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6 Things That May Help You Fall (and Stay) Asleep

Here’s what works for me.

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illustration of woman sleeping, clock handles over moon, sleep
Elizabeth Gu
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If I wrote a fairy tale about women’s sleep habits, it would begin: “Once upon a time, she fell asleep like a baby. After menopause, shut-eye became a nightmare of wakefulness, tossing and turning. She searched in vain for a magic potion. …”

In real life, I tried taking lavender bubble baths and eliminating afternoon coffee. I couldn’t understand why my pillow had transformed from my comfort buddy to my enemy. 

“Our sleep changes as we move into perimenopausal and menopausal transitions,” sleep scientist Aric Prather told me in an interview. He is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Sleep Prescription, Seven Days to Unlocking Your Best Rest.

He says sleep complaints from women are common.

“There is some evidence that our circadian rhythm is not as robust as we get older, not making as much melatonin,” Prather says, referring to the hormone our brain naturally releases at night, promoting sleep.

Create a transition from daytime to bedtime. “Wind down, let your body relax, allow sleep to come to you,” Prather says. “Your sleep drive is a balloon that fills up as we use energy during the day. Push bedtimes later to make the balloon bigger, taking advantage of biology to regulate sleep.”

And what if you can’t get back to sleep? At 4 a.m., I’m rarely immersed in happy thoughts, but rather in concerns about the future or pain from physical ailments. Worrying about why we can’t sleep makes us less able to drift off. If you ruminate in bed, your body gets confused.

“Make your bed a shrine to sleep,” Prather says.

Get out of bed until you feel sleepy again. Distract your brain by reading or rewatching a funny, soothing TV show rather than bingeing on an exciting or scary new series.

“Find the sweet spot of low arousal where you have calm, content, positive thoughts,” Prather says.

Here are six suggestions you might try adding to your sleep bag of tricks.

Breathing: 4-7-8  

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile ”is a famous adage by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. Andrew Weil, a patriarch in the wellness and integrative medicine movement, popularized the 4-7-8 breathing method. While sitting in a chair or lying in bed, inhale through your nose (four counts), hold your breath (seven counts), and exhale through your mouth (eight counts). If you’re like me, your mind races and you worry about everything while trying to fall asleep. According to integrative medicine specialist Melissa Young in an article issued last year by the Cleveland Clinic, 4-7-8 breathing can foster tranquility and reduce anxiety.

CBD: Sleep aid or trend?

When we sleep well, we feel rested, with renewed energy and better memory retention and immune systems, according to Danielle Pacheco in the Sleep Foundation’s February 7, 2023, article, “CBD as a Sleep Aid.” CBD, from the plant Cannabis sativa, has become popular as a sleep solution — even though research is inconclusive. Unlike THC, a component in marijuana, it does not have a risk for potential dependency and doesn’t make you high. 

CBD comes in oral solutions and sprays, oils and tinctures, and edibles. Pacheco reports research showing that 300-milligram oral doses of CBD are safe to take daily for up to six months. CBD has calming properties on the nervous system and can reduce anxiety.

But do check with your physician to make sure sleep aids such as CBD or melatonin will not interview with any prescriptions you are taking, or any health issues, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Other natural sleep aids

Drinking warm milk before bed isn’t an old wives’ tale. This calming substance is loaded with tryptophan and recommended by the medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, Charlene Gamaldo, as reported in “Natural Sleep Aids” for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Flavonoids in chamomile tea and tart cherry juice are believed to support melatonin production. 

Since natural melatonin is triggered by reduced light exposure, open your eyes to daylight in mornings and afternoons: Take a walk or gaze out a sunny window. Avoid bright light in the evening. 

If you do try a melatonin supplement, the recommended dose is to take 1 to 3 milligrams two hours before bedtime, advises sleep expert and assistant professor of psychiatry Luis F. Buenaver in the article “Melatonin for Sleep,” published in Johns Hopkins Medicine.

White, brown and pink noise: Which color makes you sleepy?

These immersive sounds can help the brain focus, sleep or relax. White noise, sounding like static, has been popular for decades. Pink noise plays at lower frequencies; imagine a gentle rainfall. Every frequency that our ears can detect is heard in brown noise, with less hissing than white noise. I’ve used white noise to drown out my husband’s snoring so I can sleep. I use a sound machine on my night table, also popular with babies as it allegedly replicates sounds from the womb. These sounds are widely available on phone apps.

Exercise promotes sleep — but not too close to bedtime      

Exercise releases endorphins, neurotransmitters in the brain that make us feel good. Aerobic workouts close to bedtime can hinder the ability to nod off, but gentle stretching or yoga may be an excellent option. Yoga nidra creates deep relaxation and is a calming way to flow into dreamland, and is easily done lying down. Terri Barnett teaches this technique through her online class at terribarnettlive.com/

Sleep and storytelling apps    

Spotify and YouTube are full of sleep-inducing playlists, and there are apps available as well. These are a few to check out.

  • Calm: sleep stories
  • Headspace: pre-bedtime meditation
  • Insight Timer: sleep music and bedtime tales
  • Noisli: ambient sounds and relaxing rhythms
  • Ten Percent Happier: sleep meditations
  • Sleep Reset: tips from sleep experts

What do YOU do when you can't fall asleep? Let us know in the comments below.

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