If a good night’s sleep seems like an elusive dream, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that one in three Americans suffers from at least occasional insomnia, and for some, the problem becomes a nightly battle.
One solution — that millions turn to each night — is over-the-counter or prescription sleep medications such as Unisom, Ambien, or Lunesta. “Those drugs serve a purpose and they’re very effective for short-term insomnia,” says One Medical Group’s Steven Winiarski, DO. “The problem is that they work so well that people forget what’s actually causing their insomnia.” He suggests taking a good look at what is keeping you up nights rather than just putting a Band-Aid on it. Examine your sleep environment (it should be quiet, dark and free of electronic gadgets), your daily habits (exercise, diet, caffeine intake), and rule out any medical issues that could lead to sleeplessness (certain medications, thyroid trouble, sleep apnea, anxiety). And make certain you practice good sleep habits.
And when, despite your best efforts, sleep is still occasionally elusive, there are natural, drug-free ways to get some rest. You might have to try a few to find one that works for you. “Insomnia is multi-factorial,” says Winiarski. “Some remedies will be more effective than others depending on the reason — such as travel or anxiety — that you’re having trouble sleeping.”
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally by the body. It’s typically at its highest levels after dark.
How it works: When melatonin levels spike, it works like a signal to the body that it’s time to sleep. But when your natural circadian rhythms are off — as happens when you travel to different time zones — supplemental melatonin (taken at least an hour before bed) has been shown to help reestablish a normal sleep schedule.
Best for: People who travel frequently or who have varied sleep schedules because of shift work. Do not take melatonin every night.
Valerian is an herb that has been studied fairly extensively, but has mixed reviews when it comes to treating insomnia. It’s worth noting that valerian has an unpleasant pungent odor and taste both in tea and pill form.
How it works: “Valerian acts as a relaxant, so taken right at bedtime it may help you unwind,” says Winiarski.
Best for: Since valerian will help you relax, it may be helpful for people whose sleep difficulties are caused by anxiety or stress. Winiarski cautions that valerian (like most herbs and supplements) are not regulated by the FDA. “Buy a trusted, well-recognized brand and follow the usage instructions they provide,” he suggests.
A warm drink before bed, such as a cup of non-caffeinated tea or a mug of warm milk, has long been used as remedy for sleeplessness.
How they work: Certain teas (especially those with evocative names like “Nighty Night” and “Sleepytime”) contain combinations of herbs like valerian, chamomile and passionflower designed to promote relaxation. But don’t expect a hot drink to work miracles: “No studies have shown that warm drinks before bed will help with the onset of sleep,” says Winiarski.
Best for: While scientific evidence may be lacking, Winiarski says not to underestimate the power of a bedtime ritual. “If drinking tea helps you relax and unwind as part of your nightly routine, that can be helpful.”
A soak in the tub an hour or so before you head to bed not only feels good, it may help you get to sleep more easily.
How it works: A drop in body temperature has been shown to help with the onset of sleep. “Taking a warm bath will raise your body temperature, but once you get out, the resulting drop in temperature can help promote sleep,” says Winiarski.
Best for: Anyone who has difficulty falling asleep. “A warm bath can be part of your nightly routine — a ritual that helps prepare the body and the mind for sleep,” he says. Since a warm soak can also relax muscles, a pre-bedtime bath may have the added benefit of reducing muscle aches and stiffness that are keeping you awake.
How it works: Intense exercise (whether yoga or another type of workout) done early in day has been shown to help you sleep better. Closer to bedtime, you want to stick to a more relaxing, meditative routine. For the perfect pre-bedtime yoga routine, see 6 Yoga Poses to Help You Sleep.
Best for: Anyone willing to devote 20 or 30 minutes to relaxing yoga poses and/or quiet meditation may find that it’s the perfect antidote to a stressful day. But it can take practice to learn how to truly quiet your mind in a way that promotes relaxation. “You can’t spend that time making mental lists in your head,” warns Winiarski. “That will actually be more anxiety-provoking and may make it even harder to fall asleep.”