Sleep is integral to health in so many ways. Your body resets itself at night, so getting adequate shut-eye is important to many extremely important processes and systems, including your immune health, brain function, and energy levels. Just think about the difference in how you feel after a great night of peaceful sleep and one where things didn't go so well and you'll be reminded of the power of sleep. While sleep varies from day to day and among people, one thing remains the same: we all need quality sleep to feel our best.
According to Integrative Nurse Practitioner and Master Herbalist Lynn Green, sleep should be thought of as a gradual process. “I think of it like a plane landing. It doesn't crash to the ground, it gently lands,” she explains. Here, she shares sleeping tips, sleep strategies, and her favorite sleep aids all designed to help you fall asleep.
First, though, she says to set realistic expectations around sleep. “Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is unrealistic,” Lynn shares. “Sleep isn't static. Your life, surroundings, and routines can differ each day.” You may have pets or children who occasionally wake you up. You may be a light sleeper, startling at any noise. There may be early morning construction on your street! Some things are just out of your control, so don't put too much pressure on yourself to enjoy a perfect night of sleep and you’ll likely sleep better.
How to fall asleep
That said, there are plenty of things you can do to set yourself up for success. Lynn's best advice is to create a bedtime routine that helps your body slowly transition to sleep and sets you up for easy sleep. Approach your bedtime routine like you would for a child and keep it consistent from night to night if you can.
Lynn recommends starting your routine with a comforting cup of chamomile tea after dinner, signaling to your body that it's time to chill. “This herb is traditionally known for helping seniors and infants as it is very gentle, but chamomile is also very powerful,” she says. “I think of it especially for people with occasional GI upset in the evenings or night. Chamomile is a relaxant for the GI system.”
If you have dimmers, gradually turn down the lights in your space as bedtime approaches as another signal to get into sleep mode. “Turn the lights down, put on pajamas, brush your teeth, turn off the TV and screens,” Lynn says, adding that she prefers to keep TVs out of bedrooms if possible. “Set your phone to silent or ‘do not disturb.’” Keeping your bedroom dark and cool can help support better sleep.
Another of Lynn's sleep strategies is reading short, feel-good books or stories with a natural end point. For extra assistance, you can try guided sleep meditation apps, sleep stories and music, or white noise to create the ideal sleep environment.
How to fall asleep — with help from herbs
A bedtime routine is a great place to start, but sometimes you need to add on to that routine. For those who require help drifting off, Lynn recommends trying specific supplements designed to support sleep, and taking most as you start to wind down for the night, about an hour before bed.* Of course, you should always read the label and follow recommended dosing guidelines when using any supplement and consult your health care practitioner before starting any new supplement routine!
Lynn often looks to herbs to help her patients with sleep support; here are some of her go-to picks:
Ashwagandha: This adaptogen works well for “wired and tired” people who run on overdrive and need help dealing with stress.*
Valerian: This is a supplement that should be taken for a few weeks before deciding if it's right for you, as it works best over time. Note: Valerian can be aromatic, though not nearly as pleasant as lavender. “I warn people that when opening a valerian supplement, it can smell like stinky tennis shoes,” Lynn laughs. “This is normal! Don't throw it out.”
Hops: While Lynn advises not drinking alcohol too close to bedtime, she does like hops as a supplement. “Hops as a traditional herb helps quiet the mind," she says, adding that it can be taken with valerian.*
Other sleep aids and tricks to try
Reduce blue light. “In our fast-paced society, light pollution is an issue, especially at bedtime,” Lynn explains. “If you can't eliminate screens, consider blue light glasses and putting your screen in night mode.”
When light becomes a part of our nightly ritual, it means our bodies will have a harder time secreting the hormone melatonin. This means reducing screen time is extra important before bed.
If you want to supplement with melatonin, pay attention to the label to make sure you’re following correct dosage recommendations.
Magnesium is a “relaxation mineral” that Lynn says many people might not be getting enough of in their diet. “Magnesium can help with muscle relaxation, and some studies show it may assist with sleep, particularly in older adults."*
Lavender is an aromatic favorite that can be enjoyed as a tea, softgel, or in essential oil form where you add it to a diffuser or apply it to your pulse points (you could even spray some on your pillow!).
Learning how to sleep better could be as simple as implementing Lynn's tips and herbal favorites into your routine. Just remember Lynn’s advice — think of sleep as a journey and help your proverbial airplane land gently by adequately preparing your body and environment for a good night's sleep.