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. Extraordinary article Chris! I would add to this, getting outside promptly after ascending (alongside for the duration of the day) on the off chance that you genuinely are having rest issues. This will kick off your morning cortisol, promptly lessen melatonin yield and wake you up all the more adequately. Being more ready and arranged toward the start of the day underpins that diurnal mood of cortisol so well that rest gets to be more profound (= more therapeutic) around evening time. 5-10 minutes is everything you need!

  2. Excellent tips indeed…the one that is new to me is the use of magnesium…I’ll try it out to see what improvement I could observe. My insomnia started while I was raising up my youngest kid who is now 3 years old, but I am still struggling to get my sleep back a recent gadget I have started to explore is this little thing: http://www.whitenoisejudge.com/sleep-easy-sound-conditioner-white-noise-machine/ I hope its okay if I refer to it. It helps me sleep via blocking out my partner’s snoring noises and surroundings (I live in an area where lots of construction is going on)

    Thanks for sharing your insightful tips..
    keep it up!

  3. Good ideas. ESPECIALLY keeping things cooler. Layer your blankets and you can always toss some off, but your body is expecting a cool-down at night. The body temp naturally lowers as you near sleep but it’s also an external phenomenon, probably because for most of the year and in a majority of locales, things do get cooler at night.

  4. I have a series of books which I have read many times before, so I know the stories backwards and can just pick them up at any point. They are set in the past over two hundred years ago and have no content that triggers any thoughts about my actual daily life or the modern world. The central characters are all likeable and there are no sad bits. Its rare that I can manage more than a few pages before I drop off. Although not properly tested, I’m sure this is a very safe and non-addictive method with little or no side-effects!

  5. I have read many people write about taking a GABA supplement and have concerns. I did a GABA challenge with my functional med doc in my intitial work-up. It was used to test the integrity of my blood brain barrier. Apparently GABA is a very large molecule and it should definitely not pass through an intact blood brain barrier (bbb). I took a dose of GABA and if I slept much better than usual, it showed my doc that I needed some repair of my (bbb) and also my gut barrier as well, which goes hand and hand with the (bbb). Have any of you heard of this, and do you have an opinion Chris?

    • When you arrive at your destination, spend some time to ground yourself to the earth, by going barefoot on dirt or grass. or you can buy grounding products to use while you sleep. Connecting your body with the earth resets your biological clock to your new time zone. Every living thing on earth is electrically connected to the earth all the time, and therefore grounded by that contact. Humans, not much anymore, since we now wear insulating shoes and rarely go barefoot.

  6. Great article. Regarding the observation that magnesium taurate is a way to get both magnesium and taurine (or magnesium glycinate to get magnesium and glycine), though it makes sense, I’ve never found confirmation that you get the benefits of taurine or glycine when it’s bound with magnesium.

    • Thanks for your comment! I was wondering about this very thing! I’m going to try taking MagTech (which contains magnesium in 3 forms: L-threonate & glycinate & taurate) & also take taurine & glycine separately.

  7. I’m not sleeping well due to ridiculous hot flashes. I can’t say just “night” sweats cause it’s really all the time but it keeps me awake at night. I’m pretty good about no electronics, exercise daily, etc. I used to drink sleepy time tea but figured out in the morning I had “allergy face”..puffy, congested. I’ve also tried tart cherry juice but those aren’t helping the hot flash. I don’t want to take conventional prescriptions (premarin, etc.)

    • Hi
      Smart — avoid Premarin like the plague! 1 friend (42) on it at MIN dose and had a stroke day 30. I get them 6 out of 7, 24 hrs ea. time. Do use
      1. LOOSE NATURAL EXPENSIVE MATERIAL — or just bottoms.
      2. Pure SILK (natural fibre) sheets
      3. Dr. Michael Sealey’s “let it go” audio via U Tube (sexy voice too…,..errrr I meant soothing!
      4. “This too will pass” attitude.
      Our hormones are so complex & intertwined — better to ACCEPT vs resent.
      I had twins while attending Univ., heart attack during emerg. c-section; 1 twin died at delivery & pediatric cardiologist made tough call—a total hysterectomy before I woke up.
      I never: smoked, drank, was very fit, never obese: always exercised, meditated, etc. but I took a med due to debilitating morning sickness — hence my “ACCEPT” attitude. It is 21 yrs after all that and I still sweat at night, daytime but guess what:
      IT COULD ALWAYS BE WORSE.
      Us females are strong: put your mind elsewhere when you start to sweat. I have 14 night items which barely get me through 6 nights–I even change in my sleep! Don’t suppress feelings but don’t take ANY risks with a miracle like our bodies. Good Luck!!’

    • Kathryn- this may not be hormonal. I get these too and while we are not positive, we think these are due to stress- both physical and mental. This is because, for me, I’m not eating enough, and not able to eat enough carbs yet. Something to consider.

    • My hot flashes, more like heat surges with adrenaline, decrease dramatically when I don’t eat too many grams of carbohydrates at one meal. So, I think they are caused a sugar imbalance. I believe in eating good carbs but my body handles them better when I spread out my carb consumption during the day. May or may not be your issue.

    • Agreed to stay off the pharmaceutical estrogen …. It’s proven to cause cancer. I use a bio identical hormone replacement therapy made by the Wiley protocol. 54 never had a hot flash…. No mood swings, very little weight gain over the last 10 years. It will change your life.
      Try getting one of those very large ice packs that you use for back pain you can buy them at the drug store there about 12 x 8″…. put it in a pillow case and use that it night it will really help ….use a couple of them if you need ! : )

  8. I too have embarked on many strategies to try and conquer the the sleep apnea boogieman within.

    What generally works now is in addition to the basics like regular exercise and restrict/eliminate fruit/carbs/sugar til evening etc, then about half an hour before bed munch down some resistant starch (boiled potato cooled in fridge for a few hours), boiled egg(s), (and/or bone broth soup), and magnesium supplement.

    • My husband had sleep apnea for years. Sounds simple, but having extra pillows has cleared it up. He still has restless legs though. In his case it is mainly when he is dreaming, so is unaware of it. Needless to say, it’s me that has the sleep problem!

  9. I’ve had good results with the homeopathic Coffea Cruda, 30 C and Bach Flower Sleep Spray and Sleep pearls.

  10. I have not slept good for since 2010. I have Hashimoto thyroiditis. I am sure this is the reason I do not sleep.
    However, I was turned on earthing. I bought a grounding sheet at (www.earthing.com). and have slept every night since I have had the sheet on my bed. I have, in the past worked in my veg garden barefoot but that did not seem to do the trick.
    This works for me.

    • One can only spend so much time outside barefoot, but grounding yourself can be done almost anytime with simple tools… i am grounded about 16 hours every day, all indoors.

  11. Golden milk, which is milk with turmeric and honey works wonders for a sound night’s sleep. I use full fat coconut milk mixed with filtered water. I sleep like a baby. Adding a dash of black pepper makes the good properties of turmeric absorb more. Also, Numi brand turmeric tea – Amber Sun works well at bedtime.

  12. I work with many customers who have sleep issues. One thing that pops up over and over with both men and women is that they have frequent nighttime urination issues. Do you plan to address this topic in an upcoming article?

    The supplement, lutein, does a nice job of absorbing blue light and supports not only healthy eyes, but also a healthy brain and skin too.

    GABA also works to deactivate stress hormones and to turn off repetitive thoughts. I also recommend the book, Lights Out. Thanks so much for all the interesting articles that you send out!

  13. I dream of the day when the only person waking me up at night is myself. Oh bliss… ! I have my share of insomnia (thank you adrenal fatigue–eating a teaspoon or more of sea salt every day has helped the most with this) but the main reasons I can’t sleep are my three-year-old, my one-year-old, and my four-month-old. Sigh.

  14. I have no trouble falling asleep unless I had a caffeinated drink after 3:00 PM. I frequently go to bed without drinking water and wake up thirsty. If I drink water, then I fall back asleep again usually right away.

    • So you clearly don’t have insomnia Eileen, why comment? That’s not at all helpful to the ones of us that have real sleep issues.

  15. High copper destroys sleep. I’ve had so much therapy for my insomnia…CBT, ACT, mindfulness meditation clinics…none of it cut the insomnia until I learned about copper poisoning. I would guess toxicity is typically a problem for people with hard chronic insomnia.

    • My husband had sleep apnea for years. Sounds simple, but having extra pillows has cleared it up. He still has restless legs though. In his case it is mainly when he is dreaming, so is unaware of it. Needless to say, it’s me that has the sleep problem!

      • Yes it is very important for copper and zinc to be in balance. I think Chris talks about it on on of his blogs. Serum testing copper to zinc ratio should be about 1:1 to 1:1.3. I prefer have a little more zinc and men should be zinc dominant. I eat .5lbs beef liver every week as well as nuts and chocolate and other foods high in copper without supplementing zinc and while copper did not even get close to being too high, it was out of balance with zinc. I had more copper than zinc. Supplementing zinc corrected it and I feel much better. The main symptoms for me were unspecific agitation and poor sleep. To answer your question if it is out of balance yes usually best solution is more zinc. No need to reduce copper unless it’s way out of range in which case you have a more serious problem. If you take too much zinc you can cause low copper. Just don’t take high dosages. Most diets are out of balance favoring copper.