It's common practice for us to turn to sleep aids whenever we're struggling with one (or more) sleepless nights. Perhaps your back pain is keeping you up at night. Or maybe your long to-do list at work makes it hard for your mind to switch off and get some much-needed rest.
Unfortunately, sleep aids come with their own can of worms, especially those that are habit-forming (they can worsen your sleep and, by extension, your daytime functioning). In an attempt to play it safe, you Google "non-habit-forming sleep aids," to lower the odds of an unhealthy relationship with your sleeping pills.
What many people don't know, though, is that we actually don't need sleep aids of any kind, habit-forming or not. Your body is already biologically primed for healthy, restorative sleep, not the "manufactured" sleep that comes with sleep medications and supplements.
In this article, we’ll show you why the best non-habit-forming sleep aid is good sleep hygiene tied to your unique circadian rhythm. For the ultimate plot twist, this potent combination is a healthy habit in and of itself. Read on to find out more.
Please note: The information provided is not intended as medical advice.
Thanks to key biological processes that are regulated by your circadian rhythm and sleep homeostasis over a roughly 24-hour period, your body already knows how to get a good night's sleep.
To illustrate, sleep homeostasis is characterized by the daily buildup and nighttime depletion of adenosine in your brain. Given that adenosine is a drowsiness-inducing compound, it contributes to sleep pressure that accumulates during the day to help you drift off to sleep when night falls.
On top of that, your circadian rhythm (controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain) dictates the production of melatonin. It’s a light-sensitive hormone produced 2-3 hours before you sleep. This circadian phase shift is known as the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO), which marks the start of your Melatonin Window in the RISE app. Going to bed within this window of time, when your brain produces peak levels of melatonin, gives you the best odds of falling asleep and staying asleep through the night.
Assuming you're not engaging in behaviors that inhibit naturalistic sleep, like coffee or alcohol too close to bedtime, your brain naturally optimizes your sleep architecture every night. It's excellent at knowing how much time you need to spend in every stage of sleep.
You can't optimize your sleep so as to need less sleep at night than your biological sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs). That said, you can definitely optimize the time spent reaching your personal sleep need by avoiding various impediments to healthy, naturalistic sleep.
Case in point: Caffeine consumption too late in the day and Netflix-ing into the wee hours of the night. By replacing these sleep-detracting activities with sleep-supporting habits that help you consistently meet your sleep need, you give your brain ample time to get enough sleep for better energy the next day.
Popping a sleeping pill into your mouth isn't a cure-all for your sleep troubles. That's because habit-forming sleep aids "manufacture" sleep rather than give you the restorative, naturalistic sleep you thrive on. Meanwhile, non-habit-forming sleep aids are often ineffective in resolving your sleep problems, as you’ll see later.
According to the two laws of sleep (based on the two-process model of sleep regulation, first established by sleep scientist Alexander Borbély in the 1980s), sleep aids generally:
Let’s explore the different types of sleep aids on the market and how they often lead to more sleep troubles than they are worth.
Not all sleep aids are created equal, which is why they are classified into:
Sleep aids are a broad category consisting of sleep medications and supplements. Here, we look at some commonly used sleep drugs:
In some cases, sleep medications may be used for more than one health problem. For example, Tylenol PM acts as an antihistamine (diphenhydramine) and pain reliever (acetaminophen).
On the other hand, we have natural sleep aids. Thanks to their rising popularity, you've probably heard of melatonin supplements, valerian root, and chamomile, to name a few. In fact, you may have even used some of them for your sleep problems.
Sure, sleep aids may occasionally come in handy, when you’re burdened with jet lag or recovering from surgery.
For the most part, though, sleep aids worsen your sleep rather than improve it. A 2012 review found that benzodiazepines "tend to suppress slow-wave sleep (N3) and REM sleep," leading to more time spent in stage 2 sleep. Because you can more easily wake up from the lighter stage 2 sleep compared to the deeper slow-wave sleep, there’s a higher likelihood of sleep interruptions, like middle-of-the-night awakenings. Consequently, it becomes harder to meet your sleep need. As such, your sleep aid intensifies your sleep debt rather than reducing it.
On top of that, sleep medications often come with unwanted side effects, such as drowsiness, constipation, confusion, and a dry mouth. A Time article even highlighted that the ill effects of OTC sleep aids are more pronounced among older adults. It also warned that long-term reliance on sleep drugs is associated with a greater risk of dementia.
In light of these troubling facts, you may think natural sleep aids are a safer alternative. Keep in mind, though, that the FDA doesn't regulate the sleep supplement industry. This has led to product safety issues like dosage inconsistency. When 16 brands of melatonin supplements were analyzed, they contained 83% less to 478% more active ingredients than what's stated on their packaging.
Most importantly, natural sleep aids aren't that effective for sleep problems either. The ever-popular CBD (cannabidiol) is the perfect example. It's more adept at soothing anxiety than directly promoting sleep (although stress reduction itself can directly help you drift off more easily, possibly leading to better sleep). The same is true for other purportedly sleep-supporting herbs such as valerian root and chamomile.
The trend continues with sleep-inducing dietary supplements like magnesium. While this essential mineral potentially increases your body's GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production (a brain chemical that promotes relaxation and sleepiness), magnesium supplementation is more beneficial for those deficient in the micronutrient.
What if you do have a sleep disorder that needs resolving? With all the potential side effects linked to sleep aids, you're probably better off with therapeutic interventions.
According to a new clinical guideline by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), sleep medications should not be used as the first-line treatment of insomnia. Instead, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) should be prioritized. Only when CBT-I isn't solely effective should you and your primary doctor look toward sleep aids as a supplemental or secondary intervention.
Ample research suggests that you may not need to give sleep aids further thought. A systematic review and meta-analysis involving 20 studies and 1,162 participants found that CBT-I improved objective sleep parameters such as total sleep time and sleep efficiency (the amount of time you spend asleep while in bed). On the whole, the test subjects felt they had a better standard of living post-treatment.
Often sleep problems are intricately tied to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Fortunately, CBT-I is a two-pronged approach that tackles both types of ailments to improve your health and wellness. A 2018 systematic review stated that "CBT-I presents a promising treatment for depression comorbid with insomnia." It specifically noted that "insomnia improvement due to CBT-I may mediate the improvement in depressive symptoms."
If you'd like to get in touch with a health-care provider licensed in CBT-I, the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine is a good resource. However, relying only on CBT-I (with or without sleep aids) will not resolve your sleep problems if you don't already have a solid foundation in good sleep hygiene.
Many of us are biologically good sleepers. Yet we often have trouble sleeping because we are equally good at self-sabotaging sleep. If you identify as such, it’s time to take a long, hard look at your sleep hygiene practices.
People often mistake good sleep hygiene as healthy sleep habits that only take place when the sun goes down. This could be anything from a consistent sleep-wake cycle to a relaxing evening wind-down. While you are on the right track, take note that optimal sleep hygiene is so much more than your pre-bedtime rituals.
A close-up look at the definition of sleep hygiene reveals it is "the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep." Many of these behaviors actually take place during the day and don’t involve literal snoozing. Because they still directly impact your sleep that night, they come under the wide umbrella of sleep hygiene.
A widely relatable example would be caffeine consumption in the late afternoon. You may think you're playing it safe when you down a caffeinated beverage at 4 p.m. because your bedtime is still hours away. However, the long-lasting effects of caffeine (approximately 10 hours) can lengthen your sleep latency (you take longer to fall asleep that night) and delay your bedtime. Naturally, when your alarm goes off for work the next morning, you don't have enough time to meet your sleep need, so you wake up extra-groggy the next morning with lower energy levels for the day.
This is why it's so important to practice good sleep hygiene 24/7. But healthy sleep hygiene will only be at its most potent when it's pegged to your unique chronobiology.
That's where RISE can help. Ahead, we show you how our app's science-based sleep hygiene habits help you structure your day to achieve better sleep for better days.
Light is the greatest circadian cue, as it starts and stops your internal body clock. We recommend stepping into the light the moment you wake up. Take your morning cuppa joe outside or sip it just by an open window (light viewed through a closed window won’t be as effective).
On the flip side, light exposure too close to your bedtime (especially of the blue light variety) disrupts your body's natural melatonin production. Remember, this light-sensitive hormone only comes into existence under dim light conditions.
How RISE can help: Add the "Block All Blue Light" habit to your Energy Schedule. Ninety minutes before your Melatonin Window (the optimal period for you to hit the sack), you’re reminded to don your blue-light blocking glasses and protect your eyes from melatonin-disrupting light sources.
Exercise is another way to promote better sleep at night, but only if you sweat it out at the right times. Instead of exercising just before bed, research favors morning and afternoon workouts.
When your heart rate accelerates, your body releases copious amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that boost alertness. Coupled with the spike in your blood pressure and core body temperature, it's no wonder you feel like a new person after your workout session. Unfortunately, these feel-good biological changes intensify your wakefulness and dampen your drive for sleep. That’s why scheduling your workout too close to sleep will only delay your bedtime rather than help you doze off quickly.
How RISE can help: Add the "Earlier Workouts" habit to your Energy Schedule. It will prompt you to stop exercising at least one hour before bed. If you must work out at night, choose a light- to moderate-intensity workout at least 90 minutes before sleep to give your body enough time to cool down. A cold shower as part of your wind-down can help bring down your body temperature more quickly.
Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine are common sleep-detracting stimulants. Consuming them too late in the day not only makes it hard to fall asleep but also disrupts your natural sleep cycle.
For instance, alcohol is often misused as a sleep aid. Because it attaches to your brain receptors and blocks neurons from emitting their signals, you experience "manufactured" sleep instead of the healthy, naturalistic version. What's more, alcohol incites sleep fragmentation (you keep waking up during the night) so that you’re less likely to have met your sleep need come morning.
How RISE can help: Our "Limit Caffeine" and "Avoid Late Alcohol" habits tell you when to cut off these stimulants based on your unique chronobiology.
Scarfing down a large meal at dinner is a surefire path to gastrointestinal discomfort when you lie down. Cue the indigestion, acid reflux, and nocturnal bathroom breaks. Certain foods, like highly processed carbohydrates, also downplay serotonin levels (a hormone that's converted to melatonin when sleep is needed).
To boost your chances of a good night's sleep, your last call for meals should be at least 2-3 hours before bed. If you need to snack late in the evening, keep it under 600 calories and stay away from carb-rich foods.
How RISE can help: Our "Avoid Late Meal" habit helps ensure you eat your last meal of the day on time and avoid scavenging in the kitchen once dinner is over.
Because we are often keyed up from the day's events, an evening wind-down is non-negotiable. Making time to slow down, unwind, and relax helps us slide into the right frame of mind for sleep.
But the activities you choose can make or break your wind-down routine. On the positive side, read a book, listen to soothing music, or take a warm bath. Avoid cognitively arousing activities like stimulating video games or a Netflix episode that ends on a cliffhanger — you'll end up procrastinating your bedtime and defeating the original purpose of your wind-down, which is to decelerate your mind and body to fall asleep by your target bedtime. And if you'll recall, all that blue light from your devices will only hamper your sleep to a greater degree.
How RISE can help: The "Evening Routine" habit allows you to customize your evening wind-down to your liking. Once you've added it to your Energy Schedule, it reminds you to decompress in the 1-2 hours before sleep.
The best environment for sleep is one that's cool, dark, and quiet.
First, keep the thermostat between 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit to mimic and support the drop in your body temperature as sleep approaches. Also, artificial lighting can trick your brain into thinking it's still daytime, so a pitch-black bedroom is best. We recommend also opting for blackout curtains and an eye mask.
Last but not least, remove all sources of sleep-distracting noises. If complete silence isn't possible, soundproof your room with carpets, other floor coverings, curtains, and closed windows. Don't forget your earplugs, too!
How RISE can help: The "Check Your Environment" habit pings you right before bed to ensure your sleep sanctuary is indeed cool, dark, and quiet.
We've listed a few ways of how some of the 16 science-based habits in RISE can help you perfect good sleep hygiene. But forming healthy habits that actually stay with you can be tough. That’s why we employ cutting-edge behavioral science to help you successfully forge a daily sleep-promoting routine.
To do that, we looked toward the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM), the bedrock of our app. This model was created by Dr. BJ Fogg, a renowned behavior scientist at Stanford University and author of the important book on behavior change, Tiny Habits.
According to the FBM, motivation, ability, and a well-timed prompt are necessary for a habit to stick. Here’s how RISE uses these three elements to help you hone good sleep hygiene and circadian alignment to consistently meet your sleep need for better days ahead.
When it comes to sleep, everyone's ultimate goal is to feel and function at their best during the daytime — or as close to it as possible. And it's indeed possible once you keep sleep debt low (preferably below five hours) and work with your circadian rhythm.
The good thing about the RISE app is that your sleep score is imminently actionable to get you feeling better every day. This keeps your motivation going on a high note. In fact, 80% of our users feel the benefits of enhanced productivity, performance, and well-being in as soon as five days.
“The first step is the hardest to take” may not be the case if you start with simple, baby steps.
That's why each of our 16 science-based habits (aka the tenets of good sleep hygiene) are ideally and purposely small behavioral changes. Case in point: the simple act of wearing blue-light blocking glasses 1.5 hours before sleep or going for a quick walk instead of reaching for your coffee mug during your midday break.
For habits to stick, it helps to remove as much friction to achieving the new behavior as possible. Remove obstacles to your sleep-nurturing activities, such as placing said glasses in an easily accessible place like your bedside table. Or put your caffeinated beverages out of sight. You may also find it easier to fall asleep if your sleep environment is cool, dark, and quiet by default. Waking up on time may soon become a possibility, too, if you place your alarm away from the bed and get up instead of snoozing.
The easier the activity, the greater your ability to perform it, and the more likely it becomes a habit for better sleep hygiene.
What time you perform good sleep hygiene for circadian alignment is just as important as what habits constitute it. Yet it can be easy to forget wearing your blue-light blocking glasses before bedtime or to not know when you should stop indulging in caffeine.
That’s where our in-app habits come in handy. They don’t just prompt you for the sake of reminding you about healthy sleep-promoting activities. After all, good sleep hygiene only works if it’s timed to your unique chronobiology.
For instance, the “Limit Caffeine” habit in the RISE app doesn’t give a generalized notification of stopping caffeine consumption at a certain time, say, 12 p.m., since everyone’s biological bedtime is different on account of their individual Melatonin Window. What’s more, your Melatonin Window shifts daily based on your recent sleep times. The best time for you to go to bed tonight may be 11 p.m. but 11:30 p.m. the next night.
As such, the “Limit Caffeine” habit gives a personalized notification based on the timing of your Melatonin Window for that day. So, if your Melatonin Window starts at 11:30 p.m. that night, RISE will prompt you to stop drinking coffee 10 hours earlier at 1:30 p.m. that afternoon.
As perfectly timed and customized notifications, these prompts take the guesswork out of when you should perform your sleep-fostering habits for the greater good of circadian alignment.
As the Fogg Behavior Model puts it, a specific behavior is successfully formed when the key elements — motivation, ability, and prompt — come together, exactly as they do in the RISE app. And to make the habit stick better, Fogg recommends repeating a specific activity, or in this case, a collection of sleep-advocating actions.
The RISE app is the epitome of “practice makes perfect,” simply because paying down sleep debt can take time. Using your sleep debt score on the Sleep screen as your guiding star, you have room to make healthy sleep habits last for generally low sleep debt that, in turn, translates to better days ahead.
With our simple and intuitive app interface, you'll likely find it possible, and hopefully easy, to take the tiny steps you need to meet your sleep need tonight. Once you've kick-started your journey, the quick reward of feeling better the next day will hopefully create a virtuous cycle that empowers you to keep the ball rolling.
To make your achievement concrete, track how many "Great" sleep debt days you've had on your Progress screen. You can even share the benefits you've reaped from RISE with your family and friends. This will likely support your success, as you're now helping those you care about to feel and function at their best too. Talk about a win-win!
As you now know, the best non-habit-forming sleep aid is a combination of good sleep hygiene tied to your circadian rhythm. Instead of relying on synthetic and natural sleep supplements, focus on perfecting your sleep-promoting habits.
If you do find yourself needing extra help with sleep, try CBT-I under the guidance of a licensed health-care professional before resorting to sleeping aids. But of course, you’ll need to have healthy sleep hygiene down pat for therapy to reap its full potential.
Download the RISE app to get a head start on your journey toward healthy, naturalistic sleep for better energy and enhanced wellness in the near and long term.
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