We’ve mentioned it previously, sleep is important for optimal cognitive function. Without proper sleep the brain doesn’t operate at 100%, and nootropics simply are not going to make up the difference. While you may be one of those people who do not need, what most consider a full night of sleep, and can function perfectly fine on less, most of us are not that lucky. Here’s the ultimate guide on getting the best night sleep possible. Of course none of the below is medical advice and should not be substituted for the advice of your primary care practitioner regarding your particular condition. However with that said, here are our tips so you can sleep like a baby.
1. Stop taking stimulants before bed
While this one seems obvious, it may not be to many people. Drinking beverages that are caffeinated can impact a good night sleep, as can smoking (primarily because of the nicotine, which is a stimulant). Note that caffeine has a half life of 3-5 hours and the effects can be felt for about 8 hours, but this will vary largely on the individual (see this PubMed compound summary on caffeine for more technical information). Therefore caffeine intake should be stopped midday (and possibly even sooner depending on the individual) to minimize the impact that it will have on sleep; this inevitably means that coffee and other caffeinated beverages should be avoided midday. Various medications and supplements can also have an impact on sleep, and accordingly, should be taken in the morning to the extent they have a stimulant like effect, or at the very least, taken several hours before bedtime.
Another tip is to avoid alcohol before bed. Although it may help you go to sleep, studies show that it tends to put you in a deeper sleep and decreases the amount of time you spend in REM sleep. REM is the stage of sleep where you dream, and without enough of it you may be drowsy the following day or have poor concentration; it is considered one of the more restorative stages of sleep. One study showed that the affects of alcohol are more pronounced in women than in men.
2. Set the environment – Sight, Scent, Sound
Sight – Our bodies are hard wired to be awake when its light outside, this means that light will have a huge impact on sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the brain and controlled by light levels, it’s what makes you sleepy; simply put, when the lights are on melatonin production in the brain is off. Melatonin’s interplay with light suggests that you should have your bedroom dark, the darker the better. But that may not be enough, a good idea is to limit exposure to anything that produces light before bed, such as television, tablets, or computer monitors. There are blue light shields that filter the amount of blue light produced from such gadgets, as blue light is the biggest culprit in shutting off the melatonin production.
Scent – In a small study , men and women were noted to sleep better and have more vigor upon waking when exposed to lavender before bed.
Sound – There exists no shortage of devices that will generate sounds that can help you sleep better. Many of these devices generate white noise which is helpful in masking other noises that distract people from falling asleep or tend to wake up light sleepers. For those sensitive to the high frequencies associated with white noise, pink noise may be a better alternative. A study has also been shown that music can be useful in improving sleep quality; of course the type of music played is going to make a difference.
3. Get a little extra help – foods and supplements to help you get to sleep
Many people have trouble sleeping and resort to prescription sleep aides. Although effective, many prescription sleep aides are habit forming and often cause grogginess the following morning.
What supplements can help me fall asleep and sleep better?
There exists a plethora of natural alternatives to prescription enhancers that have been studied extensively and are worth mentioning; these natural alternatives include valerian root, l-tryptophan and 5-htp, melatonin, l-theanine, magnesium and others:
Valerian Root – Scientists don’t really understand what exactly about valerian root helps people sleep (see this study for more information). It is theorized that valerian helps with sleep by increasing the amount of GABA (a neurotransmitter that prevents the transmission of nerve impulses) in the brain by blocking the reuptake of GABA in nerve cells and inhibiting an enzyme that destroys GABA. The studies on valerian root show that it decreases sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and increases sleep quality (See here, here and here for more information). Note that higher doses (greater than 900mg) tended to make people feel sleepy in the mornings. Valerian Root should not be taken with barbiturate or benzodiazepines as they may have adverse reactions together.
L-tryptophan/5-HTP – is an essential amino acid naturally found in plants and animals and is a precursor to 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) and serotonin. Our bodies don’t make it and we need to get it from another source. Some foods have it (like turkey, or nuts/seeds), but generally not in very large quantities. Like Valerian Root, L-tryptophan is useful in reducing sleep latency (reference), and many of the studies did not note a significant impact on cognition the next day. Because 5-HTP is converted in the body to serotonin, studies have shown that supplementation increases REM sleep and thus indicates improved sleep quality as well. A suggested dose for L-tryptophan to treat insomnia is 1000mg, but is often taken in larger doses initially, with lower doses being taken for maintenance thereafter.
Melatonin – Responsible for maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm, melatonin is a hormone naturally found in our bodies. This hormone can be supplemented to help with falling asleep and staying asleep. Melatonin has been studied extensively for its use in many different areas; in some countries it is only available by prescription (like in the UK) and commonly prescribed for treatment of sleep disorders. In addition to being studied for its effects on insomnia (reference of study in adults, and another studying insomnia in children), Melatonin, has been well studied for its effects its neuro-protective effects (reference).
L-theanine – is an another amazing amino acid that is naturally found in tea (in small quantities in both black tea and green tea, although black tea contains more – reference). L-theanine has been studied for a variety of things and has been shown to increase relaxation (reference) and promote feelings of well-being. The amount of l-theanine found in tea is not enough to have much of an effect on sleep especially because tea has caffeine. The studies where l-theanine were used also had doses in the 100’s of milligram range. L-theanine was shown to improve sleep quality in one study; many anecdotal reports of users taking l-theanine support the study regarding sleep quality. L-theanine is probably not the strongest of the natural sleep aides, but it has very few documented side effects and is regarded as Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
Magnesium – is a mineral in the body that is a cofactor (a substance required for enzyme activity) in over 300 enzyme systems that serve to regulate various biochemical functions in the body including, but not limited to, muscle and nerve function, blood pressure regulation, and protein synthesis (reference). Magnesium has been studied for a variety of things, and has been shown to be helpful with sleep issues in more one study (another reference, and here). Magnesium can also be linked to stress reduction (at least as studied in animals, additional reference), which is a major cause of sleeplessness, and inability to fall asleep quickly (due to a racing mind).
UPDATE 04/2017: Pure Nootropics has developed the Optimal Sleep Complex that contains most of the above ingredients and some others like Lemon Balm (mentioned below). We designed the Sleep Complex to be one of the most well-rounded natural sleep aids on the market.
What foods can help me fall asleep and sleep better?
Foods that aid sleep include those containing high amounts of the substances mentioned above like tryptophan found in nuts or cheese, melatonin found in oats and cherries, or magnesium found in almonds or pumpkin seeds. Cheese is particularly helpful because dairy products in general help the brain better utilize the tryptophan, however you may want to steer clear of hard cheeses (parmesan, romano, etc) that have high levels of the amino acid tyramine which can effect sleep by making you more alert and has been generally linked to blood pressure but can have severe negative side effects for people taking MAOIs.
Honey – Taking a spoonful of honey before bed is one trick that works for many (like Seth Roberts that tested it pretty extensively). It is recommend that raw honey be used because of its 1:1 ratio of fructose to glucose. Local raw honey is even better (mainly because it contains local pollen and can help immunize you to local pollen that may trigger allergies). Honey is good because it increases insulin levels, is thought to fuel the liver with glycogen, and even speed up your metabolism. The increased insulin levels also allows the l-tryptophan in the body to enter the brain more readily.
Herbal Teas – Lemon Balm and Chamomile tea are the two that come to mind. Lemon balm has been studied for sleep disturbance and reduced related insomnia in patients. It was also studied in conjunction with valerian root and shown to increase sleep quality compared to the placebo group (reference). Lemon balm has also been studied and shown to improve mood and mental calmness which serves to indirectly encourage sleep (reference).
4. One Last Tip – Meditate Before Bed
We wrote about the health benefits of meditation. In addition to increasing grey matter in the brain and helping prevent cognitive decline in the elderly, at least one study has shown that mindfulness (a form of meditation) is useful in helping individuals fall asleep and sleep better. This is likely attributed to a more relaxed state as many people tend to lose sleep over racing thoughts and stress.
Do you have any other sleep tips and tricks that we missed? We would to hear your comments on what you do to fall asleep quicker and sleep better overall. We strongly believe that optimal cognitive function begins with proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep — from there cognition can be further improved through things like meditation and supplements (like the nootropics we offer in our store).