It’s 1:45 a.m., and you’re wide awake. After tossing and turning and trying to fall asleep for well over an hour, you reach for your phone and start Googling desperately: “best natural sleep aid,” “sleep supplements,” “insomnia cures,” “What is wrong with me, and why can’t I fall asleep?”
Your queries produce seemingly endless results — from herbal supplements and prescription sleeping pills to meditation apps and essential oils. Next thing you know, 45 minutes have passed, and you’ve worked yourself into a search frenzy that has only made you more anxious and restless.
As anyone who has found themselves sleeplessly slipping down a similar rabbit hole can attest: Sleep problems are beyond frustrating. And not getting the sleep your body needs can cause a cascade of symptoms that may feel more like an avalanche: excessive daytime drowsiness, low energy, irritability, brain fog, and loss of productivity.
Well, what if we told you that the best natural sleep aid isn’t something you can buy? It’s something you can do — and it won’t require you to get out your credit card or arrange for shipping.
It starts with getting to know your circadian rhythm, your internal body clock, and tweaking your daily habits to set you up to get the sleep you need for more energy during the day. Being strategic about the timing of your light exposure, adjusting your daily habits, and setting up the best possible sleeping environment can help you trade poor sleep and low energy for the restorative sleep that will help you power up for a good day.
In this article, we’ll explain why the myriad sleep aids on the market simply cannot compare to your body’s built-in capacity for achieving naturalistic, restorative sleep. It’s just a matter of adopting the right sleep hygiene habits and working with your circadian rhythm to prime your body, your brain, and your environment for the best sleep you can get.
If you're having trouble sleeping but want to avoid the side effects of sleep medications, you might have heard of using homeopathic or natural remedies like valerian root, passionflower, lemon balm, essential oils, magnesium supplements, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), l-theanine, tryptophan, or 5-HTP. Clearly, there is no shortage of over-the-counter (OTC) sleep supplements claiming to give you better sleep.
While herbal supplements and other dietary supplements may feel safer than sleep medicines because they’re labeled and marketed as “natural,” they often aren't closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means there’s no way to know if they’re completely safe, if they actually work, or if you’re even getting what’s printed on the bottle. The good news? You really don’t need them.
Here’s the thing: Most of us are biologically good sleepers (more on sleep disruption caused by medical conditions later). It’s the things we do on a regular or even irregular basis that can impede our sleep — such as keeping an erratic sleep schedule, drinking caffeine too late in the day, using bright lights at night, and staying up too late — and make us think we need external help to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.
In reality, you just need to remove those obstacles so that your body can do what it was born to do: get the naturalistic sleep you need to feel as good as possible and fuel your day.
But what exactly is naturalistic sleep? It’s the kind of fully restorative sleep you can get without common impediments — like the ones listed above and other life circumstances — that may stand in the way of your natural ability to get the amount of sleep your body biologically needs and cycle through the stages of sleep as your brain requires. Naturalistic sleep is the sleep you get without the use of sleeping pills or sleep-promoting supplements (the latter is what’s referred to as “manufactured” sleep).
If you’re someone who often struggles to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, the best way to meet your sleep need with naturalistic sleep and keep your sleep debt low is to maintain circadian rhythm alignment through good sleep hygiene. If any of those terms sound unfamiliar, don’t worry. We’ll explain everything in the next section.
To untangle your sleep problems, start with the basics. Seeing how the different components of naturalistic sleep fit together will help you draw a clear line between your habits, how you sleep, and how you feel.
How many hours of sleep should you be getting each night? That’s not a trick question. But it’s not a simple answer either because the exact number varies from person to person. Every individual requires a genetically determined amount of sleep that’s ideal for them.
The RISE app uses data from your phone, along with sleep-science-based models, to learn your particular sleep biology and calculate your sleep need in hours and minutes. The more you fall short of meeting your sleep need, the more sleep debt you’ll accumulate.
A running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed (as compared to your sleep need) over the past 14 days, sleep debt is the single number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. Although maintaining a zero balance would be ideal, it’s usually not feasible or realistic.
Rise recommends keeping your sleep debt below five hours. At that level, you can still feel good and function at or near your best. One of the keys to keeping your sleep debt low is circadian alignment.
Heavily influenced by the changes in light associated with the rising and setting of the sun, your circadian rhythm is an internal body clock that governs the timing of your natural sleep-wake cycle and other bodily processes. In the RISE app, we call it your Energy Schedule because it also accounts for the natural peaks and dips in energy you experience during each roughly 24-hour period.
Aligning your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. And what’s the key to circadian alignment? Good sleep hygiene.
The term “sleep hygiene” refers to the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep — from being strategic about the timing of your light exposure, caffeine, and alcohol consumption to exercising during the day and taking time to wind down at night.
Following a specific set of sleep hygiene guidelines will go a long way toward helping you fall asleep more easily and meet your sleep need with naturalistic sleep. You can think of these habits and behaviors as the most powerful and natural sleep aids you’ll ever find — because that is exactly what they are.
Rather than looking for “quick fix” sleeping pills or supplements to combat sleepless nights, taking a more holistic approach is the best way to get the naturalistic sleep your body needs. Following these sleep hygiene guidelines can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.
For more information and sleep hygiene tips, check out our step-by-step Sleep Guide.
Of all of the sleep supplements available on the market, high-quality melatonin supplements are the ones most likely to be worth the investment. Of course, practicing good sleep hygiene to support our bodies’ natural melatonin production is the best way to achieve naturalistic sleep, but there are certain situations where a melatonin supplement can be useful.
If you’re boarding a long flight and you know jet lag usually makes it difficult to adjust your sleep schedule to a new time zone, packing a bottle of melatonin in your carry-on, or using it to shift your sleep schedule in advance, might not be a bad idea. Likewise, melatonin supplements may help shift workers sleep during the day when they have to work the night shift.
In some cases, even flawless sleep hygiene is just not enough. If sleepless nights are negatively impacting your health or quality of life, it’s probably time to consult your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. He or she might recommend relaxation techniques or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI).
If it turns out that your chronic insomnia stems from a sleep disorder or another underlying health condition, your doctor may want to explore treatment options tailored to your specific issues before addressing their associated sleep problems.
With the ever-increasing number of products being marketed as natural sleep aids, trying to separate the potentially worthwhile supplements from the snake oil pills can feel almost impossible. It’s a good thing you don’t have to bother with all that. After all, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, better sleep is always within reach because good sleep hygiene is something you can control.
When you realize you have the power to make the little changes that add up to a big difference in your sleep, you can get on the right track for more energy and better days. And the RISE app makes the perfect companion for just such a quest. It gives you a clear picture of your circadian rhythm, keeps track of your sleep debt, and sends you reminders about your sleep hygiene habits. It's time to make the sleep and daily energy you’ve always dreamed of a part of your everyday life.
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