For most of my life, I've had a hard time falling asleep. My mind seems to light up with random thoughts, worries, and stresses as soon as my head hits the pillow.
There was a phase when I relied heavily on reruns of The Office to drown out my noisy brain. But eventually I reached a stage when listening to the drama of Jim and Pam's relationship no longer cut it.
I turned to a few lifestyle changes like less caffeine, regular exercise, and a meditation practice (although irregular), which seemed to help.
Inevitably, there are still nights when despite how tired I am, I'm kept awake thinking about that email I forgot to send. I started to look for quick fixes for those times when I find myself wide awake at midnight, wishing for nothing more than to seamlessly drift off.
I tested seven natural tricks and methods designed to help me both fall asleep and get more restful sleep. But first, I laid some basic ground rules to make sure my sleep experiment wasn't altered by any big issues before testing out other natural methods.
The basic rules:
- No caffeine after 12 p.m.
- Minimal (0-1 serving) alcohol
- Avoid screens an hour before bed
- Eliminate light entirely (I'm all about the sleep mask)
- Regular exercise (5-6 mornings per week)
The sleep tricks:
1. Dab on lavender essential oil.
What I did: A dab of lavender essential oil on my wrists and temples.
The verdict: This felt really earth mothery, in the best kind of way. The smell was unexpectedly soothing. It might be a placebo effect, but it really helps me feel calmer and ready for sleep.
I actually integrated it into my bedtime routine, so now it's a signal to my brain that it's time to chill. But it's more of a de-stresser than a sleep aid.
2. Breathe through the left nostril.
What I did: This pranayama practice is simply about breathing through (you guessed it) your left nostril. I placed my thumb on the outside of my right nostril and pressed it closed. Then I just breathed deeply, counting to 26 breaths, as recommended.
The verdict: I felt a little silly, but it was good that I was focusing on my breathing and counting, which slowed my brain down. I lost track of my counting a few times and eventually drifted off. I guess that means it worked?
3. Try some yoga.
What I did: A series of five stretches when I got into bed, ending up in restful savasana.
The verdict: I found getting into the savasana mindset helpful in relaxing my body, but I would rather keep the yoga moves on the mat. This might be good for those who get in bed and fidget but I found it cumbersome to get into some of the recommended poses.
What I did: I tried a few meditations, some specifically intended for sleep, some not.
The verdict: It didn't matter what meditations I did, they all calmed me and cleared my mind enough so I could easily get to sleep.
5. Take a low dose of melatonin.
What I did: Took a small 0.5-mg melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles) supplement one hour before bed.
The verdict: This was a winner. I've taken larger doses of melatonin before with mixed results. Every time I tried the small dose I got restful and effortless sleep without that knocked-out sleeping-pill feeling.
I wouldn't do this every night though, I think it's more of a way to get back on track if you have jet leg or a few bad nights in a row.
6. Do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
What I did: Lying in a comfortable position in bed, I followed this sequence about five or six times:
- Breathe in for 4 seconds
- Hold breath for 7 seconds
- Slowly breathe out for 8 seconds
The verdict: This has been my favorite method so far and the one I find myself going back to. Focusing on this simple breathing method actually slows the heart down and calms the thoughts in my head. It works like magic almost every time.
7. Do a progressive muscle relaxation.
What I did: Focusing on each section of the body individually:
- Shoulders and arms
- Chest and abs
- Hips and butt
- Legs and feet
I would tense each of these areas (starting with the face, ending with the feet), then slowly release the tensed muscles until my entire body was completely relaxed.
The verdict: I felt like I was doing it wrong but was surprisingly relaxed (similar to savasana) and drifted off shortly after trying this out. This one probably won't become part of my routine, but it's worth a shot — especially if you're feeling tense.
Bonus: Use a white-noise app.
I've also started using a white noise app on my phone to play the sounds of a rainstorm all night. Having this to drown out external noises like a fleet of garbage trucks passing my window at 3 a.m. (thank you, New York!) works wonders.