Natural sleep support: 8 science-backed ways to help you sleep soundly
With research showing almost three quarters of us don’t get enough sleep, how can we stop tossing and turning and start sleeping soundly? Here, we uncover the best natural sleep support techniques that are proven to work
Whether it’s scrolling on TikTok or your mind racing at 3am, many of us struggle with sleep. In fact, research by Bed SOS has found that half of us don’t think we get enough sleep, and 20% of us feel exhausted the next day.
But it’s not just about the amount of sleep we get; the quality of our sleep is essential, too. In the UK, 25% of adults feel fretting about money impacts their sleep, and 37% said work leaves them feeling less in control of their sleep. With so much going on in our lives, it’s no wonder our sleep can suffer, but it’s important to prioritise it where you can – the health benefits of sleep are vast, helping support our immune system, our mental health, and even keeping our heart healthy. Let’s explore some natural ways that you can support your sleep that are all scientifically backed.
1. Ditch the caffeine
Caffeine is known for stimulating the brain, which makes it great when you need to get through your morning meeting, but less helpful if you’re trying to drift off to sleep. While you don’t have to go caffeine-free, coffee can help you stay alert up to four to six hours after drinking it, which is why most experts recommend avoiding it in the evening, with one study finding that 400mg of caffeine (which you’ll find in around four cups) consumed up to six hours before bed significantly disrupts sleep.
However, not everyone is as sensitive. “Everyone is different when it comes to caffeine; some of us can drink tea and coffee in the evenings and still get a normal night’s sleep, while others may need to limit caffeine intake from the afternoon onwards,” advises Sophie Medlin, consultant dietitian at City Dietitians. If you fall into the latter camp, it could be worth swapping your coffee for a non-caffeine alternative, such as herbal tea or chicory root coffee.
2. Log off before you hit the pillow
Finding a bedtime routine that’s phone-free could be worth trying – even if it’s leaving your phone in the other room, and reading a book in bed instead. It’s thought the blue light from your phone screen can interfere with the sleep-hormone, melatonin, as well as making you more alert as you scroll online and take in information.
When we use our phone in bed, not only are we likely to get less sleep (if our phone keeps us busy), but we also reduce the amount of REM sleep – the stage of sleep when we vividly dream.
“For many people, technology has crept into the bedroom, making the bed a place of work, entertainment, eating, etc. It equates the bed with lots of activities other than sleep,” says clinical hypnotherapist Geraldine Joaquim. “Use your bed just for sleep, as you want your brain to associate it with sleep, not scrolling social media and watching TV.”
3. Choose the right kind of workout
A workout gives you energy, so many think it’s best to do first thing rather than before bed, as we don’t want a burst of energy right before we turn in. However, that’s not always the case. Research published in Sports Medicine has found that exercising before bed helps us get to sleep faster and sleep more deeply, as long as you don’t do high intensity exercise (such as circuits). Something like yoga is ideal and has been proven to help reduce stress and, as a result, improve sleep.
4. Try magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that’s vital for nerve and muscle function – and is often recommended to help relieve cramps by relaxing muscles. According to the Sleep Foundation, research has shown magnesium can help the body relax and improve insomnia, which may be because it helps regulate the neurotransmitters that are related to sleep.
“Magnesium has been shown to help maintain the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter that aids relaxation – it improves the quality of sleep, as well as helping you doze off in the first place,” says Sophie.
5. Drink a glass of milk before bed
Having a glass of milk before you go to sleep may actually help you sleep better. “Dairy foods have been shown to aid sleep, as they’re a great source of tryptophan (an amino acid that’s involved in the production of sleepy hormone melatonin), and nutrients such as magnesium and B Vitamins,” says Sophie. If you’re dairy-free, it could be worth trying a nut-based milk, since nuts have also been linked to melatonin production.
6. Avoid foods high in G.I.
As we want to make sure our blood sugar is balanced before bed, it’s important to opt for choices that are low in the glycaemic index. “Foods with a high glycaemic index, like wheat bread, sweets, and sugary drinks, will rapidly increase blood sugar levels and may contribute to a worse night’s sleep,” explains Sophie. This may also be why eating a fibre-filled snack before you hit the hay could help, too. “Increased fibre intake has been linked to improved sleep quality, and this is thought to be due to its impact on sugar absorption.”
7. Don’t eat right before bed
Is there anything actually wrong with tucking into your dinner right before bed? Well, there’s not one definite answer, but there is concern around indigestion and reflux, which can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. In fact, studies, including one published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, have found that those who go to sleep less than three hours after dinner, significantly increase their odds of reflux.
8. Build mindfulness into your evening routine
Finally, don’t forget that mindfulness is important at all parts of the day, including evenings. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are a range of tools that people can use, from gratitude journals to relaxation audios,” says clinical hypnotherapist Geraldine Joaquim, who also runs the online programme How to Sleep Well. “The more you practise calming activities – like gratitude journaling or meditation – the less sensitive your stress response is, and over time there’s a physical response to your brain.”
There’s no magic solution for everyone to get a restful night’s sleep, but working on adding the right food and drink to your diet, along with mindful practices and screen-free time, can make a real difference to both the quantity and quality of your sleep.