Fear not. You can learn to improve sleep quality naturally.
By now everyone knows how important it is to get a good night’s sleep. Slumber improves memory recall, regulates metabolism, and reduces mental fatigue.
Sleep is crucial for the brain’s glymphatic system to work in helping to clear toxins from the brain, which may have accumulated throughout the day. In fact, new scientific evidence demonstrates that sleeping can clear “cobwebs” in the brain and help maintain normal functioning.
With that said, sleep deprivation is detrimental to health and overall quality of life, and it is becoming an increasingly common state. Consider that Americans today are sleeping less than seven hours a night and sleep two full hours less than they did just a century ago.
A recently published study conducted by Iowa State University really drove home the profound effect a lack of sleep can have on our lives. Researchers found a link between sleep deprivation and anger. Study participants who had their sleep restricted by two to four hours reported substantially higher amounts of anger. The study was among the first of its kind to find evidence of direct causation between loss of sleep and anger.
So we can all agree: Less sleep is a problem. But what can be done beyond basic sleep hygiene?
Before we take a deep dive into novel hacks, here are some recommended behavioral and environmental practice intended to promote better quality sleep.
“Make sure the bedroom is dark. Try to block out as much light as possible. Avoid going to sleep with the TV or radio on. Consider a fan or a soothing sounds CD or app. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, caffeinated drinks, and heavy meals in the evening,” says Rick John Schuen, MD, an expert in Pediatric Sleep Medicine and Division Chief for Pulmonology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
And he adds to avoid video games or screen time on electronics one hour prior to bedtime. Wind down. Keep a regular bedtime.
There’s no shortage of advice and research on ways to improve sleep quality. We know not to scroll on Instagram right before bedtime and to stop drinking caffeine well before the mid-day mark. But when those “traditional” pieces of advice don’t work for you, where do you turn?
Even in a marketplace saturated with sleep advice, new and effective tactics to improve sleep quality are constantly emerging as experts discover lesser-known strategies that work.
For anyone who may not have had much luck with traditional methods of improving their sleep, or for someone who is interested in exploring alternative methods, here are six unique ways to improve sleep quality naturally.
Improve Sleep Quality Naturally
1. Sleep Restriction
Sleep restriction to combat insomnia might sound counterintuitive but experts say the unorthodox technique may be just what some people need.
“This is the worst name for an insomnia treatment, but it’s shockingly effective,” Michael Grandner, Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine—Tucson told Time.
Sleep restriction therapy, a cognitive behavioral treatment for insomnia, does not involve limiting actual sleep time. Rather, patients are instructed to initially restrict the time they spend in bed.
As for how it works, Bruce Rybarczyk, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and leading sleep medicine expert at Virginia Commonwealth University, explained the process to VCU News:
It’s true that they have lots of nights when they starve themselves of sleep already, but what happens with insomnia is that people get recovery sleep every third or fourth night and they also get snippets of sleep because they stay in bed for long periods of time … So they do not experience a super high and consistent sleep drive that we want to create for a short stretch of time in order to reset their sleep system.
2. Blue Light Blocking Glasses
With the rise of the digital age, artificial light — (blue) light that comes from electronics — is becoming more and more of an issue. Blue light is the opposite of natural light and too much exposure to it leads to poor sleep or difficulty falling asleep. But that’s not all blue light exposure is responsible for; dangerously high levels of exposure have also been connected to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and general irritability.
Why exactly is blue light so bad? The artificial light from laptops, computers, smartphones, television, and other electronics with a screen impedes the production of melatonin, the hormone our body makes to instigate sleep. This negative exposure sets our bodies off-kilter, putting us out of sync with the natural circadian rhythms and throwing off our internal body clock. In short, our body no longer knows when it’s time to go to sleep. So we don’t.
Luckily, there is a way to combat the nasty effects of blue light exposure. Blue light blocking glasses, also known as amber-tinted glasses, reverse the effects of blue light by providing the opposite kind of light exposure: amber. These glasses block the blue light wavelength, which then helps mitigate assault to the pineal gland where melatonin is produced. This has been shown to help increase deep sleep.
Columbia University Medical Center professor Ari Shechter, who led a study investigating the effects of amber-tinted glasses on sleep quality, told HealthDay News he was not surprised to find the glasses help improve sleep quality.
“We expect that blue light exposure before bedtime might contribute to sleep difficulties or exacerbate sleep problems in individuals who already experience difficulties.”
Sarah Hornsby, a registered dental hygienist and expert in the field of myofunctional therapy, is also an advocate for using red or orange-tinted glasses to help with sleep.
“The theory is that the spectrum of light that tells our bodies that it’s night time is red, and the spectrum of light that tells our bodies that it’s daytime is blue,” she says. “So when we are looking at blue lights — which are most of our LED lights, electronics, most of our modern lights — we’re basically telling our bodies all day, ‘It’s noon. It’s noon, It’s noon.’”
“When these red spectrums of light go into your eyes, now your body feels like it’s night time,” she adds.
Hornsby can vouch personally for the efficacy of using red-tinted glasses to improve sleep quality naturally.
“When I put them on — I’ve worn them quite a bit — I get tired immediately. I put on these red glasses, and I feel like I can’t keep my eyes open after 20 minutes,” she says.
3. Sleep Herbal Elixirs
For those in search of sounder slumber board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, who specializes in alternative methods to improve sleep, recommends sleep herbals — from lemon balm to lavender to mandarin. These herbals can be taken in the form of concentrated formulas, as Teitelbaum recommends, or as aromatherapy oils.
“Sleep herbals can be highly effective, without the side effects of medications,” Teitelbaum explains. “My favorite mix is called the Revitalizing Sleep Formula. This is a mix of six herbs and nutrients that includes Valerian, passionflower, lemon balm, 5 HTP, theanine, and hops.”
Teitelbaum notes that various scientific studies have shown the benefits of lemon balm (“used medicinally for centuries”), lavender (“lavender flowers were commonly placed under pillows to help promote sleep”), mandarin (“scientists believe that the compounds in mandarin peel, including limonene, work synergistically to promote relaxation and sleep”), and ravensara (“long used as an all-around health tonic by the indigenous people of Madagascar”).
4. The Oura Smart Ring
Oura, which hails from Finland, is the coolest functional ring. Even when Bluetooth is disabled, Oura tracks patterns like REM and deep sleep, activity levels, and heart rate variability.
The smart ring hailed for its pro-sleep properties is equipped with an optical sensor, 3D accelerometer, NTC body temperature sensor, and infrared LEDs that measure blood volume pulse.
By measuring the myriad data your body gives off throughout the day and night, Oura is able to more accurately turn that data into useful insights about how each individual sleeps and recharges. After all, in order to make a positive change that affects your sleep, you need to first have the right information. “Hack it to track it,” as Dave Asprey says in his latest book Game Changers.
It’s certainly helped me understand and improve my sleep. By looking at my sleep patterns and using other tests, I was able to address my multiple wake ups and bring my REM from five minutes — which is awful — to adequate levels. I would not have this information without Oura. See charts below from my Oura app.
5. Mouth Taping
Hornsby promotes the use of mouth tape to patients looking for a better night’s sleep.
Myofunctional therapy attempts to improve muscle strength in the tongue, mouth, and upper throat with exercises that isolate the facial muscles. A comprehensive review of myofunctional therapy studies published in Sleep found that myofunctional therapy can reduce sleep apnea and improve sleep outcomes.
“Mouth tape is a thing,” Hornsby shares. “A lot of people, myself included, the first couple of times they try it, it doesn’t feel great. But if you can get used to it, you will sleep so much better just by putting a tiny piece of tape on your lips.”
“It doesn’t have to block off all your air,” Hornsby adds. “Just think of a half inch strip right below your nose and that’s it. It will just gently hold the lips together.”
Hornsby also recommends not using duct tape, scotch tape, or any adhesive not meant to go on skin. Instead use strips designed specifically for the purpose of improving sleep quality, such as Somnifix.
“If you do it the right way it can be really effective for better sleep and that’s because it’s changing your nasal breathing at night,” she says.
How exactly does myofunctional therapy and mouth taping help? By addressing the root causes of people who have sleep issues.
“It seems like a funny thing to think about, but breathing through your nose is so important to good quality sleep,” Hornsby says.
And if you breathe through your mouth during the night, that’s kind of level one when it comes to bad sleep. Mouth breathing through the night, over years, advances to snoring and snoring is what advances to upper airway resistance syndrome or sleep apnea.
6. Understanding Your Genetic SNPs
Many causes associated with difficulty sleeping or falling asleep are well-known. We know blue light exposure negatively affects sleep, as does caffeine, smoking, or eating a heavy meal before bed diet. (Even sleeping beside your loved one can negatively impact zzzzzs. But sometimes, internal sources are to blame. Being a bad sleeper might be linked to your DNA.
If that’s the case, however, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to poor sleep forever. Rather, your genetic makeup can tell you a lot about what you need. Much like the way Oura offers information about how your individual body functions and cycles through sleep, data about your DNA can also provide some life-changing, sleep-inducing insight. Remember you are NOT a victim to your genes. Thanks to epigenetics, you can actually use your DNA to your advantage by finding ways to turn your genetic snips on or off.
Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) refer to a variation in a single pair in a DNA sequence. For instance, some of the genetic variations that affect sleep duration influence how the brain sends and receives messages about the body’s sleep-wake cycle (e.g. rs265981 in DRD1 and rs17737465 in CPQ). Other SNPs influence the production of the molecules that the body uses to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. By looking at your SNPs you can also learn if you are more inclined to be an early bird or a night owl. Additional variations still might indicate a predisposition for sleep problems like sleep apnea.
For example, based on my genotypes from the above SNPs, I have a moderately above-average risk of obstructive sleep apnea. And while every case of sleep apnea is different, certain factors such as age, obesity, weight gain, or even pregnancy, can exacerbate a predisposition.
Thanks to this SNP, I’m starting to sleep on my side vs my back. And I also realized that I was a great candidate for taping my mouth shut so I tried it with improved success, according to my Oura data. See below.
While understanding your genetic SNPs isn’t a sure way to cure sleep apnea or other slumber issues, knowing the ins and outs of any predispositions you may have is a key to hacking it. Your environment can turn these SNPs on or off based on the aforementioned (and of course other) factors. Ultimately, knowing and understanding your specific individual biology can aid in changing your sleep for the better.
To dive much deeper into SNPs and sleep characteristics read the excellent article Genetics of Insomnia – 21 Genes & SNPs to Pay Attention To on Self Hacked.
Find The Method(s) That Works For You
The importance of quality sleep cannot be understated. Here at HoneyColony, we believe promoting sleep is crucial to encourage overall wellness.
No matter how you slice it (or how you achieve it), sleep is an important part of living an overall healthy life. These six methods are an excellent place to start if most conventional sleep advice is not working for you. Give them a try and share these tips with friends and family!