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. 


Join the conversation

  1. I enjoyed this article. Thank you!
    Have you written on neuropathy which is not caused by diabetes, or chemotherapy? I would like to learn the cause of my neuropathy which came on at the same time as my Hashimoto’s diagnosis. It has not gotten better and maybe getting worse, although I am on thyroid medication. Any suggestions?

    • Like Maria,I also have neuropathy at the Time I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease .I have had it now for six years.I have been treated for the Graves by radioactive iodine and now take thyroid medication.I take lots of B12 and B1 but still it continues.I am wondering if the nerves in my feet will ever heal.

    • You might try having your B12 level checked, that is part of my treatment for nueropathy. I am having good luck with ALA, alpha lipoic acid, and other sups to balance blood sugar. Shots for b12 didn’t help as I have a gene mutation that is interfering with my body utilizing b12, and other vitamins. I don’t understand it all but, I know I’m doing better with sublingual b12. Magnesium too, of course. good luck.

    • My integrative MD tested me for the MTHFR gene defects which cause problems in methylation of B12 ( common cause of neuropathy) and folate. I am heterozygous for one of the defects which means I have a 70% likelihood of impaired methylation. Another MD here in Austin, Texas has developed a cream called “The Missing Link” that provides a form of methy B12 and methyl folate. I am trying this. It’s too soon to report on the neuropathy but I’m hopeful.

  2. My husband and i use a half drop of vetiver essential oil across the bottoms of our big toes applied by our thumb. If you look ar reflexology charts it makes sense. If we still have problems we diffuse vetiver and cedarwood or lavender. Out cold every time. I had to use a half to a quarter dose of OTC sleep med due to shoulder pain at night. Anything natural wasn’t working. The vetiver oil allowed me to get off the sleep med. So happy! Before my injury 5-Htp worked fairly well. But now I’ll stick with my oils.

  3. I downloaded the f.lux once and it turned out to be a virus by the same name. My pc had to go to the shop to get fixed. It sure sounded like a good idea!

  4. 9. Stop reading any articles about sleep.

    If it’s about how good sleep is, ignore it, it will just make you feel worse and more stressed. It it’s about how to fix it, unless the problem is a new one, chances are you know all the suggestions and it will just be a bummer to reread all the things that never worked for you.

    10. Retrain your body’s associations with the bedroom.

    If you’re awake, GET OUT OF BED. Go to another room and do something else. The more awake time your body spends in bed, the more it will think it’s ok to be awake in bed and instead of beds making you feel sleepy, they will turn your brain on. Don’t go to bed until you’re practically falling down standing up. Set your alarm early enough so that you’re waking up out of a deep sleep. Once you do this for a while and are basically fast asleep from hitting the pillow to the alarm, slowly bring bedtime earlier and wake up time later by a few minutes each day. If you start to feel awake in bed, cut the hours back again. Keep going until you consistently are fast asleep from pillow > alarm for an adequate number of hours. You will be absolutely miserable in the short term and horribly sleep deprived, but it will be worth it in the end.

    • I’m not sure if you even know how much wisdom there is in your first suggestion, but it doesn’t get truer than that.

  5. Valerian root especially in combination with melatonin works for me….. And this has been a lifelong problem for me

  6. Yesterday I googled “Carb-loading at night” and foung a 3 year old article with some other interesting points. For instance, it suggested that high glycemic carbs were better than low glycemic carbs because it may spike your insulin, however this also means you aren’t sleeping with lots of sugar in the blood for many hours. I am unsure where the blogger got his information, but he said that insulin affects Growth Hormone. So the high glycemic quick release carbs wont interefere with your nocturnal hGH cycle.

    Magnesium and P5P (Vitamin B6) are my sleep remedies 🙂

  7. I have the type of insomnia where I wake up around 3 or 4 am and can’t get back to sleep. I had tried some supplement remedies — melatonin, magnesium etc with minimal help. Then I tried all the other usual recommendations — don’t lay in bed watching the clock — get up and read or listen to soft music or take a warm bath, etc. Nothing helped. Then one night after being awake for a couple hours, my stomach growled. I was surprised that I might be hungry. I grabbed something to eat that was quick and didn’t require cooking — 4 cookies and 1/2 glass of water. I fell asleep immediately when I laid back down. While certainly not Paleo, cookies or a warm cup of milk with honey are my go-to remedies that always fix my insomnia problem within minutes. I’ll take the good Paleo sleep over the strict Paleo diet any day. In fact, this “cure” has me rethinking the validity of the Paleo diet in general.

      • I am under the impression that I wake in the middle of the night due to blood sugar instability, as the article suggests. I get hypoglycemic, and the subsequent cortisol spike wakes me.

        I probably run better on more carbs, but, I need the right PFC mix to avoid the spikes and dips.

        • I have been trying to figure out the right PFC mix as well but then Dr. Glidden suggested raising the fat intake and I tried bone broth which got me back to sleep. Then I see that Chris is offering the same suggestion, so maybe fat is key. I tried cream cheese but did not have the same results. I would like to be able to avoid the getting up to heat up and drink bone broth or eat if I could come up with a high fat alternative before going to sleep …….bedtime bacon?

    • You might check with a doctor trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine because there are specific organs connected to every hour of the day. Also NDs know about this…And possibly Chris does too.

    • That’s good you found your way to manage insomnia. No need to “rethink paleo”, though. Don’t forget, that “one man’s food is other person’s poison. People have different metabolic types and I think it is wise to realize it would be naive to think that a one size fits all approach is applicable. You just listen to your body, if you’re tuned in, you’ll get the message – and you did. Reading the variety of comments about what worked for different people, just confirms this…

    • Arie,
      I agree with your questioning the Paleo diet. I have never had sleep issues in my life and now that I’ve been strict Paleo for 3 years, I have had insomnia (waking 6 times a night) for the past year. It has really made me wonder if Paleo isn’t necessarily the way to go. I just feel like my whole body has been out of whack for the past 2 years. They say diet is responsible for the majority of health problems….then maybe Paleo isn’t the holy grail of diets. I don’t know, that’s just where my conclusions have been taking me lately.

  8. Can someone describe the symptoms of RLS in detail. I’m trying to figure out if that’s what’s going on with my legs. Their discomfort keeps me from getting comfortable and going to sleep.

    • I don’t get it very often — mostly when I lose weight — but it’s an uncontrollable compulsion to move your legs. It’s like trying to hold your breath past when your body needs to breathe, you can’t stop yourself from breathing.

      • Do your legs feel irritated/agitated like the nerve endings are hypersensitive or like there’s something crawling in them beneath the skin and sometimes deeper, and sometimes it’s a dull ache, not always in the same place? Moving my legs is the only thing that makes the discomfort disappear. Sleeping on my side, which has always been most comfortable, has now become difficult because it’s worse when my legs are on top of each other. Has anyone in this situation tried a body or leg pillow, and does that help? Is there a brand, shape or type that is best? Sleep quality is really suffering!

        • My recommendations from an MD have been;
          testing for b12, ferritin, and folate, as well as trying a low dose of off label use of drugs for Parkinson’s disease. So far I’m not agreeing to drugs, or cpap mask for my sleep issues. I’m trying nutrition, exercise, vitamin sups, amino acids, mouth guard for TMJ and CBD oil. Melatonin sup has helped me also.
          I became sleep disordered from a low carb diet.
          I lost 60 lbs. but couldn’t shut down my brain
          at all, for months, I was crazy. I had to add carbs and try anything and everything. Sleep is HUGE.

        • A full body pillow, tube-shape, helps me alot. Also, once I quit using hormone replacement, things calmed down. I also found out that if I take a supplement that does not suit me, my RLS returns. I cannot take 5_htp, melatonin, taurine or phosphatidyl serine… I get the royal buzz from those supplements, the reverse of what they intend to create.

          • YES!!! i thought i was alone in this – all these supps are like speed to me! Melatonin & htp5 ESPECIALLY!!!!

            • No, not alone. And now I have that RLS or whatever it is… again.. keeps returning. Never had this before menopause. Have tried every trick in the book to calm it down and get sleep, but to no avail. I have used every item on Chris’ list and gave them a good go! They worked the opposite for me, and I almost climbed out of my skin with worse insomnia and buzzing. I even tried progesterone, and that worked for a time, and then reversed as well. Had to stop it.

    • Be sure to look into look into Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD). There is some correlation to RLS, but distinctly different. One is more a dopamine dysfunction and the former more related to adrenaline in the CNS. RLS seems to thrown about a lot when they really mean is PLMD. This article included. Ultimately, PLMD means you have a low metabolism

      • Thanks for alerting about PLMD. I looked it up though, and that’s definitely not me, even though apparently 80% of people with RLS have it. I did used to get calf cramps, but that was resolved with magnesium, once I figured out it was due to mineral deficiency. Now it’s just RLS as far as I can tell from the symptom descriptions and that’s also consistent with my markers for inflammation and having SIBO/IBS.

  9. I usually fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow, but I recently started taking a copper supplement and didn’t sleep for a week. My usual sleep pattern resumed as soon as I stopped the copper, so keeping copper and zinc in balance could be a factor for some people.

  10. Caffeine? I’m surprised nothing was mention in the article about caffeine and insomnia. Even a little caffeine in the early in the day affects my sleep at night. I know it’s individual. So a lot of people can drink caffeinated beverages and still sleep well, but I think it should be mentioned as something to consider if you have insomnia. Some people have a strong and lingering reaction to caffeine, affecting sleep and anxiety.

    • I didn’t notice it wasn’t there……..lol. You know something else that might be mentioned is avoiding Sleepy time tea if you are a person who gets hay fever. I was drinking a lot of it because everyone suggested it to me. I had no idea the chamomile was making my RLS worse. I had never heard this before and now that I know, I am hearing it a lot.

  11. I use a combo of natural remedies, switching them up as needed. Hyland homeopathic remedies: “Insomnia” and “Calms,” various herbal oil mixtures from Elizabeth Van Buren (online) such as “Sleep,” “Break the Cycle” and “Stress Relief,” also Yogi Calming tea. These in varying combinations along with most of Chris’ points work most of the time, but it’s taken years to get there.

  12. The 5_HTP, L-Taurine and Melatonin have the reverse effect on me: I get an unstoppable buzz. And any magnesium gives me diarrhea, even the tiny bits in Smartwater, Fiji Water or Pedialyte.

    Any suggestions of other things that might work?

  13. passionflower tincture really works well for me. Sometimes I get the occasional mind will not sleep. Also I try to turn off tv, cell etc before bed. I like to read a book before I fall asleep -which is also helpful.

  14. I highly recommend anyone with insomnia to get a referral for a sleep apnea study. Because I am slim and don’t snore, not a single physician I’ve seen ever suggested this so I suffered unnecessarily for a decade. When I did the sleep study, at the advice of a friend, it showed that my breathing almost stops 24 times an hour! I now use a CPAP machine and I have wonderful dreams (REM sleep) and wake rested. My sleep doctor said that I have a small jaw (TMJ and crowded teeth and lots of orthodonture) and that doctors are recently realizing that this profile can have sleep apnea. Also, I can’t breath through my nose very well due to MCS, food allergies and airborne/environmental allergies. So I also take a nasal spray which helps with the apnea along with wearing Breathe Right nasal strips. I used to have terrible anxiety too, but a GABA product has pretty much eliminated that. I look forward to your post about natural sleep apnea remedies.

  15. And when NONE of these things work?? I’ve been dealing with insomnia for over 12 years and follow all of these recommendations to the letter, with no improvement. There are two things not listed above that are critical to me sleeping at all

    1. avoid EMF as much as possible. Too much wifi and cell phone activity and I’m up ALL night.
    2. I have the COMT gene mutation. This means I do not break down catecholamines properly. So I am always wired. I find sulphurophane to be helpful with this to some extent.

    I think addressing the unavoidable EMF exposure is increasinly important. And of course, genetics.

      • RLS symptoms can appear if you become low in ferritin stored in your brain. A blood test can verify your iron levels. This can be a problem for post-partum women, those with endometriosis and/or adenomyoisis, people with colon polyps or other sources of gastrointestinal blood loss, and those deficient in certain other vitamins and minerals that can effect iron metabolism. Onset of RLS symptoms was the first warning my brother in law had that he had colon cancer.

      • Unplug it at night, or when no one is using it. You can also plug in to your router, rather than using WifI. That’s what I do.

    • I am COMT heterozygous. Thanx for the tip.

      I have suffered insomnia my entire life. I found relief after doing an elimination diet for 3 or 4 months. It was amazing. 7 or 8 hours (too much I know) of sleep each night. Then it all stopped and I can’t figure out what happened. The thing that confuses matters even more is that I was reading Kabbat Zinn’s book on meditation at the time. I’m not sure if that was it, the change in diet or the combination.

      • Hi Jackie- I’ve had similar issues. I have used SO MANY techniques and supplements. Many work really well for a few weeks or so, then stop working. It’s maddening. I get really frustrated when I see these articles ‘Sleep like a baby with these tips…!’ When I’ve done every last one and I don’t see improvement. I would suggest getting your genetic profile done and see if you can get more insight. And turn off phones and wifi!

    • About the genes…Is the COMT the same as MTHFR?
      I tried unplugging my WIFI and I slept horrible last night but I also didn’t have but a 1/2 cup rice with dinner….this IS MADDENING!!

      • MTHFR is not the same as COMT. I do not have MTHFR, but the COMT definitely effects my sleep as I have a hard time breaking down catecholamines. I would be adamant about keeping wifi and cell phone exposure to a minimum. For me it’s cumulative. The more exposure I get during the day, the worse my sleep.

    • Read some of the stuff that Dave Asprey (Bulletproof exec) has written on sleep…and he has written a TON on hacking sleep. I’m currently trying a couple of the phone apps that he suggest and am thinking about getting the GABA…

  16. Tart cherry juice, 1 ounce in the am and 1 ounce one hour before bed has been a lifesaver for me. Helps me go to sleep and stay asleep. Lots of carbs, so I work it in to my daily allotment.

  17. Nice summary, but I would make two similar comments, both about hormones and older people.

    Melatonin levels naturally fall with age and people over 50 can almost certainly benefit without harm from doses up to 5 or 10 mg. (Melatonin is used at 25-50 mg doses for prevention of cancer recurrence. Most folks I know sleep well with it.)

    Secondly, bio-identical hormone replacement therapy can make a UNIVERSE of difference for many men and women, say from their late 40’s onward. Properly prescribed and managed, they are safe to use for life.

    Thanks for your regular and insightful work!

    • Deborah,
      Do you think that supplementing with melatonin shuts off the body’s ability to make it? I’ve heard that from a few different naturopaths about hormone supplementation. What’s your opinion?

      • Hi Jackie,

        Yes, many people SAY that, but I have yet to see or be shown the research literature that proves it. There IS research literature that shows supplementation does NOT cause reduced production.

        That said I don’t recommend younger people (who should be able to make their own melatonin) take it for a long time: they need to look into why they’re not making enough or why it’s not working. Supplementation could conceivably impact production in a roundabout way, so I’m open to that possibility.

        For people over 50 (levels 1/5-1/3 that of younger people) or people who have had certain cancers, I think it’s fine and even wise to take 5+ mg nightly. A little different from most peoples’ advice, I think, but in my reading, well justified!


    • yep! if only my doctor had put me on HRT during pre menopause instead of Antidepressants I would not be where I am now, at 65 using HRT to fix sleep, anxiety, blood sugar,
      etc. Progesterone is good for calming the body. I take a little of estrogens and testosterone too. Antidepressants are given to women left and right, when depression is just a symptom of deeper issues of perimenopause. Perimenopause should not be just a mental health issue. I just wish mainstream medicine could be more wholistic. Aaargh!

      • 100% agree with you Zana, but I think even holistic docs often lag behind the newest information which would really recommend HRT for most if not all women: mood, brain, bones, breast, colon health… other than that, not much… hah!