How I Learned to Sleep Better, Naturally

Want to know how to fall asleep faster? I learned from personal experience about things you can do to fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Read on for some of the tips I used to sleep better, and also for some advice from a sleep expert.

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February 08, 2021
Young woman lying in bed with eyes closed using headphones

Young Woman Lying On White Bed With Headphones and IPhone

Listening to guided meditation or relaxation exercises encourages the body to shift from daytime stress to evening quiet.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Damir Khabirov

Shutterstock/Damir Khabirov

There's no denying getting a good night's sleep has been a challenge for many of us. Anxiety about the pandemic, politics and the uncertainty of our day-to-day reality makes it harder for many of us to sleep, including myself.

There was a time when I could fall asleep almost instantaneously, as soon as my head hit the pillow. But 2020 changed all of that. Personal stressors but also our shared national anxiety suddenly made falling asleep difficult. I tried medication for a time, but don't like relying on pills to fall asleep.

I am now happy to report that by changing up some habits and adding some bedtime rituals and tools to my repertoire, my sleep has returned to pretty close to normal and I no longer get ready for bed with the anxiety of possible insomnia.

The ability to fall asleep is a complex blend of biology and psychology, says Dr. David Neubauer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center. Neubauer is also the author of Understanding Sleeplessness from Johns Hopkins University Press.

According to Neubauer, some 50% of the population suffers from occasional bouts of insomnia.

"An awful lot of people are frustrated by their inability to achieve the sleep that they want most nights," he says.

Neubauer notes that how we sleep and what can help us sleep better is a complex mix. "If you step back and think about sleep for everybody, every night — whether they are sleeping great or having trouble with their sleep — there's always some interplay between psychological processes and physiological processes. You can boil it down to the mind and the body always interacting."

"It's all in the routines that people follow, whether they are things that might have a direct biological effect like light exposure in the evening, too many screens, too much activity before going to bed or too much coffee — all of those things can have a biological effect."

"But completely parallel with that is our mental state. And so if we're calm and we are anticipating falling asleep, well that's great and it's totally going to reinforce it."

Change Your Bedding

Sleep experts say that enjoying being in your bed is an ideal way to ease you into sleep. For me, adding some key elements transformed my bedscape from good to sublime.

Neubauer does add a caveat, though, for those who think a set of luxurious Frette bed linens or down pillows will automatically lead to better sleep.

"It doesn't magically solve the problem," he says. "On the other hand, if you really have a bad mattress and you have uncomfortable sheets and pillows, of course that could undermine your ability to fall asleep."

So buying that new comforter or pillow to fall asleep "is definitely an element, but not a cure," says Neubauer.

Try: A Weighted Blanket

It seemed as if everyone but me had discovered the weighted blanket. But better late than never: my weighted blanket has been undeniably life-changing for me.

I can personally attest that a weighted blanket gave me back my quality sleep. The small glass beads in weighted blankets provide Deep Touch Pressure (DTP) and help release seratonin in your body, which can have a calming effect. Sleeping under a weighted blanket is said to promote deeper, longer sleep allowing you to achieve better REM sleep.

I distinctly remember the first night I slept with a weighted blanket and how it instantly soothed and lulled me, almost miraculously, to sleep. This one was a huge game changer and I am now a weighted blanket proselytizer, telling friends, family and anyone who will listen how they should try one for what ails them.

$99

This Layla Weighted Blanket features 300 thread count cotton on one side in black and a velvety gray on the other side to make this blanket's design great for different design schemes. The different textures also provide some lovely versatility. The hexagon quilting in this blanket keeps the micro glass beads evenly distributed and — a very nice feature — this super cozy blanket is washable. The rule of thumb with weighted blankets is to choose one that is 10% of your body weight. My other weighted blanket is closer to the weight recommended for me, at 12 pounds, but I really liked the heavier 15-pound weight of the Layla blanket. I chose the lightest, twin size at 15 pounds. The queen is 20 pounds and the king is 25 pounds. Layla offers a free 120-day trial, so give this a try to see if it improves your sleep. I hope it will.

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Try: Wool Bedding

Consider adding a luxurious mattress topper to your bed, which can create the kind of plush fancy hotel comfort that can help you drift off to sleep. I recently combined a wool mattress topper and wool pillow in my bedscape and loved the way I could adjust the amount of wool in the pillow exactly to my liking.

Many wool advocates also like the fact that this sustainable and natural bedding material is naturally hypoallergenic. Wool has a lot of other positive features too. It's fire-resistant and eco-friendly. And it's a natural, biodegradable fiber that also regulates temperature and wicks away moisture, making it ideal for hot sleepers. It's also naturally odor-resistant and purifies the air. Just as luxurious, wool is a nice alternative to down if you want to explore this undeniably comfortable bedding.

$121-143

This customizable pillow has an organic cotton cover with a zipper that allows you to fluff or adjust the wool sourced from British sheep to achieve the perfect loft in your pillow. Reaching into a wool pillow to manipulate and fluff your wool has to be one of the most viscerally satisfying things I've experienced lately. Woolroom's washable wool pillows are a great remedy for those allergic to down or feather pillows, or those who just don't like the pokey feathers working their way out of the pillow casing. Hypoallergenic Woolroom wool is also an entirely natural product that is sustainable, naturally mold, dust mite and mildew resistant, unlike pillows filled with other materials.

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$198-313

Wool as a pillow, comforter and mattress topper fill was new to me. But the appeal of United Kingdom-sourced wool from adorably fluffy British sheep grazing in emerald green fields was undeniable: sheep-to-sleep as the Woolroom folks say. And wool itself is not unlike down — offering a plush, fluffy material you can manipulate to give you the ideal sleep surface. For those with allergy issues, wool has a number of advantages: it's antimicrobial and antibacterial so it doesn't tend to harbor dust mites and mold. So you can sleep easier knowing you won't wake up with a runny nose or watery eyes. Woolroom is an English company that sources all of its wool from local sheep (cruelty-free) who require regular shearing to maintain their health, so you are sort of doing sheep a solid when you take the wool off their hands. All purchases over $100 are shipped free from the U.K. And the wool mattress topper I tried was undeniably cozy — warm but not oppressively so — and I liked the fact that it was washable too and fits easily on my mattress. After days of using my wool mattress topper, I woke up noticeably refreshed and ready to go which makes me suspect counting sheep is a thing of the past.

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Try: A Pillow Makeover

Who says a pillow has to be just for your head? I found it incredibly soothing when I was recovering from a surgery and had to sleep on my back, to surround myself with pillows on either side, and a big pillow under my knees which one of my doctors recommended to keep me from habitually turning onto my side or stomach while I slept. I got so used to that little nest of pillows that once I no longer needed to sleep on my back, it was the only way I wanted to sleep (but those who suffer from sleep apnea should be aware that backsleeping is often the worst position, and can exacerbate the condition). The bottom line is, whether it's a body pillow, knee pillow or whatever pillow available, try your own ad hoc arrangement to achieve blissful sleep.

Try: A Silk Pillow

Another personal discovery that many consumers had already made, sleeping on a silk pillowcase compared to my usual cotton cases definitely feels better, more luxurious and more comfortable. The recent introduction of a silk pillowcase to my sleep routine has been a welcome improvement and my pillow covered in a Blissy case is the one that I reach for each night.

$89.95 $70

With the home — and especially the bedroom — becoming more and more of a sanctuary, how we outfit our beds for a good night's sleep has also become key. From weighted blankets to mattress toppers to cooling sheets, the bed is one reality we can definitely control. Silk pillowcases are just one item in our better sleep arsenal. They are said to absorb less moisture and dirt and thus can help in reducing acne and keeping moisture on your face rather than in your pillow. This Blissy pillowcase is luxurious, lessened post-waking hair frizz and just felt great.

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Consider a Natural Sleep Aid

There are lots of things you can use to help you sleep, like chamomile tea — which contains apigenin, a natural substance found in many plants that is said to reduce anxiety and calm you down — and has been shown to aid in sleep according to a 2010 study in the Molecular Medicine Reports. Melatonin gummies or a handful of almonds can also aid in helping you sleep. Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that helps your body know when it is time to sleep and wake up. Almonds contain high doses of melatonin.

$39.99

I could offer more details on how I drifted off to sleep with this botanical-based sleep aid. But I don't remember falling asleep. I was just out. This stuff works in a surprising and almost immediate way. The directions advise taking two capsules an hour to 30 minutes before sleep and I would guess 30 minutes is the time frame that works for me. Drift relies on what the company (helmed by Flume CEO and naturopathic physician Dr. Taryn Forrelli, a former Head of Product at Olly) calls "science-based botanicals." Natural sleep-inducing ingredients in Drift include ashwagandha (a small evergreen shrub grown in India) used for thousands of years in the practice of traditional Ayurvedic holistic medicine for stress relief, California poppy and hops (best known for their role in beer-making). Forrelli says that pretrial research suggests that California poppy and hops can "boost a calming neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA that plays a key role in regulating sleep." All of these ingredients are said to promote some degree of relaxation or sleepiness which explains why you so often see ashwagandha listed as an ingredient in moon milk recipes. Be aware, however, of this manufacturer advisory: Do not use if pregnant or breastfeeding. Consult physician priori to use if taking medication or have a medical condition. Keep out of reach of children. Not intended for insomnia or chronic sleep problems.

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$15

Scent is a powerful tool to help us feel good. A lovely self-care way to end and start your day these aromatherapy balms are a great way to help you ease into a good night's sleep or activate your senses for the busy day ahead. You can rub the balm on pulse points before bed, though I just enjoyed breathing the scent in and then leaving it on my bedside table all night.

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I like the Olly Sleep Gummies. Tasty and effective, these gummies contain melatonin as well as botanicals including chamomile, passionflower and lemon balm and L-Theanine, an amino acid that can create calm. I tried these gummies solo and alongside a number of other sleep aids like botanical pillow mist and changing out my bedding, and they genuinely seemed to help.

Set a Mood

Just like you might light some candles and set a beautiful dinner table to spark romance, you should also be setting a mood when it comes to sleep. Getting your brain trained and ready to sleep is essential. Turning off or banishing phones, TVs and other devices from your bedroom is key, according to sleep experts.

But I found a host of other useful things to help get me in the mood for slumber, including aromatherapy.

Lavender is just one scent that has been found to have a positive effect on sleep according to studies like the one done by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. I found a spritz of lavender scent on my wrists or pillow was great for signaling to my body that sleep time was near. Sachets in pillows or pillow mists with calming scents like lavender, valerian, bergamot and clary sage are another way to use scent to help get you in the mood. I like this budget-friendly Aura Cacia Relaxing Lavender Mist to spray on your pillow or in the air to create pleasant associations around bedtime. It's also small enough to take with you when you travel and know you might have issues sleeping.

"From a psychological point of view, all of those things that people preparing for bed, whether its brushing teeth and getting into pajamas and all of those steps, reinforce the usual trajectory of going into bed and falling asleep," says Neubauer.

Think of the pleasure you feel when you smell freshly baked bread, the pine tree and pumpkin scents of Christmas or catch a whiff of someone wearing your mother's favorite perfume. Scent can have a powerful effect on mood, happiness and well-being. One of the many aromatherapy products that have sought to serve the roughly 50% of Americans who have trouble falling asleep, this lovely pillow mist uses essential oils including lavender to encourage well-being and rest. I find the scent soothing and because I personally am very affected by scent, I thought it helped create the perfect atmosphere for sleep.

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Since it's probably not smart to do as the celebrities often do, and travel with a candle you can use to cozy-up your room, this Soothing Atmosphere Mist is a nice alternative. You can spray it in the air or on your body (it features hydrating sweet almond oil) and the luxurious combined scent of sandalwood, rose geranium, frankincense and myrrh does inspire a tranquil mood. The heavy glass bottles and elegant design of products in this ESPA sleep line will also look great on your nightstand.

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Yes, it's pricey. But if you are thinking about starting a bedtime ritual to help you drift off to sleep, this Restful Night Cream could become a unique tool in your arsenal. The marshmallowy, silky texture of the cream and the aromatic, herbacious but not too perfumey scent are memorable. And I can vouch for the relaxing effect of following a warm shower or bath with this cream. I felt great and the delicious smell put me in a good mood to fall asleep. I combined the Restful Night Cream with the Restful Pillow Mist and the Soothing Atmosphere Mist. Ingredients include many that have been associated with relaxation including chamomile, hops, ashwaganda, lavender, clary sage and eucalyptus.

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"So if there's a particular aroma that is associated with falling asleep then I would think that would have a positive effect."

Try a Soothing Hobby

As modern creatures, we tend to dash through our days attending to work, family, friends and our partners. There are a million things to do and not enough time in the day, which can mean you go to bed with your brain still buzzing. One thing that can help is to do a brain dump as soon as you get into bed. Keep a notepad on your nightstand and list all the things you will need to do tomorrow to purge your brain of the stress of having to remember. Then pick up something that allows you to refocus your attention and quiet the mind, whether it is a great book or, in my case, a needlepoint obsession. Nothing puts me in a restful and downshifted mood like the relaxing exercise of pulling needle through fabric and watching something beautiful and colorful unfold. I really like these whimsical and affordable needlepoint kits from Penguin and Fish which are great for beginners and have enough supplies in each kit to create several versions of the same artwork.

Lights Out

Some people use blackout curtains or sleep masks to shut out distracting sources of light from their bedrooms. I find that heavy velvet curtains drawn tight are enough for me. Some keep a flashlight to guide them to the bathroom at night, or a nightlight in the bathroom, but the bottom line is, don't turn that bedside lamp on if you need to get up for a glass of water or a bathroom visit.

In addition to recommendations from groups like the Sleep Foundation to sleep in a dark bedroom, sleep experts like Neubauer recommend that you try to expose yourself to bright sunlight during the day to help regulate your circadian rhythm. Light during the daytime helps in regulating melatonin and your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that tells you when to be awake and when to sleep.

Dress the Part

$14.99

Making sure everything from your bedscape to your jammies are built for maximum comfort is critical when aiming for a good night's sleep. Socks, especially the oh-so-soft (and affordable) ones sold on Amazon instantly put me in the mood for sleep and insured I would not wake up because of cold feet.

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You know what says sleepy-time to me? Beyond-soft cashmere socks, cotton yoga pants, a comfy T-shirt and a ratty old cashmere sweater or sweatshirt. To some people those layers would be oppressive and hot but I'm a cold sleeper so they make me feel swaddled and safe. Some people are at their most comfortable sleeping in the buff. But pay attention to what you do wear to bed and make sure you aren't waking up because you are too hot or too cold. My husband sleeps in a woolen cap to keep his head warm but my father can't stand to have even a thin blanket on his legs. The point is, whatever works should be your go-to getup: you do you.

Create a Bedtime Ritual

Maybe it's just my imagination but I feel like I sleep better on clean sheets in a well-made bed. And it doesn't feel like a coincidence that I often have some of my best sleep in a luxurious hotel bed with fresh sheets and a million pillows. Some of that is certainly the great linens and mattress. But I also think there is something to be said for the ritual of bedtime and making it as ideal as possible. Clean sheets, the act of turning down a bed and plumping pillows, all establish a lovely routine that, again, gets your brain in the mood for sleep.

Many also swear by a warm bath or shower to relax, much as the same ritual calms small children and lets their bodies know it is time to sleep.

Kick Out the Pets

Dog Friendly Brice Hotel in Savannah, Georgia

Dog Friendly Brice Hotel in Savannah, Georgia

Champion snorer Oskar.

Champion snorer Oskar.

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My husband finds the rheumy snoring of our pug Oskar incredibly soothing and sleep inducing. To me his snoring has the absolute opposite effect. It can be especially distracting in the middle of the night when an especially noisy run of grunts and whistles would wake me up and keep me from falling back to sleep. Sadly it took a combination of kicking poor Oskar out of the bedroom when his nightly z's became too robust, and some great silicone ear plugs, to resolve the issue.

Get a Humidifier

$65.99

I love the sleek look of this quiet humidifier that has helped me with dry eyes and skin when I'm asleep. Some advantages of this Honeywell humidifier are the lack of a filter, which means nothing to buy or clean and a large capacity 1.25 gallon tank. As an added bonus, a humidifier can provide ambient white noise to block out other noises to help you sleep.

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A humidifier, especially in the winter months, is a great way to counteract the dry air that develops when indoor heating is cranked up and the myriad health issues that can result and interfere with sleep, including sinus problems and congestion, dry eyes, sore throat, itchy and dry skin and snoring. Some claim a humidifier can even help with sleep apnea.

Other Things That Can Help With Sleep

"People often want a quick fix, like a pill," says Neubauer. "But it's more important to step back and think about our circadian rhythm because that's really the main factor that contributes to our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep."

"Falling asleep is not what happens when you get into bed. Falling asleep is the last step of hours worth of changes that are going on in your body and your mind in the evening," says Neubauer.

Address Noise. Some use a white noise machine (or in my case, earplugs) to keep out distracting sounds from ambulances to other people to pets that can interfere with sleep.

Get More Exposure to Sunlight. Exercise and lots of bright light and time outside during the day, says Neubauer, can facilitate sleep later.

Limit Exposure to Blue Light. Keep screen time and bright light on the bluish spectrum to a minimum at bedtime. "Blue light suppresses our melatonin," says Neubauer. And so when you turn on that bright vanity bathroom light before going to bed or to make a bathroom run at night, "that's shutting down your melatonin, making it less likely that you're going to fall asleep easily."

Try a Sleep Light. Neubauer says lightbulbs that are on the red rather than the blue side of the spectrum can help with sleep by supporting your body's natural production of melatonin.

Try Breathing Exercises and Meditation The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has found that meditation "may help people with insomnia." Relaxation techniques including breathing exercises can also be beneficial in dealing with insomnia says the NCCIH.

Reserve the Bedroom for Its Purpose. "Don't do Zoom calls, pay your bills or work from bed," says Neubauer. "Bed should be reserved for sleep and sex."

Pay Attention to Your Body. Don't go to bed until you think you can go to sleep.

Stick to a Schedule. Regularity in bedtime and wake-up time is essential for good sleep.

Change Your Eating Habits. A hearty breakfast, a smaller lunch and a smaller, early supper and then fasting for several hours as bedtime approaches helps your body get ready for sleep. "That reinforces the circadian clock earlier and sort of prevents the battle between our metabolic system being actived too late in the evening and all the processes that are promoting sleep as bedtime approaches."

Eating a big meal and then lying down can also cause a variety of issues from indigestion to heartburn, because the natural pull of gravity that keeps food moving through your digestive tract is not in full effect and acid reflux can result. And indigestion and heartburn can not only mean you'll have a hard time falling asleep — they can also wake you up in the night.

Incorporate Foods High in Melatonin. Certain foods like almonds, tart cherry juice, goji berries, milk and pistachios all contain melatonin and might help you sleep.

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