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.
Natural options are far preferable to prescription sleeping pills, some of which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and death.5 Some natural options for better sleep include:
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. Also please be sure to read my recent article on the dangers of LED lights.
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.
Another Healthy Light Alternative
Candles are even a better light source than incandescent bulbs, as there is no electricity involved and is the light that our ancestors have used for many millennia so our bodies are already adapted to it. The only problem is that you need to be very careful about using just any old candle as most are toxic.
As you may or may not know, many candles available today are riddled with toxins, especially paraffin candles. Did you know that paraffin is a petroleum by-product created when crude oil is refined into gasoline? Further, a number of known carcinogens and toxins are added to the paraffin to increase burn stability, not including the potential for lead added to wicks, and soot invading your lungs.
To complicate matters, a lot of candles, both paraffin and soy, are corrupted with toxic dyes and fragrances; some soy candles are only partially soy with many other additives and/or use GMO soy. There seems to be a strange mind-set that exposure to small amounts of toxins is OK, even though the exposure is exponential over time!
The soy is non-GMO, is clean burning without harmful fumes or soot, is grown in the U.S. and is both sustainable and renewable. Also, my candles are completely free of dyes. The soy in these candles is not tested on animals, is free of herbicides and pesticides.
It's also kosher, 100 percent natural and biodegradable. All of my fragrances are body safe, phthalate- and paraben-free, and contain no California prop 65 ingredients. The wicks are simply flat braided cotton coated in a natural vegetable wax and self-trimming, which reduces carbon build up.
Enjoying a Circle of Life Farms naturally good soy candle and following the simple burn instructions — located inside the candle lid — will give approximately 70+ hours of burn time. Every candle is hand-poured with love for you to enjoy a cooler, cleaner burn, all while being kind to the both the environment and yourself.
You can search online healthy candles, but if you like, you can use the ones I found at www.circleoflifefarms.com. This is not an affiliate link and I earn no commissions on these candles; I just thought you might benefit from the ones I now use in my home.
How to Make Digital Screens Healthier
When it comes to computer screens, Wunsch suggests reducing the correlated color temperature down to 2,700 K — even during the day, not just at night. Many use f.lux to do this, but I have a great surprise for you as I have found a FAR better alternative that was created by Daniel, a 22 year old Bulgarian programmer that Ben Greenfield introduced to me.
He is one of the rare people that already knew most of the information in this article. So he was using f.lux but was very frustrated with the controls. He attempted to contact them but they never got back to him. So he created a massively superior alternative called Iris. It is free, but you'll want to pay the $2 and reward Daniel with the donation. You can purchase the $2 Iris software here.OLED screen technology is another development that may be better than conventional screens.
"[With] the OLEDs technology, I'm not sure if the color is really stable in every angle you can look at the display," Wunsch says. "But definitely, if you have the screen technology where black is really black, then you have less radiation coming into your eyes and the OLEDs technology is able to provide this.
So the high contrasts between the black and white, all the black areas in the thin-film-transistor (TFT) screen or the standard screen are not really black. They are also emitting shortwave radiation. The OLED screen only emits where you see light, where there is black on the screen, there is no light. This might be preferable as long as you have no problems with the [viewing] angle."
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.