For many, in this day and age of life and work stress – not to mention stress related to the pandemic and self-isolation – getting deep sleep is like grasping at straws. It just doesn’t happen. With our always on lifestyles, our constant connection to digital devices (and blue light, which has its own consequences), and persistent concerns about parents, kids, work and everything else, sleeping properly is a huge challenge.
We all understand the need to sleep well. Sleep’s connection to being restorative for the body is well-known. The body needs sleep in order to function properly, and the immune system requires sleep to operate at peak vigilance. But the constant struggle facing many of us is how to sleep better given all the issues we face daily.
The continuous questions of how to get better sleep and how to get more deep sleep are top of mind and the challenge is finding a routine that works for each of us. Well, the good news is that there are options for those of us looking to sleep better. There are things to consider that include lifestyle modifications, particularly around bedtime, that can help tremendously. Then there are natural options (herbal and nutritional) that can aid us in sleeping better, getting deep sleep, and experiencing REM sleep.
What are non-REM and REM sleep?
The sleep cycle essentially consists of two phases: non-REM and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movements. In general, non-REM sleep occurs first and consists of three stages. The first stage is light sleeping, lasting only several minutes. This is when things start to slow down, including muscle activity and eye movements. Progressing through stage one, leads to the second stage of non-REM light sleep. Stage 2 consists of muscles partially contracting mixed in with periods of muscle relaxation, eye movements stop, and heart rate slows down. Brain waves become slower, and this prepares the body to enter into stage 3 of non-REM sleep. This stage is known as deep sleep, during which your brain slows down further and produces delta waves. There is no eye movement or muscle activity during this stage and it’s difficult to awaken someone from this type of sleep.
Non-REM sleep is restorative to the body. During this sleep, your body builds bone and muscle, regenerates tissues, and repairs the immune system. As you would expect, non-REM sleep tends to decrease with age, and older adults get less of this type of sleep than younger people.
REM sleep is the other phase of sleep and involves increasing brain activity, like when one is awake. Thus, REM sleep is not as deep as stage 3 non-REM sleep. This phase of sleep is where intense dreams are experienced, and muscles are essentially paralyzed. This phase occurs about an hour or more after you get to sleep, and the total amount of REM sleep also decreases with age.
Both phases of sleep are necessary and important for health. As both decrease with age, supporting our ability to experience REM and non-REM sleep is equally important. A natural question that may come to mind is how much sleep do I need? Scientists believe that most adults need 7-8 hours of good sleep per night to function optimally.
The Importance of Sleep Hygiene
Many lifestyle factors impact our ability to get to sleep. As stress plays a big part, methods of reducing stress, whether through meditation, counseling or other measures can be important to getting more refreshing sleep.
Going further, setting a regular time to go to bed and sticking to it can be helpful. Trying to disconnect from our connected devices and work-related activities a couple of hours before bedtime is essential. Also crucial is maintaining the sanctity of the environment in which we sleep. Making it a habit of not watching TV or checking digital devices close to bedtime is helpful, not only because the thoughts we have after doing so may disturb sleep, but also because these deices emit blue light. Blue light disturbs sleep by interfering with the production of the circadian hormone melatonin. Melatonin levels normally begin increasing 1-2 hours before bedtime and play a significant role in facilitating sleep. Blue light from digital devices interferes with the production of melatonin and, therefore, disrupts sleep quality. Moreover, melatonin plays a critical role in immune health, so interfering with melatonin and the circadian rhythm makes us more susceptible to immune challenges.
Do Chamomile and Lavender Help You Sleep Better?
There are many natural and nutritional options that you can try to help improve sleep quality. Supplementing with melatonin is an effective approach for many. Other nutritional compounds such as the amino acids GABA and L-theanine can also help improve sleep by aiding the brain in relaxation. In addition, there are several herbal therapies that can support healthy sleep. Two traditional herbs used for sleep include chamomile and lavender.
Is Chamomile Tea Good for Sleep?
Chamomile is a remedy with an ancient history of use. Rich in flavonoids, terpenes, and other compounds, chamomile has many medicinal uses. One of the most well-known is its role in supporting sleep quality and as a general sleep aid. Traditionally used as a tea, chamomile is also available as a supplement in capsule form. Chamomile tea helps you sleep as do chamomile supplements. It works to support sleep since it has mild tranquilizing properties and acts as a sedative. Both preclinical and clinical studies confirm the role of chamomile in relaxation and helping the body sleep. Studies suggest that chamomile can act on the brain and compounds from the herb interact with GABA receptors, leading to its sedative effect. It also may play a role in supporting against anxiousness and relieving stress, which make it useful for promoting refreshing sleep.
Does Lavender Help You Sleep?
Lavender is another herbal remedy with a storied history of use for helping with relaxation and sleep support. Used as an inhaled essential oil, lavender has been found to have anxiety-relief, mood supportive, sedative, and pain-relieving properties. It is also used orally as a traditional medicine for calming and as a sleep aid. Like chamomile, one way in which lavender works is by interacting with GABA receptors in the brain, inducing a feeling of relaxation and calm. Clinical studies using lavender have found that it has anti-anxiety and mood enhancing effects in human subjects, and can improve restlessness, disturbed sleep, and overall well-being. Using lavender for sleep can, therefore, have significant benefits.
Tips for Better Sleep
Both chamomile and lavender have a high level of safety and are good options to try if you are having trouble sleeping. Using these herbs in combination with other nutritional therapies may also increase the effectiveness of these herbs. Nutritional therapies that can be used in combination with chamomile and lavender include GABA, L-theanine, and melatonin. Another nutritional with excellent benefits for relaxation and sleep is the mineral magnesium. Since 50% or more of the population fails to get enough of this essential mineral, supplementing with magnesium is a good strategy for improving sleep, reducing stress, and for supporting overall health.
- Sleep Basics. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/12148-sleep-basics. Accessed on 12/19/21.
- Koulivand PH et al. 2013. Lavender and the nervous system. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med
- Srivastava JK et al. 2010. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report