How to Sleep Better — Without Taking Melatonin

Here's how to get better sleep at night naturally, according to experts and sleep doctors.

How to Sleep Better in 2020
Photo: Simone Becchetti/Stocksy

Fact: Sleep matters way more than we may care to admit when it comes to our health. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter knows that sleep deprivation can take a toll on your emotions, your motivation, your concentration, your hunger cues... the list goes on.

But you may not realize how much recovery your brain and body are doing during those (hopefully) eight hours you're asleep. Your muscles repair and grow stronger; your mind processes your emotions, cataloging them into memories. In fact, that’s one of sleep’s most profound powers — it has a tremendous impact on cognition and mood, says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., a Charlottesville, VA-based sleep doctor and author of The Sleep Solution.

Translation: It's nearly impossible to tackle any other goal you may have without first getting your sleep in check. (Just try getting through a workout, making healthy eating choices, or trying to be mindful while running on no sleep.)

Here, experts share how to sleep better at night naturally, so you can better navigate everything the next day throws at you.

Expose yourself to bright sunlight.

“The orange-red rays that shine on us at sunrise and sunset tell our brain and the cells of our internal clock that the day is beginning or ending and alter its melatonin secretion,” explains Bhaswati Bhattacharya, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. You don’t need to become an early bird every day of the year, but occasional bursts of exposure to this kind of natural light can “reboot” your system. (Think: making a point to get up for 6 a.m. yoga one day a week.) “Research shows that exposure to these rays increases our shutdown of melatonin and helps the body regulate the internal clock,” says Dr. Bhattacharya.

Eat these foods before bed.

A small study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine linked a diet low in fiber and high in saturated fat and sugar to poor sleep quality. A carb-rich meal at night may decrease the amount of the sleep hormone melatonin that your body secretes, says Amy Gorin, R.D.N., a dietitian in the New York City area. In the study, the researchers found that eating fiber may help you experience deeper, more restorative sleep. “Try an almond butter protein ball or even something as simple as a tablespoon or two of nuts, paired with a sliced apple or pear,” she suggests.

Create a clean, zen sleep environment.

This is the place where we sleep well. That’s what you want to train your brain to think the minute you enter your bedroom this year. Do it by creating a signature sleep environment, suggests Dr. Winter. The best ones are dark, cool, and quiet (white noise is okay), and organized. Sleep is better in an organized environment rather than a messy one (hence why The National Sleep Foundation suggests making your bed every a.m.), explains Dr. Winter. “There's something nice about walking into a bedroom that's neat and ready to go and having a ritual of taking the pillows off of the bed rather than just getting back into a place that looks like you just got out of it,” he says.

Other ways to eliminate physical (and therefore mental) clutter include keeping your phone charging outside of your room and putting away that stack of laundry lurking in the corner. You can also consider eliminating or covering mirrors, TVs, and computers in your room, too — a Feng-shui recommendation for better sleep that also declutters and simplifies your space.

Harness the power of scent for sleep.

Don’t overlook the power of scent, either. Since scent triggers memories, you can use that to your benefit to create an association between a specific smell and sleep, says Dr. Winter. Try a relaxing pillow mist or put a few drops of an essential oil into a diffuser. Some research shows lavender in particular can serve as a sleep aid: “Lavender stimulates a part of the nervous system that helps trigger relaxation and reduces anxiety,” says N.Y.C. naturopathic doctor Gabrielle Francis. Even simply washing your sheets can do the trick. “It's almost like Pavlovian conditioning where a scent can act as a subtle trigger.”

VIDEO: The Costly Effects of Sleep Deprivation

When it’s time to sleep, make sure the room is dark.

Since light is the primary driver of your body’s circadian rhythm, the ideal sleep environment is completely without light — and that can be surprisingly hard to achieve amidst iPhones in bed, Netflix binges, and city lights outside your window.

One way to take control of your lighting is by investing in blackout shades (try DIY Blinds where you can build custom ones yourself online). Traveling? Gorin says she brings binder clips with her to secure hotel curtains so that no light shines through. (Genius.)

Do an electricity fast one night a week.

Giving up electronics a few hours before bed is a good general rule of thumb. The blue light that’s emitted from our phones is a known disruptor of the sleep hormone melatonin, halting its release, tricking your body into thinking it’s daytime when it’s not. “Electronic screens and digital devices are stimulating to the brain,” says Lipman. “They can disrupt melatonin production and sleep quality, meaning that using them before bed will make it harder to fall asleep.”

But take things a bit further this year and once a week, when you come home from work, instead of giving up just tech for a few hours before bed, make a pact with your family or roommates to not turn on any lights. After all, even light bulbs can emit the bright types of light that our brains associate with day (and thus, staying awake).

“Let the stars, the moon, or the reflection off of the snow be the only light you experience,” suggests Dr. Bhattacharya. Sounds dreamy but it’s science-y, too. A recent study in the journal Current Biology finds that even a few days spent in nature sans electricity — in the case of this study, time spent camping — can help reset people’s natural biological sleep-wake cycles.

Keep your bedroom cool.

One reason why you kick off the sheets and feel restless during the night? Heat is not conducive to sleep. Try this technique from holistic health expert Frank Lipman, M.D. First, take a warm bath, which helps lower your body temperature. Then lower the thermostat. “Aim for around 60 degrees to 68 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep,” says Lipman.

Choose breathable fabrics for sleep.

And on that note, while super warm fleece pajamas might be cozy for lounging, they could be negatively impacting your sleep. Since sleep follows your core body temperature rhythm, they can prevent your body temperature from dropping low enough to drift off. Instead, opt for breathable, cotton pajamas, your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s XXL college football tee — or sleep in the nude, Dr. Bhattacharya says. The key is comfort and staying cool.

Go natural with your bedding, too. “The best type of sheets are natural fibers such as linen, barley, and cotton,” she says. Avoid anything with plastic origin (this includes microfiber, polyester, acetate, nylon, Percale) as it’s not very breathable.

Use crystals to infuse good energy into your bedroom.

Sure, they may not have true scientific evidence behind them, but the placebo effect is a thing. Try an amethyst crystal (to ease stress and tension), celestite (to prevent nightmares and help people manage insomnia), labradorite (to deepen your sleep and help you achieve a dream state), or selenite (to cleanse your energy and the energy of your bedroom to set the mood for sleep), suggests Heather Askinosie, co-founder of Energy Muse and author of CRYSTAL365.

“Place amethyst and labradorite on your nightstand, selenite under your bed, and celestite on a windowsill or another surface,” she says. “Cleanse your crystals once a week to remove any energy they’ve absorbed so they are ready to use again.”

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