7 ways to fall (and stay!) asleep faster

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7 ways to fall asleep faster
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7 ways to fall (and stay!) asleep faster

How it works: Aromatherapy is the practice of breathing in certain scents believed to impact mood. The scents often come in the form of oils and lotions that are applied topically, as well as candles and sprays. "Aromatherapy—especially lavender—has been shown to relax the brain and body," says Shelby Harris, the director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center's Sleep-Wake Disorders Center in New York City.

Pros: It's natural and easily accessible: Just visit any grocery store or drugstore and you'll find a range of beauty products containing lavender.

Cons: It's not powerful. If you have real, chronic insomnia, a few whiffs of lavender oil isn't going to do much, says Harris. It's better for those who have occasional trouble sleeping. "It isn't at all a standard treatment in the sleep-medicine field, but if it relaxes your body to help set the stage for sleep, go for it," she says.

Try it: The This Works Deep Sleep line of aromatherapeutic products contains calming scents, like lavender and chamomile, that help you unwind before bed. Our tester who tried the company's Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, Deep Sleep Heavenly Candle, and Deep Sleep Body Therapy found that they helped her stay asleep through the night more consistently than she normally does. You can also try applying lotions or oils with scented with lavender, chamomile, or bergamot before bed.

How it works: Melatonin is a hormone your body produces naturally that helps you prepare for sleep, so it can be helpful to take a melatonin supplement (a chemically produced version of the hormone) if you know you're going to have trouble falling asleep. "It changes your internal clock and gets you ready for sleep, but it doesn't make you fall asleep," says Michael J. Breus, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. That means it doesn't yield instant results, either; he recommends taking the supplement 90 minutes before bedtime.

Pros: It's convenient. In the U.S., you can pick it up without a prescription at pretty much any supermarket or drugstore. As with all supplements, it's smart to talk to your doctor before taking it.

Cons: Breus recommends taking a dose of between 0.5 and 1 milligram, but that's not always easy to find. "About 90 percent of what's available is an overdosage of about 10 to 20 times that much," he says. Most of the supplements available contain at least 3 milligrams. Taking too much melatonin has been linked to nightmares and can also be a contraceptive, Breus says.

Try it: Look for the lowest-dose version you can find, and use a pill splitter to cut it even smaller if necessary.

How it works: This calming natural sleep aid has been called nature's Valium because it mellows you out. But it's not entirely understood why. "We still have more to learn about this herbal supplement," says Harris. "The mechanism of action and the ideal dose still need more research." Its most common form is a liquid extract you mix into water, but you can also find it in other forms.

Pros: It's thought to be generally safe, says Douglas Kirsch, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. But he recommends discussing the option with your doctor to make sure it doesn't interfere with other medications or health conditions you may have.

Cons: The side effects, if any, are typically slight headaches or digestion problems. Also, "it tastes horrible and smells even worse," says Breus. Even if you take it in capsule form, it can leave behind an unpleasant aftertaste.

Try it: Valerian root has been shown to be more effective as a sleep aid when paired with hops, Breus says, so consider taking it with a hops supplement, too. (Sadly, a pint of Blue Moon won't work.)

How it works: You know how people drink warm milk as a sleep aid? They're on the right track: A large dose of calcium (larger than you'd get from drinking it) aids in the production of melatonin. A supplement of 900 milligrams helps the brain harness the amino acid tryptophan (which helps make melatonin), explains Breus. Together with the calcium supplement, Breus recommends taking magnesium and zinc supplements, since the three work together to help maintain sleep.

Pros: They're an all-natural way to promote sleep.

Cons: Be careful not to go over the recommended dosages, especially if you're supplementing zinc, since excess can lead to a dangerous accumulation of copper in the body and become toxic.

Try it: Look for 300-milligram supplements of magnesium and 8-milligram supplements of zinc.

How it works: "Meditation isn't meant to make you fall asleep; it's meant to help quiet the noisy brain and set the stage for sleep," says Harris.

Pros: In addition to helping you fall asleep, it can also reduce stress and sharpen your mind. Plus, it's free!

Cons: Learning to sit in silence for a prolonged period of time can be difficult. 

Try it: Harris recommends practicing ten minutes a day of mindful meditation: Sit in a chair in your dimly lit bedroom and imagine the outline of your body, tracing it in your head and paying attention to the amount of pressure you feel against the chair. "I typically have patients practice mindfulness an hour or so before bed, but there's no one standardized way to do it," she says.

How it works: "Acupuncture can aid in relaxation," says Joyce Walsleben, a sleep expert and adjunct associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine.

Pros: "[It can] help reduce pain, a major issue for some that can sometimes prevent sleep," says Walsleben. "There's limited data suggesting [acupuncture] is helpful for patients with insomnia, especially women in menopause," adds Harris.

Cons: If you're squeamish about needles, this one's not for you, and the data supporting its level of effectiveness it is fairly limited.

Try it: Alternative-wellness centers and hospitals that offer acupuncture are becoming more accessible.

How it works: "Relaxing with a cup of noncaffeinated tea, particularly as part of a nighttime winding-down ritual, may help sleep," says Katherine Sharkey, an assistant professor at Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She stresses that it's mainly about having a bedtime ritual, though.

Pros: It's affordable, easily available, and (usually) tastes good.

Cons: There's not much data to support the effectiveness of drinking tea, and you may be better off sticking to chamomile aromatherapy anyway, because drinking anything before bed can have obvious consequences. "I don't recommend patients drink tea before bedtime simply because I want them to limit liquids for three hours before bed," says Harris. "Drinking liquid at night can only increase the risk of awakening to urinate."

Try it: Make sure you choose a decaf tea, and look for one with multiple calming ingredients, like Traditional Medicinals Cup of Calm, which has lavender in addition to chamomile.

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Do you jump out of bed before your alarm even goes off, feeling entirely well-rested? If you're like most people, yeah, no. But life doesn't have to be a series of sleepless nights and drowsy, caffeine-fueled days. We asked the experts which alternative sleep aids work and how to make sure you're getting the most out of them.

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