 

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have trouble sleeping? If so, what tips have worked for you? Do you plan to try the advice in this article? Share your thoughts in the comments!

164 Comments

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  1. You missed the most influential sleep remedy (I recently discovered in the past 20 years of my self reaserch): No eating past 7pm! Try to stop eating 4 hours before bed time for a few weeks and you will feel the difference it makes in sleep quality and helping you fall asleep.

    Digestion is also a part of circadian rhythm. Late night eating = singaling to the body that it’s still day time.

    Even if it feels tough to go hungry asome nights, it always pays off for me.

    • carbohydrates especially sugar before bed release insulin and gaba and serotonin. this is why the old cookies and milk was used long ago before bed.

      You probably have some unhealthy bacteria in your guy. several harmful bacteria will eat the sugar and release chemicals that raise stress and hunger. these are far more common than people realize in this decade with the incredible rise of IBS, sibo ect. some people feel its natural for digestion to decline with age, but its more likely diseases are going untreated and thriveing. iv read incredible studies of people recolonizing their digestive tracts and riding themselves of a host of issues.

  2. Hi

    The link to the recommended program “rest assured” doesnt work at all.
    Can you provide the details. Haven’t found it on the net

  3. I’m looking for the subsequent article on alternative solutions for sleep apnea – can you please direct me to it? thanks!

    • Alcohol can help people fall asleep but it will also wake you up in a few hours so counter productive.

    • Alcohol disrupts sleep, while it has depressant effects it’s not a good idea to use it to induce sleep. It depletes magnesium, b vitamins and also causes blood sugar crashes.

  4. hey chriss tanx !

    yeah Restriction from artificial light is more important ,
    but everbody ignores this sides of technology.

    the blue light which emerges from it , are very harmful.

  5. It’s amazing how our bodies respond to routines, habits and rituals. Making an effort to go to bed at the same time every night (whether or not you go to sleep straight away) and waking up at the same time every morning means your training your body to follow these cues and sleep more efficiently.

  6. Previous sleep eluded me for years. Had an adrenal crash but there was more going on …..copper toxicity/disregulation. Ladies if you have taken birth control pills, had a IUD, have had copper pipes, were a vegetarian, or have estrogen dominance look into your copper levels by working with a qualified nutritional balancing coach. Saved my life. Magnesuim cannot be emphasized enough.

  7. So eat more glycemic carbs and meat ?. This is not really good advice as I am not looking to sleep permanently any tim soon hopefully. One of the biggest issues for sleep particularly for men as they go past 40 is repeated bathroom visits. High fiber meals are not only good for your general health but also have been shown to aid sleep. I found that when I have a chickpea curry my night bathroom visits reduce to zero! on every occasion that I have recently consumed one (about 12 times). Give it a try, maybe other food variations with high fiber can also do the job. A good book on this subject is Lights Out by T S Wiley

    • Hi Barbara

      Could you please let me know how did you address your adernal issues.

      Thanks
      Suresh

  8. Nice tips for a better sleep. Today’s one of the reason of restless body is not having a good night sleep. The tips and the points are very much are effective ways to get a better sleep. Thanks for sharing this unique and important post with us.

  9. Great overview.
    I personally like magnesium SPRAY.
    It helps me fall asleep, sleep sounder, and it reduces pain/soreness.
    Works very well.