8 Tips to Improve Sleep and Fight Insomnia | Chris Kresser

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. Recalcitrant insomnia is my WORST symptom. This is a timely article because last night was rough. With school starting, I have to be up at 6:10am and have breakfast for 3 done and 1 great lunch packed for a student athlete by 7:30am. All of us are gluten free /dairy free paleo. I need to sit on the couch for a while after all that activity this morning. I have tried all the above steps. I have to get out my orange glasses again for the evening, now that the days are shortening, and take my serotonin support supplement again. I just started LDN and that has thrown a wrench in my sleep. I hope someday sleep will be effortless for me again…

    • With any luck, you should be sleeping better on LDN. I did. It just takes the body about a week or so to adjust every time you dose up. I’m considering titrating off of it to see how I’m doing. I never took it for anything specific, just some allergies and severe adrenal fatigue. It helped with the fatigue tremendously, and with mood and energy.

  2. There are a lot of herbal allies for good sleep. I would consider them more natural than the supplements listed in this article.

    Chamomile tea, Motherwort tincture, Hops tea….and a bunch of others.

    I find that valerian flower tea or tincture (glycerite) is a gentle pleasant ease into sleep. It doesn’t help for waking up in the middle of the night but it’s good for going to sleep.

  3. My long-term issue has been sleep maintenance (waking up in the middle of the night and not getting back to sleep quickly). Trudy Scott’s work and book The Anti-Anxiety Solution has helped me identify some of the root causes, which I’m addressing. Low serotonin caused by gluten sensitivity, potential high blood histamine and copper overload…all of which add to anxiety and sleep issues.

    Agree, those of us with low blood sugar need to watch the carbs before bed. High-glycemic carbs would not work for me.

    • I am intersted in Trudy Scott’s book. I think I have all the issues you have just listed. I am going to google her. Low blood sugar issues here too. I do eat carbs at dinner, but was also concerned about blood sugar issues, which we thought could be a cause of my insomnia…but I am not so sure that is the sole root cause.

      • Heather, Trudy (along with Chris, of course!) does great work in this area. HIGHLY recommend her book and her approach. Also see YouTube interviews of her for more info.

        An avid health care research geek and believer in Food As Medicine!

  4. Great article Chris! I would add to this, getting outside immediately upon rising (along with throughout the day) if you truly are having sleep issues. This will jump start your morning cortisol, immediately reduce melatonin output and wake you up more effectively. Being more alert and oriented at the beginning of the day supports that diurnal rhythm of cortisol so well that sleep becomes deeper (= more restorative) at night. 5-10 minutes is all you need!

  5. I wake up four times a night peeing a lot and it has become worse since I started the 14 days paleo (, have been checked at doctor, nothing wrong.) any advice. It disturbs my sleep a lot(61 years old)

    • Try doing full squats every day. Anecdotes gathered from travels have taught me that women in developing and undeveloped countries have fewer issues with incontinence, and little night-time peeing because they squat – a lot – daily. It’s amazing how much squatting goes on in places where there simply isn’t furniture! They squat around cooking fires, squat to eat, squat to do chores, squat while socializing, and squat to care for children. We have gained so much in this country, yet lost a great deal more in many ways.

      When I had my first child at nineteen, my doula advised me to squat daily in preparation for the birth. I did squats, twenty at least four times per day, for the duration of my pregnancy. I gave birth just shy of two hours after arriving at the hospital, and had a completely drug-free and unassisted birth. I was comfortably up and around the following week.

      Dr. Christianne Northrup suggests using a “Squatty Potty” in the bathroom, and squatting in the shower to pee.

    • I watched something about that on a video that was done by a chyropractor once. I’m sorry I can’t recall who. There was some sort of test that one could do to determine if it was a trigger point that was receiving pressure in the prone position or some other unrelated cause.

    • Interesting, as I had this issue for years. I tittered off Paxil and my incontinence was cured! Antidepressants have all kinds of side effects. One side effect Zoloft has is an interference with REM sleep. They don’t tell you this unless you have a sleep study.

  6. Sleep has been my Achilles heel for several years. I wake up in the morning feeling worse than I did when I went to bed the night before. The overwhelming fatigue this causes is getting to be debilitating and is affecting my work. I’ve been to several doctors and they have no idea why I can’t sleep and have the resulting chronic fatigue. I have celiac disease but am very strict about never eating or being exposed to gluten. I take a calcium/magnesium supplement a few hours before bed. Nothing has helped, and I’m at my wits’ end.

    • Elizabeth,

      Niki Gratrix just did an excellent webinar series on chronic fatigue, titled the Abundant Energy Summit. Perhaps those speakers can help you hone in on root cause(s).

      I’m recently gluten free (non Celiacs) and plan to move ahead elimination testing those food items that are considered “cross reactive” to gluten (e.g., corn, oats, legumes, nuts, etc.). Dr Amy Meyers just wrote an excellent blog on the topic.

    • You might want to check if you are iodine deficient. Before you take iodine supplements, you want to have your thyroid tested, including thyroid antibodies, to make sure it’s safe. If your thyroid antibodies are normal, start at a low dose (150 mcg) and ramp up slowly to 1.1 mg. Make sure you take at least 100 mcg of selenium as well. I actually take way more than that, but that’s on an individual basis and I would never recommend that willy-nilly. You might want to do some research into iodine supplementation; many functional medicine doctors support it. My daughter and I (both severe celiacs) found an almost immediate decrease in “frazzled nerves” and a huge improvement in sleep. As well as many other benefits including not catching colds, not always being freezing, skin improvement, decreased inflammation, etc.

    • So do I! I use Brainwaves (32 binaural beats programs), it’s an app on my iPhone and iPod. I use it so frequently that I have a dedicated set of earbuds on my nightstand just for this purpose.

      • You have to actually do it, not just read about it, silly. : )

        I recommend you use a binaural-beat type of program. There’s several of them available, not expensive; some are even free on YouTube altho I can’t vouch for them.

  7. i recently started trying 5-HTP for motility, and found taking it at bed means i have absolutely crazy dreams which leave me feeling like I ran a marathon all night! I discovered that there are groups of people who take it to increase dreaming and remembering of dreams. Some people said it gave them nightmares. Now trying it in the morning… Just one to watch out for…

    • I am taking 25mg of 5-Htp at 6PM and having pleasant dreams. I starting taking it to increase motility though, and 25mg do very little in that front. How much do you take and what are your results with motility?

  8. Hi Chris, great post, thank you !

    I have recently read about a study claiming that 600 mg DHA/d was helping kids sleep better. When I tried to find that article I found claims stating fish oil could induce insomnia.
    I would love to hear your comments on this.

    Cheers, David

  9. Thanks for this article, Chris. My sleep problem is not insomnia, but bruxism (mainly jaw clenching). Meditation, hypnosis, yoga, exercise, sunlight, good sleep hygiene, a dental splint, massage and other physical therapies, and magnesium citrate have all failed. I’ll try the other supplements you mention, but in the meantime, I’m trying Chinese acupuncture. I enjoyed your articles on this too. Any further ideas on bruxism are welcome! It’s a widespread, but poorly understood sleep problem.

    • Hi Jane,

      With regard to jaw clenching and teeth grinding, I know several people who have had success by cutting back or eliminating caffeine. My musician friends first clued me in to how caffeine can affect the muscles in your jaw for some people – important for controlling emboucher when performing, but also for avoiding jaw clenching at night.
      Something to consider!

    • How about neuromuscular dentist? I am seeing Dr. Susan Huxtable in Toronto and my sleep is improving as my deep sleep went from 1 – 1.30 hours a night to almost 3 hours a night. She re-aligned my teeth and retrained the muscles to move more correctly. Find one in your area. Hope this helps.

    • Try an NTI device. It keeps your jaw from touching & clinching. I’ve used one for 10 years.
      Also you can do a before bedtime practice (10 min) letting go of your jaw by putting your tongue between your teeth so the jaw learns to relax (feedback loop)

  10. I’ve had insomnia since the birth of my children and had to resort to low dose amitriptyline. This seemed to stop working recently and I tried melatonin – works absolutely brilliantly and I seem calmer during the day too. This can only be obtained on prescription in the UK for 3 months only, I found the 2mg prescription dose a bit strong (caused nausea) and was also worried about what would happen when my 3 months was up. However I found a source of 1mg tablets obtainable over the internet so very pleased and hopeful I will be able to reduce the tricyclic soon.

  11. @Chris Kresser

    Great Post.
    I am spending most of the time inside my house. Now i will spend some time outside every day.
    What is the ideal room temperature for sleep?

    Hope it will give results.

    Regards
    Priyanka

  12. Great article Chris. I have had intermittent periods of sleeping very badly throughout my life. After starting magnesium it did improve but it wasn’t until I discovered I have high mauve factor and started taking P5P and a higher dose of zinc that things really improved. Recently I haven’t slept well and suddenly realised last night that somehow I had run out of P5P and hadn’t been taking it for at least a few weeks. I’m sure that’s what’s been missing and will be very interested to see how quickly things improve now I have started taking it again.

    • I thought this might be me as well, and it turned out that my DNA analysis recommended supplementing with zinc and p5p so bingo! The problem is that I get horribly constipated on zinc. I take hydroxychobalamin which also constipates and it is really hard to get enough Vit C and magnesium to make a difference. Does anyone know if constipation is a warning to avoid something completely. I avoid Vit D supplements as well because along with constipation it gives me horrible sensitivity to light (eyes). I’ve read recently that some people have not recovered from this affect……..that’s scary.

  13. I have suffered from insomnia for many years caused by eating carbs in the afternoon and evening. I cannot even have a small amount of potato, including sweet potato, fruit, foods made with flour or anything at all that converts to sugar. I have been told by many doctors and nutritionists that this is a very unusual problem because as you said, carbs promote sleep for most people. I don’t understand the science of this if carbs convert to sugar which converts to energy. Any thoughts please? I seem to be a medical mystery!

    • Hi Janice. Just a thought – in your case it could be that you have reactive hypoglycaemia and your blood sugar level is dropping too low after eating those carbs especially if you’re having them without enough protein to keep your blood sugar stable. Low blood sugar will trigger a cortisol release, which in turn prevents melatonin from being released. I’ve suffered with reactive hypoglycaemia and have spent many hours in the past awake in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep but after having a snack will get back to sleep quickly. I’ve also found many clients’ sleep improved by having a pre-bed snack of protein plus carbs. You probably need more protein to keep your blood sugar stable for longer. We’re all individuals so need to work out what works best for us.

      • Thanks so much for your help. I had never heard of ‘reactive hypoglycemia’ before so looked it up. Apparently some produce too much insulin which makes sense. Kind of the extreme opposite to diabetes. I certainly fit the symptoms! I tried a pre-bed snack last night and I did sleep better. A possible diagnosis no-one else including some eminent doctors have come up with, well done.

    • That might be the ‘fat’ I’m looking for at bed time. I could also get my vitamin D, but I keep coming across articles that make me rethink the whole thing. What brand do you buy?
      Thank you

  14. The importance of calcium for calming the nervous system should be noted too, particularly for paleo/dairy intolerant people. I had so much unresolved sleep issues for a long time until I started calcium supplementation which seems to have rectified it almost 100%

    • When I used to eat cereal all through the night, calcium supplements would make me jittery and increase RLS. Now that I’m gluten free (3 yrs) and off all processed foods, I began calcium again and found getting to sleep easier with the addition of calcium (to magnesium) and no side affects at all………..still working on staying there………lol.
      I’m finding my body to be a chemistry lab.

  15. Hi Chris,
    For years i have struggled as a post menopausal woman with sleep. Sleep onset was my problem. I just never got tired! I tried everything for 10 to 15 years. Finally did 23 and me and found out dopamine deficiency might be a problem. Researching herbs, i found Jiaogulan that works on dopamine as well as my sod problem. This herb is amazing! I have slept every night since i started taking it. I also have anxiety and it is so effective for this also. Check this out its a miracle for me.

  16. Thanks for the great tips, Chris!

    A question regarding 5-htp:
    I read that in order for 5-htp to convert to serotonin, there are some cofactors, which are folate, b6, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin c.

    Is this true, and have you seen these to be needed in order to use 5-htp for sleep issues or for anxiety and depression?
    If so, which in your opinion is the most important, and does it matter if the b6 is in pyridoxine hcl or P5P form?

    Thanks!