By Dr. Mercola
Sleep is an integral part of being human, but one that, unfortunately, many people struggle with. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has called insufficient sleep a public health problem, states that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.1
The number may be even higher in actuality, as they used seven hours or more a night as a “healthy sleep duration.” Although everyone’s sleep needs vary, most adults probably need closer to eight hours of sleep a night to reap its full benefits.
If you don’t get enough sleep, your risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer increases. Lack of sleep also raises your risk of stroke, obesity and problems with mental health. So suffice to say, if you’re not sleeping well, it’s time to change that.
Using Melatonin to Adjust Your Internal Clock
In the 21st century, there are many reasons why you may have trouble nodding off, but for many it comes down to a hectic schedule, exposure to too much light at night and not enough exposure to sunlight during the day.
The end result is that your circadian rhythm (or your internal clock or sleep-wake cycle) may be completely out of whack. Oftentimes, making changes to your sleep-hygiene routine and lifestyle, such as exercising more and avoiding exposure to blue light at night, can significantly improve your sleep.
However, the hormone melatonin may also be useful for some people. Your pineal gland, a pea-sized gland in your brain, produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night.
In a normal night’s sleep, your melatonin levels may begin to rise around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and stay elevated for about 12 hours. Then, as the sun rises, your pineal gland reduces your production of melatonin, and the levels in your blood decrease until they’re hardly measurable at all.
Who May Benefit From Melatonin Supplementation?
When your circadian rhythms are disrupted, such as from shift work, jet lag or nighttime light exposure, your body produces less melatonin. It’s these instances when supplementing with melatonin can be most useful, as it may help to reset your internal clock.2
In a Cochrane review that analyzed 10 randomized trials, for instance, melatonin significantly reduced or prevented jet lag when taken close to the target bedtime at the destination.
The researchers recommended melatonin for adult travelers flying across five or more time zones, particularly in the eastern direction and, if necessary, for those flying across two to four time zones.3
Keep in mind that only a very small dose is required — typically 0.25 milligrams (mg) or 0.5 mg to start with, and you can adjust it up from there.
Taking higher doses, such as 3 mg, can sometimes make you more wakeful instead of sleepier, so adjust your dose carefully and, ideally, under the guidance of a holistic health care practitioner.
In addition, melatonin supplementation may be most effective in people with low melatonin levels. If your levels are optimized, you may not experience additional sleep benefits from added supplementation.
Melatonin is also typically something that should be taken for short-term periods only, as taking it longer may interfere with your body’s natural melatonin production.
Dr. Christopher Winter, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, told Time you should limit its use to four or five days at a time:4
“It’s a good way to re-create circadian rhythms when they’ve been disrupted … For chronic melatonin users, your body’s circadian rhythm can get pushed back over time …
So if your brain was naturally secreting melatonin every evening at 7 p.m., it may start to think it doesn’t need to secrete it until 11 p.m., for example, because that’s when you’ve been taking a melatonin pill.”
Are There Other Natural Sleep Supplements?
There are, although remember that even natural sleep aids should be used only as a short-term fix (such as when you’re traveling) or as an adjunct to lifestyle changes that will help you sleep better.
The herb chamomile is typically used in the form of infusions, liquid extracts or essential oils made from the plant’s fresh or dried flower heads. It has sedative effects that may help with sleep, which is why chamomile tea is often sipped before bed.
One study found that people with insomnia who took a chamomile supplement had improvements in daytime functioning and potential benefits on sleep measures as well.6 According to Molecular Medicine Reports:7
“Chamomile is widely regarded as a mild tranquillizer and sleep-inducer. Sedative effects may be due to the flavonoid apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.
Studies in preclinical models have shown anticonvulsant and CNS [central nervous system] depressant effects respectively …  cardiac patients are reported to have immediately fallen into a deep sleep lasting for 90 minutes after drinking chamomile tea.”
2. Kava Kava
Kava kava, or simply kava, is a root native to the South Pacific islands that’s traditionally consumed as a tea. Known for its sedative and anti-anxiety properties, kava has been found to be beneficial in relieving stress-induced insomnia.8,9
There have been reports of liver damage linked to kava supplements, but it’s unknown if the damage was due to a compound in kava, contamination or other reasons.
Valerian is a natural sedative herb that works by increasing levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).10 GABA, an amino acid, is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in your central nervous system (CNS).
Your body uses GABA to dampen nerve activity in your brain, which leads to feelings of calm and relaxation. Many anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills, including alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), also work by increasing the amount of GABA in your brain.
Quite a bit of research has been done on valerian’s benefits for sleep (the root is what’s used medicinally), including a meta-analysis that found the herb improves sleep quality without side effects.11
In another study, valerian extract treated insomnia as well as oxazepam (a drug that’s similar to Valium and Xanax).12 Valerian is available in supplement form, but you can also take it as a tea or tincture.
Your body produces 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) from the amino acid tryptophan (found in foods like poultry, eggs and cheese).
However, eating tryptophan-rich foods is not likely to significantly increase your 5-HTP levels, so 5-HTP supplements (which are made from extracts of the seeds of the African tree Griffonia simplicifolia) are sometimes used.
The chemical 5-HTP works in your brain and central nervous system by promoting the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and thereby may help boost mood and enhance sleep.
In one study, an amino acid preparation containing both GABA (a calming neurotransmitter) and 5-HTP reduced time to fall asleep, increased the duration of sleep and improved sleep quality.13 Further, as noted by the University of Maryland Medical Center:14
“In one study, people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo. Researchers recommend 200 to 400 mg at night to stimulate serotonin, but it may take [six] to 12 weeks to be fully effective.”
There may be some beneficial “side effects” to 5-HTP as well. Research suggests the supplement naturally reduces appetite and food intake (including reduced carbohydrate consumption) and is associated with significant weight loss.15
There are different types of GABA in supplement form, including a synthetic variety produced from the industrial solvent pyrrolidinone and other chemicals and a natural form made via fermentation with Lactobacillus hilgardi, a beneficial bacteria also used to make the traditional Korean vegetable dish kimchi.
Recent research showed the natural GABA had various sleep-improving effects. The researchers measured brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) after participants took 100 milligrams (mg) of natural GABA or placebo. Those who took GABA fell asleep faster and had longer quality sleep time. They also reported feeling more energized in the morning.16
A 2015 study also found GABA produced by fermentation shortened the time it took to fall asleep and also increased non-REM sleep time by 5 percent when taken in combination with Apocynum venetum leaf extract (AVLE).17
Fermented foods like fermented vegetables and kefir are rich in beneficial bacteria that have a marked impact on your GABA levels.18 Since your body produces GABA from glutamate, eating foods rich in this substance may also help to optimize your GABA levels.
Foods naturally high in glutamate/glutamic acid include protein-rich grass-fed meat, pastured eggs and poultry, raw grass-fed cheese and wild-caught fish, along with sea vegetables, ripe tomatoes and mushrooms.
Try Calming Music Before Bed
Music is another effective, inexpensive and non-invasive tool you can use to promote sound sleep. A meta-analysis of six studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that “music may be effective for improving subjective sleep quality in adults with insomnia symptoms.”19
Music has also been found to lead to better sleep quality for sleep-disturbed pregnant women,20 and listening to music at bedtime for 30 days was enough to significantly increase sleep quality in adults with insomnia as well.21 An investigation by Newsweek also revealed insights into the types of music that may be best for sleep. In a survey of more than 650 people, the top-rated composers of “sleep music” included Bach, Ed Sheeran, Mozart, Brian Eno and Coldplay.
Beyond that, the music choices were incredibly varied (encompassing 545 different artists) as were the reasons people chose to listen to music at bedtime. According to Newsweek:22
“In our research, people highlighted the importance of music for blocking disruptive external (such as traffic) and internal (like tinnitus) sounds, for filling uncomfortable silences and providing a sense of companionship and security. This suggests that a one size fits all approach to music for sleep is unlikely to suit all insomniacs, because people are tuning into so many different types of music for so many different reasons.”
Tweaking Your Light Exposure for Optimal Sleep
Perhaps the most important natural “trick” of all for improving your sleep is to make sure you’re getting proper exposure to bright light during the day and no exposure to blue light at night. In the morning, bright, blue-light-rich sunlight signals to your body that it’s time to wake up. At night, as the sun sets, darkness should signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.
Ideally, to help your circadian system reset itself, get at least 10 to 15 minutes of natural light first thing in the morning. This will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals later on.
Then, around solar noon, get another “dose” of at least 30 minutes’ worth of sunlight. A full hour or more would be even better. If your schedule is such that you have to get up and arrive at work before sunrise, aim to get at least that half hour of bright sunlight sometime during the day.
In the evening when the sun begins to set, put on amber-colored glasses that block blue light. You can also dim your lights (whether they’re LED, incandescent or compact fluorescent lamps [CFLs]) and turn off electronic devices to reduce your exposure to light that may stifle your melatonin production.
After sundown, you can also shift to a low-wattage bulb with yellow, orange or red light if you need illumination. A salt lamp illuminated by a 5-watt bulb is an ideal solution that will not interfere with your melatonin production.
If you’ll be using a computer or smart phone in the evening, install blue-light-blocking software like f.lux, which automatically alters the color temperature of your screen as the day goes on, pulling out the blue wavelengths as it gets late. However, as mentioned, the easiest solution, which I recently started using myself, is to simply put on blue-light-blocking glasses so you get no exposure to blue light after sunset.
You’ll likely notice significant improvements in your sleep with just these tweaks alone. However, if you don’t, I suggest you read through my full set of 33 healthy sleep guidelines for a better night’s rest.