A brief guide to better sleep

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how a lack of sleep might contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Today, I’m following this up on a guide to how to get better sleep. In no particular order, here are some of the strategies which I’ve found consistent success with in terms of improving sleep quality, and most of them work work remarkably quickly.

1. Eat a ‘primal’ diet
I’ve found that a major cause of waking in the night and sleep disruption is episodes of low blood sugar (which turns on the stress response). Eating a ‘primal’ diet seems to guard against this and I’ve seen it improve sleep considerably and consistently.

2. Avoid alcohol in the evening

This is another consistent finding: individuals who avoid alcohol in the evening generally sleep better and feel more rested the following morning than when they drink. Avoiding coming into the evening very hungry can help here, as hunger is often a major factor in drinking. Keeping hydrated in the day and not being thirsty in the evening will generally help here too.

3. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime (or perhaps earlier)

Some people tolerate caffeine late in the day OK, but many don’t. Cutting out caffeine after lunch often helps.

4. Daytime light
Light appears to be important for the production of melatonin – a hormone that plays a key role in sleep. Light early in the day seems to be best here, so getting out in the morning or at least lunchtime for 20 minutes or so is a good idea. Alternatively, you might like to try a light device.

5. Turn the lights down low at night
Bright light in the evening can impair sleep, so try and get by with as little light exposure as possible for a couple of hours or so before bed.

6. Eyeshades
Total darkness seems to aid sleep, but who can ensure a totally dark bedroom? Not many of us. Eyeshades have potential value here. I prefer those made out of silk as I find these to be the most comfortable.

7. Earplugs
Noise is another common sleep-disrupter, whether this be traffic noise, a buzzing mini-bar in a hotel room or snoring partner. I think earplugs are an under-used Godsend. The best make I’ve found are foam plugs made by the company Quies.

8. Relaxation techniques
These can help calm the mind and body and smooth the transition into sleep. They can be used to get to sleep or help get back to sleep if you wake in the night. A couple of commonly used techniques (which can be applied together) are ‘progressive muscular relaxation’ and abdominal (‘belly’) breathing. There’s plenty of information about these techniques on the internet.

9. Magnesium
This mineral has a calming influence on the brain. It’s also a critically important nutrient for muscular functioning, and a lack of it (quite common) can cause symptoms such as restlessness, restless legs and muscular cramp. A lot of people find magnesium aids their sleep. Magnesium supplements come in many different forms and some are more bioavailable (absorbable and useful to the body) than others. One worth avoiding is magnesium oxide (cheap but not very absorbable). Better forms of magnesium include magnesium citrate, taurinate, glycinate and succinate. Personally, I suggest about 400 mg of elemental magnesium a day, perhaps best taken in the evening.

41 Responses to A brief guide to better sleep

  1. Scott 13 April 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    10. Exercise?
    Exercise during the day seems to have a generally relaxing effect, and obviously it can make you feel tired, and hence want to sleep.

    I also find that if I am restless in the night, and can’t get back to sleep, holding a plank position for as long as I can (~3 minutes) leaves me feeling tired and sleepy, and often helps me slip back to sleep.

  2. Dr John Briffa 13 April 2012 at 5:27 pm #


    Yes, exercise, good point!

  3. Rosanna 13 April 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    I once bought some melatonin tablets which were brilliant – now I dont seem to be able to get them (only if I live in the US) – do you know about them and where I can buy?

  4. Deb 13 April 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Very useful. Please would you elaborate on “primal” diet. I have a sense that you mean unprocessed, whole foods but more information would be welcome. Thanks.

  5. Marina 13 April 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    Having had serious sleep problems in the past which I have largely solved I can vouch personally for the above recommendations, including the no coffee or alcohol. The last is very tricky as there is no general perception of the fact that alcohol can keep you awake. However, you do not include something I swear by: namely dried, sticky bananas NOT banana chips) eaten at bedtime which are very effective because of their high tryptophan content and also Valerian drops (easier to take a low dose than capsules)

  6. Kay 13 April 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    I always read in bed for 30 minutes or so using a daylight lamp, and have trouble getting to sleep – have never made a connection before but presumably this is something you would not recommend

  7. Dr John Briffa 13 April 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    Marina – thanks for the sticky banana tip. It occurs to me that these might also just help maintain blood sugar levels through the night too.

    Kay – yes, you might be better off changing that light for one that is dimmer and, in particular, has less ‘blue’ light in it. How about not using any light at all for a few nights to see how this works out?

  8. Jilly 13 April 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    I find that an eyeshade is helpful. My sleep has been much improved by spraying Magnesium Oil on my calves an hour or so before bedtime – the spray is available from victoriahealth.com.

  9. Mike Rawlinson 13 April 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Everyone is different – I have found the best ear plugs by far can be obtained online from British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association and they are dead cheap too!

  10. Les 13 April 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    Rosanna was asking about where to buy Meletonin tablets , I use an American mail order company iherb.com to buy these tablets, I also buy Vitamin D gel caps from them as I think they are better than the powder type you can get in the uk. if its any help you can use this code XAM924 to get a discount at iherb.com

  11. Liz 13 April 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Magneium oil is also very effective at preventing leg cramps. Most health shops sell it or you can get it direct from http://www.betteryou.uk.com.

  12. Clint 13 April 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    11. Get treatment for sleep apnea if you have it. It’s a surprisingly common and underdiagnosed condition. And it’s commonly overlooked by physicians as a serious issue. I still had sleep apnea after losing signifigant weight following a low carb diet — I lost up to a point where I stalled. After getting treatment for sleep apnea, my quality of sleep improved dramatically and my appetite diminished substantially, allowing me to resume losing weight again.

    Even if someone follows your good tips for getting a better sleep, it will be impossible for them to sleep well if their airway is collapsing at night and their O2 saturation levels are dropping significantly and/or they’re awakening. It doesn’t take much extra weight to dramatically increase the likelyhood of developing sleep apnea and even lean people of normal weight can have the condition, often without realizing it.

  13. MikeS 13 April 2012 at 11:16 pm #

    You didn’t mention the problem of mid-night urination. I’ve been diagnosed with BPH, and I get up at least once per night. I’m hesitant to get surgery, and from what I’ve read, Saw Palmetto isn’t effective, and I guess I’m prejudiced against prescription drugs unless there is no other choice. I try to limit my evening fluid intake, and I have found that eating sometime, carbs or protein just before bedtime does help. Any other thoughts? Is Flomax worth a try?

  14. Margaret Wilde 13 April 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    I buy Melatonin capsules, strength 3mg, from Swanson’s, using the Amazon.co.uk website.


  15. Searcher 13 April 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    I have bought an earthing sheet and have found that the quality of my sleep has significantly improved – I normally no longer need to get up in the night and I wake feeling ready for the day. The book by Clinton Ober et al explains the thinking behind it

  16. zephyr haversack 13 April 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    What are “sticky” bananas? Here in Canada, we have just plain, imported bananas, the large regular variety, and sometimes the wee ones, from Vietnam. But nothing “sticky”!

  17. Donald Tiso 14 April 2012 at 12:15 am #

    I struggled with conventional earplugs for years , tried many different ones , they were all uncomfortable and/or often fell out during sleep , finally I found these ones made of silicon “putty” , they mold to your ear unlike conventional ear plugs , they are much more comfortable & they work better , I gave a pair to a friend and later got an eml “you may have saved my marriage !” http://stores.ebay.co.uk/Mistrys-Pharmacy/_i.html?_nkw=silicone+earplugs&submit=Search&_sid=223124191 I second Les’s recomendation of Iherb , I personally prefer the “time release” melatonin , try both , see what works for you

  18. Lori 14 April 2012 at 12:52 am #

    For me, just lying awake in bed with my eyes closed is a good substitute for sleep. I don’t get sleepy before midnight, but I have to get up early.

  19. Jules 14 April 2012 at 1:20 am #

    Goat’s milk / yoghurt is also high in tryptophan and may be worth a try; tends not to cause the same intolerances that cow’s milk causes too.

  20. Greg 14 April 2012 at 1:24 am #

    Meletonin is released 3 to 4 hours after the eye senses darkness so no LED screens after sundown. I find turning down the brightness works well.

  21. Christopher Palmer 14 April 2012 at 4:24 am #

    I now sleep with an elasticated anti-static wristband around the ankle. The wristband is connected to a purpose made UK Earth Bonding plug that I plug into the wall-socket. The only connection is to the earth pin on the plug. I could, at slightly higher cost, invest in an earthing sheet.

    The effects on sleep are striking. Most striking is feeling far more rested and wakeful when the alarm sounds. It’s as if re-establishing a ‘lost’ connection to ‘ground’ some how re-sets the guts and gubbins of circadian rhythms. It is a calming effect that has to be experienced to be believed. For an added bonus it has accelerated the healing of a painful elbow strain.

    The theory behind this can be found in this book:
    a href=”http://www.amazon.co.uk/Earthing-Most-Important-Health-Discovery/dp/1591202833/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top”>Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? Ober, Sinatra MD, & Zucker. (2010)
    I recommend it for you and your readers.

    I thought the idea was crazy and put off reading the book for six months. It’s not crazy. Look at the example set by all other species, they do not work, rest, or play, while in buildings and vehicles which are made of insulating materials. Then marvel about the conditions that prevailed when life first got started 3.9 billion years ago.

    If you give this a try, or have first hand contact with someone who has, you may come to place this in the #1 slot.

    (Cue music and ‘Fluff’ Freeman for the chart run-down! “Coming straight in this week and topping the charts in the number one slot it’s …. “)

  22. kris 14 April 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Deb (comment #4): You ask about a primal diet. Do a brief web search, there is a wealth of information out there. It’s also often referred to as paleo or even “caveman” diet.
    In addition to going for unprocessed foods, as you mention, one of the main elements is avoiding (refined) sugar and (most) grains and other very starchy foods. The idea behin this is that we aren’t evolutionary well adapted to deal with a diet so high in (refined) carbs, and that they often lead to obesity, insuline intolerance, inflamation and diabetes. Again, if you’re interested, the internet holds more information on this than you can read. 🙂

    Also, what’s with the comments promoting “earthing” that seem to pop up everywhere suddenly?

  23. Ted Hutchinson 14 April 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    @ Greg You may like to use the FREE DOWNLOAD F.lux: software to make your life better that does this automatically after dusk and returns screen to normal during the day.
    An EYE MASK is a simple solution for those who want the windows open (to ensure a drop in temperature to help initiate cold induced thermogenesis (brown adipose tissue burning calories to keep you warm in bed) yet are bothered by street lighting.
    UK/EU sky at night photos show extent of light pollution at night
    see also
    Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans.
    We should also be aware that melatonin creation, like vitamin d production, declines as we age and older people may be particularly vulnerable to melatonin deficiency. (particularly implicated in depression and dementia). Time release melatonin is cheap and safe.

  24. Michael 14 April 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    Re. melatonin, of which I have been fan of for many years, recent research indicates a possible association with Alzheimer’s:
    I’m indebted to PMID for the following:
    The pineal product melatonin that acts on specific melatonin receptors has been implicated in pathobiological mechanisms of neuropsychiatric disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. We used mice lacking melatonin MT(2) receptors (MT(2) knockouts) to investigate the role of these receptors in synaptic plasticity and learning-dependent behavior. In field CA1 of hippocampal slices from wild-type mice, theta burst stimulation induced robust and stable long-term potentiation that was smaller and decremental in slices from MT(2) knockouts. Tested in an elevated plus-maze on two consecutive days, wild-type mice showed shorter transfer latencies to enter a closed arm on the second day; this experience-dependent behavior did not occur in MT(2) knockouts. These results suggest that MT(2) receptors participate in hippocampal synaptic plasticity and in memory processes.
    PMID: 16203090 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

  25. Christopher Palmer 14 April 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    “Also, what’s with the comments promoting “earthing” that seem to pop up everywhere suddenly?”

    Kris, it is just an instance of an individual flagging a positive experience and offering it for the contemplation of others – no different really to your contribution.

    Basically, ‘free electrons’ are essential to the radical chemistry we call ‘life’. (That’s an absolute statement as much as it is figurative) Biology (and physiology) is a mix of the biochemical and the bio-electric assembled around proton (energy) gradients. The need for ‘free electrons’ is as fundamental as are air and water. Dead simple. If we deny ourselves the necessary connection to ground the ‘instruments’ that make us function lose site of the basal value – which is the zero potential at ‘ground’.

    I don’t disagree with the sub-optimal diet notions btw, ie. diets that have departed from certain parameters revealed by the ‘primal’ example. I think several modern features would be better for being down-moderated or even excluded.

    Sure, foods (or certain of their attributes) we are not especially well adapted to can be chronically injurious, but that’s only one half of a big issue. Simply for the sake of ignorance we go on to add insult to injury. How? Buddy follow that lead. It’s an inspiring story – and humbling to realise due how dumb humanity can be.

    Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? Ober, Sinatra MD, & Zucker. (2010)

  26. Sue G 14 April 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    Does anyone know how to stop nocturnal palpitations that can wake me hour after hour some nights? I already take magnesium citrate, B1 and D3 and from time to time use a Prana mat. I know for sure that some alcohol is a trigger, red wine is particularly implicated but even when I abstain I can be troubled. It is really impacting on my life! I usually get 2 hours sleep then I wake with palps, I lie still, try to use relaxation techniques, drift off to sleep and within an hour I am woken again.
    Curiously I am also overweight. Have tried taking nearly all carbs out but in 3 months have dropped only 5lbs or so which is off and on. Maybe it’s the sleep problem?

  27. Rosanna 15 April 2012 at 1:51 am #

    Margaret – when looking for Swanson melatonin on Amazon I’m just getting L-Tryptophan. Is it the same thing? http://is.gd/0QTEmv

  28. iRememberWhen 16 April 2012 at 8:26 am #

    For sleep I suggest trying some combo of magnesium, calcium, GABA, 5-HTP, melatonin, valerian, and inositol. You will have to experiment to find what works for you personally.

  29. Clint 16 April 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    “Does anyone know how to stop nocturnal palpitations that can wake me hour after hour some nights? I already take magnesium citrate, B1 and D3 and from time to time use a Prana mat. I know for sure that some alcohol is a trigger, red wine is particularly implicated but even when I abstain I can be troubled. It is really impacting on my life! I usually get 2 hours sleep then I wake with palps, I lie still, try to use relaxation techniques, drift off to sleep and within an hour I am woken again.
    Curiously I am also overweight. Have tried taking nearly all carbs out but in 3 months have dropped only 5lbs or so which is off and on. Maybe it’s the sleep problem?”

    Get tested for sleep apnea

  30. Edward 18 April 2012 at 12:31 am #

    Sue G. It sounds as though you may be suffering from Atrial Fibrillation; you should definitely seek medical advice urgently. I am a sufferer too and take medication permanently to control the condition otherwise there is always a danger of blood clots or a stroke.

  31. Sue G 18 April 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Does AF only happen at night though, I don’t get palps through the day? Sleep apnea, does that give you palps? I know I am overweight, about 3.5 st and I snore sometimes, but I thought it was more common in very fat people?

  32. Margaret Wilde 19 April 2012 at 9:49 pm #


    I’m sorry it doesn’t seem to be on the Amazon website now. And no, it’s not the same as L-Tryptophan.

    I am myself just about to order some more melatonin capsules. I shall buy them from this website – http://www.healthmonthly.co.uk/swanson_melatonin_1 It is a reputable website.


  33. Ani 20 April 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Rosanna,
    I buy my melatonin from http://www.bodykind.com, they are a great UK company (I used to work for them as their nutritionist, they have a great working ethos) http://www.bodykind.com/search/melatonin/product/3176-QuickMelt-Melatonin-120-x-25mg-Chewable-Tablets.aspx

    Best regards

  34. simona 20 April 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Talking about sleep and body temperature. I often feel very cold when I go to sleep, although I have a woolen blanket on top of the duvet, I find it difficult to relax and have to curl up under the duvet to get warmer. However, it seems that early in the morning some heating process kicks in and I wake up warm and sometimes sweaty. The ambient temperature doesn’t change, that is there is no heating on.
    Can anybody explain?
    Another question, please. Why does one yawn at 9 p.m. but then when in bed at 10.30 p.m., one can’t fall asleep for around an hour?

  35. Rosanna 20 April 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    Thank you Ani and Margaret. My magnesium spray has now arrived so thanks Liz for that suggestion.

  36. Nicky Black 20 April 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Hi all

    This is a very interesting discussion and I see the “earthing ” topic has moved on to this weeks newsletter, good work, I will try this aswell but please could you help us with an issue we have when it comes to sleep.
    My step son is autistic and melatonin does not work as well as it used to and sometimes it has opposite reaction to him. He is super-sensitive and needs someone beside him at night, even after he falls asleep, if you try and sneek off…. BOMB he is awake and most of the time that leads to the whole house been woken up.

    I wondered about the namely dried, sticky bananas Marina mentioned as I have had no joy in tracking them down here in Calgary Canada and bananas are one of my son’s only and favourite foods.

    Thanks in advanced and keep up the great work, now I am off to work with bare feet… where is that grounding wire 😉

  37. Michael 20 April 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    To MikeS, and Margaret
    BPH is a pain, and from research I’ve done I’d keep off any meds until you have exhausted the impact of your diet. Personally, salmon (and possibly other fish) and fennel, amongst other foods, are BHP negative, whilst I find kale, and certain ales a great help. Food combinations can also have an effect, but rather than tell you what works or doesn’t work for me, I suggest you keep a detailed log and see if you can detect a pattern that will help you focus on a diet that will have a beneficial effect.

    Margaret, re melatonin I see that Swanson offer a dual release 3mg tablet. This may not only help you get to sleep but could also make sure that you stay asleep. A tablet also gives you the opportunity to break them into smaller segments so can tell what strength works best for you.
    Just a caution, melatonin has been associated with Alzhiemer’s. See PMID: 16203090 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

  38. George Super Boot Camps 26 April 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    My personal experiences with this may be useful to some:

    In January I took all caffeine out of my diet, after about 2 weeks I started sleeping more deeply than I can ever remember doing. This lasted about a week, and then the sleep went back to normal (I tend to sleep pretty well, needing between 7 and 8 hours a night and sleeping through most nights).

    The second thing is about the use of Brainwave entrainment audio. I have a few programs on my iphone and have used them with great success when I struggle to get to sleep (very rarely, normally due to late or excessive consumption of caffeine) or when I’m away from the house and in an unusual location, hotels, friends houses or camping. The research is very mixed with type of application, but I find the listening to delta waves seems (yes I realise the bias in this) to help me get to sleep AND have a better sleep…

    My 2 pennies worth
    Happy Sleeping

  39. Marina 27 April 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    To Zephyr Haversack: I meant the small Vietnamese dried bananas. On a visit to Australia a few years ago when I couldn’t “import” the Vietnamese variety I used local ones and found them singularly lacking in potency. My assumption is that in Vietnam they are picked riper and sun-dried preserving the tryptophan better. I find that magnesium helps, but has a laxative effect.

  40. Marina Donald 17 June 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Have had another bout of serious insomnia. Achieved a wonderful seven hours of quality sleep last night by following my son’s advice and taking magnesium citrate (rather than oxide) Seems that magnesium citrate is taken up better and more completely by the system. Strange to think that one of my previous spells of serious insomnia, when I felt I was going round the bend, was caused by anxiety about the self-same son. Is this a rite of passage?


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