After a recent trip to South America, I came home jet-lagged and jittery, and in desperate need of some kind of sleep intervention. So I put 8 of the most recommended remedies (that didn’t require a prescription or a complete life overhaul) to the test. H
We try out eight commonly recommended sleep remedies
Upon my return to South Africa, I found myself in the throes of unrelenting jet lag: I woke up and went to bed feeling hellishly nauseous and wired. And the most distressing and unexpected symptom was how anxious I felt – which made my sleeplessness worse. And we’re not talking two or three nights here; I was well into week two of being back home!
I trawled the web (when you’re not sleeping at 3am you have a lot of time to search for what might be wrong with you) and made a list of the remedies I found online.
The next morning comedian Joe Rogan, who hosts a conversation-style podcast with people from various fields, released an episode in which he spoke to professor of neuroscience Matthew Walker, one of the most prolific sleep experts in the world. (How’s that for serendipity?) Listening to their conversation reminded me of some important basics and enlightened me on a few crazy facts. For instance, did you know that when you travel or sleep in a hotel or unusual bedroom, one half of your brain resists going into deep sleep?
‘It’s a threat detection thing,’ says Dr Walker. ‘Other species do this much more impressively than we do – dolphins or any sort of sea-dwelling mammal can sleep with half a brain.’ Dr Walker says that your brain keeps track of the REM sleep (phases of deep sleep, or dream sleep, that occur throughout the night during which your brain and body are energised) that you didn’t get if you’ve slept too little or drunk too much alcohol so it can make up the deficit.
‘Alcohol and marijuana, both used as sleep aids, are very good at blocking your dream or REM sleep,’ he explains. ‘The brain builds up a clock counter of how much dream sleep you should have had (but haven’t been getting) and develops this increasing appetite and hunger for it, so that when the alcohol is out of your system, you get what’s called an REM sleep rebound effect, where you get the normal amount of REM sleep plus the brain tries to get back some of the dream sleep it’s been losing. That’s when you’ll have intense dream sleep and vivid dreams.’
I wasn’t surprised that most of us sleep way too little.
‘It took Mother Nature 3.6 million years to put this thing called an eight-hour sleep necessity in place,’ Dr Walker points out, ‘and, in the space of 100 years, we’ve lopped off almost 20% of that.’
And our lack of sleep is costing us, he says.
‘We’ve done studies with motorskill learning. Practice does not make perfect – practice and a night’s sleep is what makes perfect. When you come back the next day, you’re 20 to 30% better in terms of your skilled performance than you were at the end of your practice session the day before.’
He also warns that the old saying, ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ is ‘mortally unwise’ advice!
‘We know from the data you’ll be dead sooner, and the quality of that now-shorter life will be significantly worse. Research shows that the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.’
That settled it. I was officially on a mission to get my sleeping mojo back. I rarely struggle to sleep, and I needed to get back to my usual routine – pronto.
1. DIM LIGHTS & NO SCREENS
Dim the lights an hour before bedtime and turn off screens two hours before.
‘Light bulbs can suppress melatonin,’ says Dr Walker. ‘One hour of iPad reading versus one hour of reading a book in dim light shows that an hour of iPad reading delays the release of this critical darkness hormone by about three hours. Furthermore, you don’t get the same amount of REM sleep.’ He also recommends dimming the lights in your bedroom and switching off half the lights in your house an hour or two before bed. THE VERDICT:
This was a massive challenge because my nightly routine was to watch Netflix or scroll through Instagram until I fell asleep. When I finally got it right it made a huge difference! I was sleepy by 9:30pm. But the trickiest thing was to keep my phone away from my bedside table because it functions as an alarm and I often use it in bed to make arrangements for the next day. So I put my phone on charge outside the bedroom and used an analogue clock as an alarm, which worked much better for waking up too. Instead of Instagram, Whatsapp and Netflix before bed, I was reading with just my bedside lamp on. I also switched off most lights about two hours before bedtime, and it was surprisingly soporific! 2. TOTAL DARKNESS When I’m tired and stressed I’m hyper-sensitive to even the slightest bit of light, especially if I wake up at strange hours. We live in the city centre so it’s hard to keep our room completely dark. I tried an old eye mask to help me fall asleep faster – and stay asleep.
Total darkness is important because it affects melatonin. It doesn’t generate
sleep but regulates the timing of it. Light, whether it’s coming from outside or from your electronics, messes with your circadian rhythm. According to Dr Walker, we’re a darkness-deprived bunch due to modern-life conventions like screen time and illuminated cities. A study that placed subjects in a simulated intensive-care environment with bright lights found that participants who wore eye masks and earplugs had elevated melatonin levels, better sleep quality and more REM sleep. THE VERDICT:
The mask took some getting used to as it can move around and the elastic band can be irritating. But I’ve grown to love sleeping with it on and I do it every evening now. After two nights I found I could fall asleep more easily (which helps when you have a partner who’s still scrolling on a phone or reading later than you are) and I fell back asleep if I woke in the middle of the night much faster because keeping your eyes closed means you don’t fully wake up. I’ve upgraded to a more luxe padded mask – a 100% silk mask from The Silk Lady (www.thesilklady.com). It’s soft and comforting, and the adjustable velcro strap means it stays on and in position.
3. SLEEPSUPPORTIVE LOTION
An insomnia remedy that kept popping up during my online research was LUSH’s Sleepy lotion. Infused with lavender and oatmeal, the moisturiser promises to soothe, calm and assist with sleep. I also came across Healing Earth’s Sleep Enhancing Stillness body butter, which is made with extracts of lavender, mandarin, rosemary and vetiver root. These botanicals are used in aromatherapy to ease feelings of tension and stress. THE VERDICT:
I embalmed myself in the Sleepy lotion two nights in a row after a short shower. It has a sweet smell and the creamy texture absorbs easily. But I don’t think the lotion helped put me to sleep; it’s more hype than effect.
The Healing Earth body butter was more like a balm, which I preferred for evening moisturisation. The texture seems grainy at first, but the particles melt into your skin as it warms up. It has a heavy scent, more like an essential oil, and it’s good for winter skin. This balm really helped to keep me asleep – when I’m stressed I sometimes wake up itching all over; this helped soothe my skin so I didn’t get the midnight stress itch.
Moisturising at night meant I showered before I went to bed, and I think this was actually what helped get me to sleep. Dr Walker explains that a drop in core temperature after a bath or shower signals to your brain that it’s bedtime.
‘Cold is better – studies have found that cooler temperatures result in falling asleep faster and more REM sleep.’ When you get out of a hot bath, your body temperature plummets, which is what makes you sleep better.
4. A REGULAR BEDTIME ROUTINE
This is the first tip Dr Walker gives for better sleep: ‘Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time – no matter whether it’s the weekend or a weekday. That’s the most important thing.’
This isn’t a quick fix, but once I had a critical look at my bedtime routine, I realised there was a lot of work to be done. I made use of my iPhone’s bedtime function in the clock app. You can choose how many hours you want to sleep and set the time you want to wake up, and it will remind you between 15 minutes and 1 hour before your bedtime to get to bed. Another useful app is Sleep Cycles, which helps you track your sleep quality and can even tell you how much deep sleep you got and whether you snored. Also, the alarm can go off at the best time according to your sleep cycles.
I lit candles in the bathroom and bedroom, dimmed the lights, sprayed my pillow and body with a calming mist (more on that later) and on the nights that I showered, massaged the sleep enhancing balm all over. My beauty routine of cleansing and moisturising, or exfoliating and masking every other night also became part of this, so I spent about an hour getting ready for bed, at my leisure. THE VERDICT:
I’m a morning person and I have a 6am gym class three times a week, so waking up early and at a similar time every day wasn’t too difficult. The bedtime ritual was the big change for me. I usually spend about 15 minutes getting ready for bed and doing my beauty routine. Adding to my nightly ritual made a massive difference: it gave me a chance to wind down, get comfortable, and to feel pampered and ready to sleep. Apart from helping me fall asleep faster and wake up feeling refreshed, it has transformed into a self-care, me-time moment every night. I also spent more time reading, which I’d lost because I usually spent the time in bed scrolling through my phone. Reading, I rediscovered, is also the best way to make myself sleepy – take away the screens and you’re halfway there.
5. CBD OIL/ TINCTURES
CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the many active compounds found in cannabis. CBD and THC are the most talked-about compounds but CBD doesn’t deliver the ‘high’ that THC does. Rather, CBD is known for its ability to calm anxiety, ease nausea, relieve pain and act as an anti-in-
flammatory and antioxidant. The cannabis tinctures and oils you can buy come in different CBD:THC ratios, so ask about that wherever you get them from – you want a low THC: high CBD ratio.
A friend in San Diego had given me a bottle of CBD bitters for Christmas. I’d been adding it to my G&Ts but hadn’t yet tried it as a sleep aid – until now. THE VERDICT:
This was hands down the most effective sleep remedy for me. It worked instantly, and is an effective quick fix or routine use option. I added a dropper of bitters to a glass of sparkling water or kombucha as I neared bedtime – it has a bitter, botanical taste, and isn’t super concentrated, so you can gauge whether you need more or not. I also used it a few times when I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.
After 10 to 15 minutes you can feel your body, muscles and mind become deeply relaxed, but you don’t feel ‘high’. This is a great remedy if you’re struggling to sleep due to stress. I’ll definitely use this as a sleep aid in future and as a calming element for my nightly routine.
I was lucky to be gifted my Cordial Organics bitters, since CBD bitters aren’t available in SA (yet). There are, however, online stores that stock CBD oil or tinctures. Or ask holistic medical practitioners for a tip on where to find some. Everyone I spoke to about it knew someone who knew someone who knew a lady who sells some really good CBD oil.
6. YOGA STRETCHES
Almost all of the online articles on sleep aids that I found recommended doing a yoga routine before bed. Laura Malloy, director of yoga programmes at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine told
TIME magazine: ‘Yoga helps elicit what we call the relaxation response, which is essentially the physiological opposite of the stress response.’ This sounded like a solution to stress-induced insomnia. THE VERDICT:
I did a few yoga sleep routines that I’d found on YouTube. But it meant screens before bed, and I found it hard to watch the video and do the routine at the same time. With practice this could be very effective – the stretching is relaxing and did give me that ready-forbed feeling, especially because I mostly do high-intensity interval training. But as a quick fix, this wasn’t the best option because it takes practice if you don’t know a sequence. It’s worth incorporating as a way to wind down for bed though.
7. SLEEPENHANCING SPRAYS & ESSENTIAL OILS
Pillow sprays and essential oils are said to calm and soothe for better sleep: a study published in Chronobiology International found that lavender essential oil increased deep or slow-wave sleep. I put Soil’s organic lavender essential oil to the test and gave my pillow and body a spritz with Cowshed’s Sleepy Cow pillow mist, which combines the calming properties of St John’s Wort, Lady’s Mantle and Melissa (lemon balm) essential oil. THE VERDICT: I filled a small laundry tub with boiling water, added a few drops of lavender essential oil and placed it next to my bed. For a more intense effect, place a towel over your head and lean over the tub to inhale the infused steam. I also used the oil in a burner, which I really enjoyed. The scent definitely had a calming effect and I’ll be putting my essential oil burner to use a lot more. But I wouldn’t say it put me to sleep by itself.
The pillow spray and body mist had a gorgeous citrusy scent. I was away for the weekend on one of the nights that I tested it, and this is where I found the mist to be most effective – if you use the spray while travelling, it creates familiarity. I had a more restful night than I usually would if I were sleeping in a different environment. But again, although it’s something I would happily include in my routine, don’t expect it to knock you out in 10 minutes.
8. CHAMOMILE TEA
This is probably the number one suggestion that came up in my research. I tried the Five Roses Theatre of Dreams tea which combines chamomile flowers and lavender buds in the teabag. THE VERDICT:
Nothing to see here. Drinking a warm liquid was soothing but I’d probably choose rooibos over this. I didn’t enjoy the taste much. I could get used to it but I didn’t feel any different after drinking the tea before bed.