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13 natural sleep aids PROVEN by science

No one wants to take Valium, but if you’re plagued by insomnia – especially at this time of year – it’s tempting. Anna Magee rounds up natural alternatives to help you finally get some rest

I have written so many stories about sleep I have lost count and even then readers keep asking for more. Indeed, anyone who is even vaguely sleep-deprived knows the desperation-inducing effects of feeling unrested during the day. Of course, benzodiazepine medication is always an option – think Valium and Xanax – but recent research has found that taking painkillers and prescription sleep medication at the same time could increase your chances of an overdose.

But there are sleep fixes that taken as a whole, really do work and these usually involve a combination of things you can take – lotions, potions and pills and behavioural modifications, that’s things you can do, such as exercising.

As a fairly sleep-challenged person myself, and having spoken to countless experts in this field, I have handpicked the best natural sleep products –  behavioural or natural – that could make a real difference to the amount to the amount of sleep you get.

MORE: 21 days to better sleep – editor Anna Magee’s sleep blog

1. Get your napping right

If napping makes you more tired, you’re not doing it right, says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a physiologist specialising in sleep and author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake: Discover the secrets of restorative sleep and vibrant energy (£12.99 from Amazon).  ‘The key is to take controlled naps which can revive you,’ she explains.  For example, a power nap of five to 20 minutes unloads the brain and could make up for a small sleep debt from the night before, making you feel more recharged’.

After 20 minutes, the brain may move into its deeper slow-wave sleep, leaving you groggy when you wake up so don’t be tempted to nap for longer

Here’s what happens: during sleep, your brain produces different kinds of waves which correspond to how deeply you sleep.  After 20 minutes, the brain may move into its deeper slow-wave sleep, leaving you groggy when you wake up.  ‘If you’re only napping for 20 minutes and still feeling tried and unrefreshed afterwards, you may be chronically exhausted,’ says Ramlakhan.  ‘If you stick with it, napping only for 5-20 minutes you could eventually begin to feel better. The key is not to be tempted to sleep for longer or you will disturb your sleep in the evening.’

Power naps won’t hurt you if you nap smart


Set an alarm so you don’t oversleep, suggests Ramlakhan.  ‘Don’t get too comfortable or you won’t wake up – an armchair or sofa is great – and take with you some lavender or a cushion you associate with sleep to help trigger your brain to relax.’ Try and not nap after 3pm though as this is when your body’s levels of the sleep hormone melatonin begin to rise.  This signals to the brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare for evening and napping after this time could interrupt your night’s sleep. If you feel tired during the day but too ‘wired’ to nap, Ramlakhan recommends yoga nidra, a guided yogic sleep done for about 25 minutes.  ‘Even if you don’t actually fall asleep it deeply relaxes the body so you come out of it feeling relaxed but recharged.’ There are many different versions that do a similiar thing, download one from iTunes or follow one on You Tube. 


2. Go to bed and wake up at the same time (and use CBT to tackle your sleep issues)

A staggering 40 per cent of us don’t get the recommended six to nine hours sleep a night, research by The Sleep Council has found. The long weekend lie-in is a tempting antidote but while it may reduce sleepiness and stress, it won’t help your ability to concentrate, research published in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology found.  In fact, sleep deprived subjects in the study showed impaired concentration even after their ‘recovery sleep’ at the weekend.  ‘Lie ins and long naps at the weekend disrupt our body clocks which could disrupt our sleep in the long term by making it harder to sleep at night during the week,’ says Professor Colin Espie, a sleep specialist at the University of Oxford.   ‘The brain’s need for sleep is due to ‘sleep pressure’ which accumulates during the day and becomes greater the longer we’re awake,’ he explains.  ‘Sleeping in for long periods confuses this process.’

sleep deprived subjects in the study showed impaired concentration even after their ‘recovery sleep’ at the weekend

If you miss some sleep one night, you can catch up the next night with little problem, says Dr Neil Stanley, a medic and independent sleep expert.  ‘But after about two nights of not sleeping enough, you’re in sleep debt and lie ins at the weekend can’t make up for that’. If you make no other change to your sleep, he suggests waking up at the same time every day, even at the weekend. ‘This trains your body to use the time it has to sleep most efficiently.’ Professor Espie has a website, a clinically proven course based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help people with sleep issues of any kind establish a set routine and overcome their sleep problems.

Your duvet and bedding can help control your temperature which is crucial to sleeping better

3. Tackle the temperature

Temperature is an aspect of sleep that often gets overlooked,’ says James Wilson, a leading sleep expert. ‘But after light, it has the greatest impact on our circadian rhythms (our bodies’ wake/sleep cycles), and our bodies are very sensitive to it; it only takes a change in core body temperature of 0.5 degrees Celsius for our bodies to start waking up. On a physiological level sleep is simple. To produce melatonin (the sleep hormone) we need a drop in heart rate and a drop in core temperature. If both of these things happen than our body will produce melatonin most efficiently.’

After light, temperature has the greatest impact on our body clocks

So, what room temperature is optimal for sleeping then? ‘When it comes to room temperature we should be looking for somewhere between 16-20 degrees Celsius, as it is that melatonin production is more efficient between 16-20 degrees,’ says Wilson. ‘It is preferable for the bedroom to be cooler than the rest of the house to encourage a drop in core temperature’.
Having a warm bath or shower before bed can help with the temperature regulation your body needs to produce the crucial sleep hormone melatonin

If you find it hard to wind down, having a bath or shower can trick the body. Getting really warm then really cold quickly triggers the melatonin production, Wilson asserts. Doing this half an hour before bed gives the best effect.

If you find it difficult to set your bed temperature with your partner, the Chilli Pad may help. ‘It is a topper where you (and if you wish your bed partner) can set the sleep environment temperature’.

When it comes to duvets, tog rating is a measurement of heat retention. ‘If you have a synthetic or feather/down duvet they are designed to trap moisture in and it is this moisture heating up which makes your environment warm’, Wilson explains. ‘If you use materials like Alpaca fleece (this is my top choice)
bamboo, wool or silk your body is allowed to breathe and the moisture disappears, which can make you less likely to be hot. In addition to this you can add bamboo bedding rather than cotton or or synthetics as it is more breathable and adds to the impact of the duvet. Organic alpaca duvets are available for £125 from Penrose Products  while bamboo bedding can be purchased from All Bamboo starting from £90 for a double bedding set.

4. Take magnesium tablets

This mineral is often called nature’s tranquilliser because of its calming properties and because it can help the body relax and unwind at the end of the day. You can eat it in foods such as kale, spinach, broccoli, nuts and seeds and pulses which are great before bed.   ‘Magnesium is necessary for normal energy metabolism,’ says nutritionist Robert Hobson. But UK food surveys show that about one in ten women are not getting adequate amounts of magnesium from their diet – it’s found green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals, eggs and nuts.  ‘One of the early indicators of low magnesium levels is tiredness and fatigue so increasing you magnesium intake may be useful,’ he says. If you’re tired, try supplementing with magnesium. Taken before bed it can have a relaxing effect on the mind and muscles and help promote sleep, he says.  Try taking one Floradix Magnesium Liquid Mineral Supplement £9.09 an hour before bed.

5. Use magnesium on your skin

Studies have shown that magnesium taken transdermally, – through skin – can have an even more instant and calming effect on sleep than tablets.  You can bathe in magnesium, use a foot soak, enriched body oil and/or moisturiser, allowing it to be absorbed transdermally through the skin. Sleep expert James Wilson, recommends Better You’s Trandermal Magnesium range. I recently tried this for a full week for a 21 days of sleep remedies blog that I am doing for National Sleep Month and the results have been astounding. The sedative effects of using the three products together relaxed me quickly and help me get a more restful, quality sleep. I am hooked.

TRY: Healthista’s favourite magnesium products here

is there science behind it? Research from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge has shown that there is a relationship between our cells’ magnesium levels and the body’s ability to follow its sleep cycle efficiently. ‘Basically, having the right levels of magnesium in the body means we find it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the right time,’ says Wilson.

The BetterYou Magnesium Body Butter had such a sedative effect I fell onto the sofa like a zombie

‘Magnesium helps the body relax by ensuring the GABA receptors in our brain and nervous system are working as efficiently as possible,’ explains Wilson. ‘GABA receptors help the brain switch off and without it, our minds would continue to race. It’s also essential for allowing your muscles to relax, particularly after stress or exercise.’

Using magnesium transdermally – on the skin – instead of taken it internally as supplements offers better absorption to tablets and capsules, says Wilson. Applied directly to the skin; magnesium will be absorbed directly into the skin tissue, entering cells immediately replacing magnesium lost through the stresses of modern life, he explains.

The Better You range of Transdermal magnesium that I tested for seven days

My perfect sleep ritual now involves a 20 minute Foot Soak in BetterYou’s Magnesium Flakes £9.95 and warm water, then BetterYou Magnesium Body Lotion £9.95 rubbed on my limbs. When I wake in the small hours – which I inevitably do, I rub a little BetterYou Goodnight Magnesium Oil Spray £12.20 on my belly and within minutes, I’m relaxed and off again. For me, it’s been a Godsend.


6. Try the Indian fix

Ashwagandha is one of the most widely prescribed herbal Ayurvedic medicines in India recommended to address sleep problems, stress and anxiety.  The anti-stress benefits of ashwagandha have been widely researched in a number of published studies.

After 60 days, those who took the ashwagandha had much lower scores for perceived stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression than the placebo group.

For example, one study that was carried out on 64 adults who were suffering chronic stress were given capsules of ashwagandha for 60 days, and the other half took a placebo. Neither the participants nor the researchers knew which they were taking until after the trial.

After 60 days, those who took the ashwagandha had much lower scores for perceived stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression than the placebo group. What’s more, their average cortisol level (a stress hormone that is often too high in people who suffer with insomnia) fell by 28 per cent per cent but dropped by only eight per cent in the placebo group – a good indication that this remedy can benefit those who struggle to sleep well at night. Try taking Pukka Night Time £7.45 from Healthista Shop capsules (above) – a combination of organic ashwagandha and other key sleep supportive herbs.

7. Use proven herbal help (not benzodiazepines)

Fact: Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax only take two weeks’ continuous use to develop a dependency so avoid them at all costs. But don’t underestimate the power of high quality herbals and natural nutrients. Two of the most well researched are camomile and passionflower.  According to this scientific report, ‘Chamomile is widely regarded as a mild tranquillizer and sleep-inducer. Its sedative effects may be due to the flavonoid, apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.’

Meanwhile, this report form the University of Maryland Medical Centre shows fascinatingly that passionflower may work as well as tranquiizers for anxiety. ‘Studies of people with generalized anxiety disorder show that passionflower is as effective as the drug oxazepam (Serax) for treating symptoms,’ says the authors. ‘Passionflower didn’t work as quickly as oxazepam (day 7 compared to day 4). However, it produced less impairment on job performance than oxazepam.

Other studies show that patients who were given passionflower before surgery had less anxiety than those given a placebo, but they recovered from anesthesia just as quickly.’ Finally, one ingredient becoming increasingly prominent for calming the nervous system and sleep is the amino acid L-theanine found in green tea. One study even found that giving 400mg a day of L-theanine to boys aged 8-12 who had ADHD improved their sleep with few side effects. Try Higher Nature L-Theanine 100mg £22.45 from Healthista Shop.

Healthista Night Food, Best supplements for headaches proven by science by healthista.comHealthista’s Night Food £18.95 from Healthista Shop contains all three ingredients. ‘I am a herbalist I recommend products that have a combination of botanicals as I believe that these work better than those formulas that rely on a single botanical,’ says Healthista Nutrition Director Rick Hay, also a herbalist. ‘Camomile, passionflower and L-theanine are important to use if your nervous system is under pressure and while evidence is mounting about their efficacy in scientific terms.’

8. Exercise. Period.

Lots of people think exercising in the evening might keep them awake. In fact, research shows that even vigorous exercise before bedtime doesn’t cause problems sleeping for many people and in some cases, it might even be beneficial. Indeed, people who exercised for at least 30 minutes 5-6 times a week – regardless of what time of day they exercised – were also the least likely to take sleep medication, found The Sleep Council research.  ‘Some studies suggest time spent in the deeper stages of sleep increases after exercise,’ says Professor Espie. A 2011 study found adults with insomnia who ran on a treadmill three times a week either in the morning or at 6pm saw their insomnia improve including taking less time to fall asleep, waking up less and feeling better in the mornings.

As long as you wind down, exercising in the evening shouldn’t affect your sleep,’ says Dr Ramlakhan.  This could be anything that relaxes you such as a hot Epsom salts bath or a few downloading yoga moves.  ‘My favourite wind down is Child’s Pose, where you kneel down and rest your chest on your thighs and your head on the floor, then legs up the wall, where you lie on the floor with your legs up against the wall and your head on a pillow and lastly, Corpse, where you literally lie flat on the floor with a rolled up blanket under your knees, your head on a cushion – each held for around 1-5 minutes accompanied by deep, slow breathing is the ultimate pre-bed relaxation routine,’ she suggests.
Any type of exercise done during the day will help you sleep better


9. Know your sleep type

Some people like Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi and Winston Churchill may have famously thrived on less sleep but they’re a rarity. In fact, researchers  at the University of California, San Francisco discovered a gene mutation in people that predisposed them to needing about 20 per cent less sleep than the rest of us. But they estimate those ‘short-sleepers’ only comprise around five per cent of the population.  ‘Sleep is like height, it’s genetically determined,’ says Dr Stanley. So if your mum or dad were short sleepers you may be too. But while the amount of sleep you need can vary from three to nine hours, most people need 7-8.’

A young woman counting sheep

‘The best gauge is how you feel during the day,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. The signs you’re not getting enough sleep are cravings for sweets, caffeine and carbohydrates, wanting to go back to sleep as soon as you wake up and thinking about sleep during the day’. Conversely, she says if you wake up without an alarm clock at the same time everyday – whether it’s for work, at the weekend or on holiday – with only 4-5 hours sleep you could be among the lucky few genuine ‘short-sleepers’. Find your your sleep type here

MORE: 10 ways sleep perfectionism is keeping you awake

10. Stop worrying about waking up

Most people have experienced the fear that they are going to wake up several times resulting in a disturbed nights sleep but in reality it is natural to wake up during the night.

‘Sleep studies show that the average human being wakes approximately 10 times during the night. The theory is that this sleep-wake cycle evolved for our survival and safety: we come into a semiconscious state to check that all is well and we are safe and then slide back into sleep,’ says Dr Ramlakhan.

It isn’t abnormal for someone to wake up at 4 in the morning, asserts James Wilson.  ‘This is when our body is at its coolest, it is often when our bladders want to empty and psychologically we worry that we only have a few hours until our proper wake up time and begin to worry.

‘As someone who has had insomnia this was and sometimes still is my issue,’ says Wilson. ‘What I do is if I haven’t got back to sleep I get up and try and use the sleep deprivation to get better quality sleep the
next night and I try not to worry about it!’

Turning your clock away can help you get back to sleep if you wake up too early

11. Turn your clock the other way

Checking the time in the middle of the night can be very disruptive as it can often lead you to work out how many hours you’ve slept so far and how much sleep you have left before your alarm goes off. Then you start overthinking about tomorrow – it’s a vicious cycle.

It’s this kind of brain activity that could lead to you to lying awake for ages. This turns on your sympathetic nervous system (the part that deals with problem solving and focus) instead of your parasympathetic nervous system (the one you need on when you’re sleeping as it promotes rest).

Turn your alarm clock to face the other way and don’t be tempted to check it if you wake up, just lie there feeling cosy and you’ll be most likely to fall back to sleep. If you don’t try these relaxation tips from James Wilson:

The “The” Technique
Close your eyes and imagine a bright light at the end of a long tunnel. Focus on the light and as you do breathe in and out slowly in a yogic style. Doming your stomach out as you breathe in and pulling your stomach back into your ribs as you breathe out While you do this repeat the word “The” over and over again. This prevents thoughts popping into your head such as school issues, relationship problems or just worrying about what is happening tomorrow.

One Line from a Song
Take a line from a song, a song with positive memories and repeat it over and over again.

Avoid benzodiazepines at all costs

12. Give up on sleep. Seriously

It seems we’re resigned to insomnia, with a third of us getting by on 5-6 hours sleep a night, kept mostly awake by worry and stress. Yet one survey found that 38 per cent of us think the answer to insomnia is going to sleep earlier when in fact it could be just the opposite.  You need to build up your ‘sleep pressure’ says Professor Espie, which is simply about being awake and active enough to make yourself tired. Experts recommend that people with insomnia go to sleep later, waiting until they are truly sleepy before getting into bed.

Go to sleep an hour later than you normally would to ensure you’re more tired than usual and actively ‘give up on sleep’.  Worrying about getting back to sleep, how little you’re sleeping or how ruined you will be tomorrow is paradoxically keeping your mind in the kind of stressed, survival mode in which sleep is the last thing it wants to do.

The less you care about sleep, the more likely it is to happen.  This focusing less on sleep is part of a therapy called ‘Paradoxical Intention Therapy’ recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in which you forget your preoccupation with sleep and simply go to bed when you are tired, even if that means you only get four hours sleep (eventually your body should get tired earlier and earlier and adjust).  If you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, start to think about this as a good thing, time to chill out in your warm bed and relax.  Tell yourself you will fall asleep when you are ready – stop putting yourself under pressure and you will fall asleep.

MORE: 4 things that help you sleep from a reformed insomniac

13. Get some morning light

‘Morning light is the most effective at setting our body clocks,’ says Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford and author of The Rhythms Of Life: The Biological Clocks That Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing (Profile £6.99) explains.

Morning light could do wonders for your sleep-wake cycle

Our body clocks are set to the external world as a result of the light/dark cycle because cells on the eye called photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, which form part of the optic nerve, pick up light signals and convey that light/dark information to the body’s ‘master’ clock in the brain. This sends signals to every cell in the body’s organ systems all of which have their own internal 24 hour clocks, to help regulate our systems. Most of that process is determined by our exposure to natural light, Prof. Foster explains. ‘If you want to be more focused maximise your exposure to natural morning light as it’s also good for elevating alertness and lowering your predisposition towards depression.’

Light boxes by your desk may help but they only deliver around 1-2000 lux [light measurements] for half an hour whereas even on a grey day morning light delivers 5-10,000 lux.

‘If you can’t get outside, having your morning cup of tea next to a bright window will achieve a similar effect as a light box’, says Prof. Foster.



Effects of sleep deprivation on YOUR life

3 ways to clear your mind before bed

16 ways to STAY asleep PLUS exactly why you keep waking in the night

Yoga Nidra Review at the Bermondsey Square Hotel

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