No more sleepless nights: these home remedies promote healthy sleep
Half of adults regularly face a bedtime battle: insomnia. But we can often get restless nights under control before this sleep problem becomes a sleep disorder.
Sleep is a strange thing: our body falls into a kind of eight-hour coma, while our mind drifts off into a whimsical dream world. As strange as sleep is, it’s essential for our mental and physical wellbeing. Anyone who suffers from insomnia knows: it’s better to spend eight hours in bizarre dream worlds than wide awake in reality.
What distinguishes sleep problems from a sleep disorder
Restless nights are now incredibly common. An international research project has shown that eight percent of people suffer from a diagnosed sleep disorder. And one in two people is plagued by at least temporary sleep problems.
The difference between the two lies in the duration of the disruption, and the boundary is fluid. A restless night here and there is considered normal. If someone regularly complains of insomnia over a period of around three months, that’s different: they should seek help in a sleep laboratory, says Dr Brigitte Holzinger, psychologist, psychotherapist and sleep coach at the Institute for Consciousness and Dream Research in Vienna. Going to your GP isn’t always the best solution: «Sleep is barely covered in medical school,» the expert explains. Sleeping pills are prescribed too quickly, which help in the short term but are not a long-term solution. Her advice: it’s better to consult a sleep disorder expert right away. You can find accredited sleep laboratories at the Austrian Society for Sleep Medicine or the Swiss Society for Sleep Research, Sleep Medicine and Chronobiology.
To stop a sleep problem turning into a disorder – i.e. insomnia – there are a few useful things you can use in your sleep routine that can make it easier for you to fall asleep. We spoke to sleep coach Holzinger about the rules of sleep hygiene and what you can do at home to prevent temporary sleep problems.
What causes sleep problems?
Most of the time, sleep problems – and the more serious insomnia – are caused by stress. If it persists, sleep researchers call the condition «hyperarousal»: a persistent state of tension. «Stress at work can trigger sleep problems, but so can existential stress,» says Holzinger.
Anyone who suffers from states of tension like this for too long runs the risk of unhealthy sleep behaviour manifesting itself as a sleep disorder. «A sleep disorder is described as suffering from problems falling asleep and sleeping through the night several times a week over a period of three months. Only then do you get the diagnosis of insomnia.» The expert advises seeking professional help beforehand, after about a month. «Otherwise, you quickly get used to the condition, the disorder manifests itself and treatment becomes more difficult.»
To stop things getting that far in the first place, it’s important to observe a few sleep hygiene rules. First and foremost, the body clock, which is the foundation of good sleep. Most people aren’t aware of this, which is why they don’t often take their natural, very individual sleeping and waking times into account.
Your internal clock: an instinct that’s disrupted when you have trouble sleeping
The World Health Organization (WHO) and various studies (in German) recommend cognitive-behavioural therapy as the first step in treating sleep disorders. That means changing your sleep routine. The body clock plays a central role in this. It works like an inner instinct, but most people pay too little attention to it.
Over the week you accumulate a sleep deficit by going to bed late and getting up early, then at the weekend you stay up all night or try to compensate for the deficit of the week with a lot of sleep. Your internal clock is confused by these irregular bed times, according to the sleep expert. Regularity is the be-all and end-all of a healthy sleep routine.
But that’s easier said than done. The demands of everyday life aren’t usually based around your biological clock. Tip: on your next holiday, pay more attention to your biological clock and find out whether you’re a natural morning person or night owl and how many hours of sleep you need to wake up refreshed. After a few days of adjustment, your body will figure it out (again) and you’ll start to live more according to your natural biological clock than your social calendar.
Coffee: when you’re not sleeping well, have your last cup of the day in the morning
Caffeine is another thing that confuses your body clock. It’s the world's most common psychoactive substance, waking us up and boosting our performance. So, it comes as no surprise that it also makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Hardly anyone thinks of that when they’re sipping their afternoon coffee.
As a stimulant, coffee has no place in an evening routine (or even an afternoon one), and neither do green and black tea or caffeinated soft drinks. A study in the Sleep Medicine Review shows that caffeine increases the time it takes you to fall asleep while decreasing sleep duration and efficiency. Deep sleep phases are reduced and waking times and states of excitement increase. However, the study also points to pronounced individual differences. Age plays a major role here – our sleep usually becomes more sensitive with age – but tolerance is also a contributing factor. According to this literature review, «harmful side effects of caffeine, such as insomnia, are more common in people who consume little to no caffeine than in people with high caffeine consumption.»
Individual differences mean that recommendations vary considerably for when to drink your last coffee of the day. On average, caffeine has a half-life of four to eight hours. After that, the body has broken down around half of the caffeine. For some people, this process can take as long as 14 hours. So, if you drink your last cup of coffee containing 90 mg of caffeine at 1 p.m., you may still have half a cup’s worth – 45 mg of caffeine – in your blood by 5 p.m. This means that people who don’t fall sleep easily should drink their last cup of coffee in the morning.
Alcohol: an addictive substance, not a sleeping pill
From one everyday drug to the next: alcohol. You should definitely stay away from it if you want to establish a healthy sleep routine. A glass of wine or beer in the evening has a sleep-inducing and calming effect at first. But that’s exactly what makes it so dangerous, says sleep coach Holzinger: «Alcohol docks in the brain to a similar biochemical structure as common sleeping pills.» This means that, like sleeping pills, alcohol also makes us sleepy. It fulfils a dangerous function: we turn to alcohol more and more often and faster to solve problems falling asleep. That doesn’t just have a negative effect on our health, but also on our sleep quality. Sleep under the influence of alcohol is less deep and restful. A study (in German) investigating the connection between addiction and sleep concludes that «impaired sleep quality is associated with an increased risk of depression and substance use.»
It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t benefit anyone. Especially since there are a number of much safer foods and drinks that you can consume before bed with a clear conscience. And some are even conducive to sleep.
For a restful night without sleep problems, try warm milk with honey and protein snacks
What we eat and drink before bed affects the quality of our sleep. Unlike the recently hyped melatonin gummy bears, one of the most powerful and safe sleeping aids shouldn’t be underestimated: warm milk with honey. «Milk contains a lot of tryptophan, an amino acid and precursor of serotonin, which then breaks down into melatonin, which lifts our mood and gives us a feeling of security – which is also down to the warmth of the milk,» says the sleep expert. But the warmth has another effect: it breaks down the amino acid into melatonin more quickly. The honey ensures that tryptophan is absorbed more quickly. «However, the dose is not particularly high,» she qualifies.
Because tryptophan is mainly found in protein-rich foods such as yoghurt, lentils and nuts, we should eat protein instead of carbohydrates in the evening. They boost our melatonin production and sit less heavily in the stomach. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, put a strain on our pancreas, whose job is to support organs such as the liver with detoxification and fat burning at night.
The expert also recommends magnesium-rich foods in the evening, such as bananas or green leafy vegetables: «Magnesium relaxes our muscles and thus our sleep.» When we eat prebiotics – i.e. foods that support our intestinal flora – we spend more time in the restful non-REM sleep phase. This was also shown by a study in the journal Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience.
Sleep stories: does reading to each other mean peaceful sleep?
You’ll probably be familiar with this from your childhood: before you go to bed, Mum or Dad reads you a story that’s supposed to lull you to sleep. But why do sleep stories soothe us so much? «Of course, we were conditioned during childhood,» says Holzinger. Reading aloud gives us a sense of comfort and security in childhood. This feeling also helps us to fall asleep well in adulthood. If you can’t find a reading buddy in a hurry, special podcasts such as nothingmuchhappens.com, Sagenhaft (in German), Die Märchentante (in German) and the SRF podcast Schlummerland (in German), intended «for children and other people with imagination», offer pleasant bedtime stories for adults.
But reading aloud has another advantage: people with sleep problems have overly active frontal lobes around the clock. This is very tiring and keeps us up late at night. «Directing your attention somewhere else, for example to a story, can help you fall asleep,» says Holzinger.
Exercise before going to sleep: walk instead of strength training
Generally speaking, getting enough exercise is really important for the quality of our sleep and our general wellbeing. But you shouldn’t do any two to four hours before going to bed – at least not any intensive exercise. A walk in the evening has a balancing and calming effect, while strength training or a sport like football tends to get you excited: «the body then produces hormones that counteract sleep.»
Endurance and weight training should therefore be done in the morning, preferably in the fresh air and in daylight. «In the morning, the proportion of blue light is highest and helps us to wake up naturally.»
Blue light: does it disturb our sleep or not?
Speaking of blue light, the part of light that we can see is the subject of controversial scientific debate, particularly the influence of mobile phone and PC screens, which – everyone agrees – emit blue light. But does a lot of screen time before bed really mean the end of a good night’s sleep?
Research is divided on the subject. There are more recent findings, for example, in a study (in German) by the German Ophthalmological Society. It confirms that blue light usually wakes us up due to its high-energy properties.
The only thing is, the amount of blue light from mobile phone and PC screens is too low to damage our retinas and disturb our sleep. Another study in the Sleep Health Journal found no differences in the quality of sleep in 167 subjects in three groups – smartphone in night mode, smartphone without night mode and no smartphone before bed.
Neurologist George Brainard says the opposite in an interview with Scientific American Mind: «The light that emanates from our electronic devices is particularly short-wave. That means it has a higher proportion of blue light than daylight and interferes more with melatonin formation.» A study from Finland also comes to an apparently clear conclusion: two hours of blue light in the evening shifts our melatonin production and with it our internal clock. This effect is particularly strong when we haven’t received enough daylight during the day. (However, by implication, this probably means that if you’ve been outside a lot during the day, blue light is less important in the evening.)
Those who have difficulty sleeping should therefore make their environment as dark as possible before going to bed. Because one thing is certain: our body only produces melatonin in the dark.
For a restful night without sleep problems
Melatonin is your body’s very own sleep cocktail. It heralds the rest and regeneration phase and sets our body clock in motion. That’s why we sleep best in a darkened room, says the sleep coach. «Light interrupts the formation of melatonin, which is incorrectly called the sleep hormone. It’s actually a dark hormone.»
Light machines for your bedside table would therefore make little sense, says Brigitte Holzinger. «As soon as it gets light, the body stops producing melatonin. It’s therefore advisable to dim the lights in other rooms two hours before going to bed.»
Look forward to your bed: those who dream, sleep
At the end of the day, it’s all about feeling as comfortable as possible before bed. What helps you is ultimately very individual. Pleasant scents, such as a lavender pillow or other essential oils sprayed onto your pillow, can help. A cool room temperature, nice bed linen, a good mattress, and a good pillow can also make it easier to reach dreamland.
Above all, you should look forward to dreaming. Because: «those who dream, sleep after all.»
I'm a sucker for flowery turns of phrase and allegorical language. Clever metaphors are my Kryptonite – even if, sometimes, it's better to just get to the point. Everything I write is edited by my cat, which I reckon is more «pet humanisation» than metaphor. When I'm not at my desk, I enjoy going hiking, taking part in fireside jamming sessions, dragging my exhausted body out to do some sport and hitting the occasional party.