The Search for Sleep: Natural Ways to Get Some Rest

The Search for Sleep: Natural Ways to Get Some Rest

December 20, 2019 7 min read

Woman sleeping in bed under the covers

You’re never really asleep and you’re never really awake…

For a long time when I was in college, I struggled with insomnia. Somewhere between50 and 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, and everyone faces some kind of sleeplessness in their lives. But this was a serious, prolonged and lifeforce-draining bout of insomnia. What can you help you sleep? I tried all the usual things to help with sleep: over-the-counter drugs, healthier diet, avoiding caffeine. God help me I even avoided alcohol and tried exercising. None of it seemed to work.

The first couple of days with insomnia are the hardest. At that point in the insomniac struggle, you’ve been accustomed to getting at least a few hours of sleep a night, so you feel really strung out and confused. This is the phase of insomnia when people do things like put hand lotion on toothbrushes…

The next couple of days of insomnia are easier, because you’ve grown somewhat used to your new, trippy reality with strange things happening in your peripheral vision. Sleep? Who needs sleep? Your second, third and fourth winds have kicked in by this time and it feels a little easier to function—even though you feel a bit detached and foggy, in a bubble separated from what you used to consider reality.

Woman lying awake at night in bed unable to fall asleep

Remember Ambien?

By this time in the insomnia cycle, I’d seen a doctor and she prescribed me some Ambien. If you don’t remember, a while back, there were a lot of reported stories about Ambien’s effects on people—strange things were happening, like sleep-eating, sleep-driving (and weirder/worse thingsthan that). But back then, Ambien was still relatively new and social media was much less ubiquitous (shut up, I’m not that old), so I gave it a try.

Out like a light. For the next three days I slept like a baby.

On the fourth day, the Ambien stopped being effective. Up to that point I hadn’t experienced any of the strange and dramatic side effects of Ambien, but on the fourth day, after taking the usual dose of Ambien, I noticed some very peculiar things happening. I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to stay up and work on a research paper. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was being watched. Not by the government. Not by malicious forces. It just felt like I had an audience, somewhere in the room, watching everything I was writing and judging every word I typed. So...kind of like being a professional writer. Just with an added twinge of creepypsychedelia.

After that I decided to go back to the doctor to try something else. The next night, my then-girlfriend had trouble sleeping and decided to take some of my leftover Ambien. She did not have the same experience I did.

You ever try to scream in a dream but nothing comes out?

I tried to wake her up from the couch to go to bed, but she wouldn’t wake up. She was breathing, her heart was beating, but nothing would wake her up, not even ice-cold water poured on her head (which I wasn’t doing to be mean, I was getting worried). She was unconscious, and unresponsive. EMTs arrived and we ended up in the hospital for the night.

Eventually when she came to, she told me that she remembered everything. She remembered me trying to wake her up, she had remembered specific things the EMTs said, and she remembered coming to the hospital. But she couldn’t say anything. She felt like she was trapped in a dream, trying to scream, but nothing came out and no one was listening to her.

That seems like a really unusual reaction to the drug, but there is an Internet full of stories just like that (and some a lot weirder). At that point, I decided to keep trying natural remedies for insomnia, in addition to continued lifestyle changes, to see if anything stuck.


Man tired during the workday due to a lack of sleep

The health risks of insomnia

If you’ve seen Fight Club, you might remember the scene where Ed Norton’s doctor is telling him “no, you can’t die from insomnia.” Thatmighthave been the prevalent knowledge at the time the book was written or the movie came out, but there are a lot ofserious health consequences associated with poor sleep (and none of them include developing a jacked, charismatic alter ego).

Some of the initial complications of insomnia include:

  • Poor performance in work and/or school
  • A slower reaction time, which can lead to an increased risk of accidents
  • Potential immediate impact on heart health

Some of the long-term complications of insomnia include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Anxiety and Depression

So whatcan help you sleep?

There are a lot of natural things you can try to get good, restful sleep that don’t involve dangerous prescription medications. Most of these tips are pretty easy to incorporate into your daily routine right away. Others take a bit of practice and willpower.

Avoid Alcohol

You may have noticed that a drink or two does wonders in helping you fall asleep. But overall, alcoholinterferes with your sleep cycle. So while you may not have any trouble falling asleep after a couple beers, your sleep won’t be good, restful sleep either. Plus you’re likely to have to get up more often and go to the bathroom.

Drink Tea

Chamomile tea and other non-caffeinated beverages (you’ll still never convince me to gag down a glass of warm milk) can help you rest a bit easier.Chamomile in particular can influence the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain responsible for the body’s sleep response.

Get Exercise

Ah, what blog/doctor’s visit would be complete without at least one mention of exercise? After you’re told something so many times, though, you’ve got to start believing it. Exercise is a key component to overall health, and it is always one of the first things doctors recommend. The good news is you don’t have to work yourself into a puddle of sweat on the gym floor to reap the benefits. Just getting out and being as active as your body will allow youdoes some good. Even if it's only 5-10 minutes at a time.

Woman on her laptop late at night

Put Away the Phonesand Tablets

Blue light, even though we get some of it from the sun and in some cases can’t be avoided, is very detrimental to getting agood night’s sleep. To avoid the brain-disrupting effects of blue light, put away all electronic devices at least an hour before bed.

Take Natural Supplements

What supplements actually work for sleep? If you’ve taken melatonin or valerian root with little success, you might be a bit skeptical of supplements that claim they can give you a good night’s rest. But when’s the last time you tried a natural sleep aid? If it’s been a while, science and supplement companies have come a long way in developing formulas that not only include the right ingredients, but also are able to be absorbed by the body properly.


Melatonin is naturally produced in the body by the brain. It is the hormone that’s responsible for your natural sleeping cycles. The amount of light in the day and other health factors can influence how much melatonin your brain produces, and sometimes you get a little out-of-sync.

Valerian Root

Valerian root, which comes from the Valerian flower, binds to the GABA receptors in the brain. These are the neurotransmitters in the brain that help your body with relaxation and sleep. Valerian root has been used for a long time for its sleep aid properties, and is a safe alternative to try if other options haven’t worked for you.

Chamomile tea to help you fall asleep


Chamomile comes from the same family of plants as echinacea and sunflowers. It’s an ancient medicinal herb and has been used for everything from allergies to ulcers. It has been studied clinically forseveral ailments, and can be helpful in promoting relaxation and deep sleep.

P5P (Pyridoxal 5 Phosphate)

P5P sounds a bit "chemical" and out of place for a list that contains flowers and roots, but all it really is is the bioactive (able to be absorbed by the body) form of vitamin B6. P5P helps other enzymes in the body function more effectively (an example of this is the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, which helps the body relax).

Other ingredients have been used with varying degrees of success. But, if you want to try a supplement that contains all of the ingredients mentioned above,Physician’s Choice Sleep Aid is a good place to start.


How can magnesium help you sleep? You might’ve heard of the other ingredients on this list, butmagnesium for sleep may be a new one to you.

A magnesium deficiency can cause restlessness and sleepless nights, among other things. Healthy magnesium levels can support sound sleep by maintaining levels of GABA, which we talked about already as a neurotransmitter that is linked to both sleep and mood. Magnesium supplements mayimprove overall sleep quality, which can help you feel more energy throughout the day.

Of course, you’ll want to be sure you’re taking the proper kind of magnesium supplement. Obviously if you’re trying to take magnesium for sleep, you don’t want a magnesium supplement that’s been designed as a laxative. Take a look at ourhelpful guide on magnesium supplements to help you determine the best magnesium supplement for you.


Occasional sleeplessness is normal, and happens to pretty much everybody, especially as we age. But chronic sleeplessness is a problem that needs to be addressed by your doctor as it can lead to serious health risks.

The good news is that you don’t have to rely on harsh (and sometimes dangerous) prescription medications to get restful sleep; there are plenty of natural things you can do to get some shuteye. It can be frustrating (and at times make you feel helpless) when it seems like you’ve tried everything to sleep and nothing helps. But with a combination of small lifestyle changes and safe, effective natural supplements, you will find your way to a healthy sleep routine once again.

Seth Garland - Content Writer, Physician's Choice

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