How to Improve Sleep Naturally

by Steven Hicks

Steven Hicks

According to various, recent surveys, over 80% of Americans have admitted to having sleep issues. Whether it’s falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling refreshed, we are collectively in the throes of a lack-of-sleep epidemic. And now, I’m going to share with you how to get better sleep, naturally, without melatonin, nighttime tea, or sleep meds.

But first, how do we even fall asleep? Most people have this misinformed idea that falling asleep is a simple act of stopping and then going to sleep. When this approach is attempted, most people end up tossing and turning with overactive minds keeping them up all night. 

Sleep is actually kind of complex. Instead of one, single on-off switch (Sleep or Awake), we have three, separate on-off switches (#2 causes the most sleep problems). By understanding all three, we can craft a routine that supports all the switches and helps us sleep easier, deeper, and wake up more refreshed.

Sleep Switch #1: The Circadian Rhythm

Here’s the one you’ve most likely heard of. Just about everyone mentions circadian rhythm, but few people really understand what this is. Your circadian rhythm is your biological clock that regulates the vast majority of your daily functions, not just sleep. But definitely sleep. Sleep is heavily regulated by your daily ebb and flow of various hormone signals controlled by your circadian rhythm.

But what controls your circadian rhythm? If we can control that, we can better control sleep. 

Evolutionarily, your circadian rhythm was dictated by daylight. Obviously, as “civilized” people, we have artificial lights and sometimes ‘round-the-clock work schedules, so we don’t base our lives on the sun so much anymore. But we still have light receptors in our body that we want to be aware of for sleep. Your circadian rhythm is also controlled by consistent habits and routines. Ever notice how you may tend to get that mid-afternoon lull after your lunch meetings? Routines. 

Sleep Switch #2: Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

This one is the biggest culprit for sleep problems. Your ANS has two modes, sympathetic or parasympathetic. You’ve probably heard of the sympathetic nervous system, or your “fight or flight” mode. The opposite, parasympathetic nervous system, is known as “rest and digest” mode. With sleep, we definitely want to be in rest mode.

Unfortunately, we live in a very sympathetic-stimulating environment. Anxiety, stress, noises, flashing lights, and sometimes exercise, can put our ANS in a stimulated state when we’re trying to sleep. The opposite, relaxation without external signals, helps us be in a rest and digest state, which promotes easier sleep.

Sleep Switch #3: Adenosine Sleep Pressure

The final sleep switch that contributes to a good night’s rest is the adenosine sleep pressure system. Our body uses a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to power almost every function, all day long. When your body uses an ATP molecule, the adenosine can travel through the blood and collect in the brain. When there’s enough adenosine, the brain wants to shut down, sleep, and clean up its internal house. 

Think of when you finish a big run, such as Bloomsday. That day has way more activity than normal, and afterwards, your body is trying to crash to take a nap. Lots of adenosine released, lots of pressure.

There are three big problems people encounter with the adenosine sleep pressure system. First, sedentary lifestyles use less ATP each day, which means less adenosine build up. Second, taking a couch nap while watching TV washes some of the adenosine away, which eliminates sleep pressure when you actually lie down in bed. Third, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors so that the brain doesn’t even notice it wants to be tired. 

Putting the Three Switches Together 

At night, we want to avoid bright lights, which trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s daytime and wakey-wakey hours. Bright lights can also turn your ANS into stimulated mode instead of relax mode. Additionally, we want a consistent, relaxing routine before going to bed, without external lights or sounds (sorry TV watchers and TikTok scrollers…phones away!). Relaxing routines help the ANS, but they also help the circadian rhythm. Finally, get some physical activity each day by taking a walk, doing some gentle yoga, or even working out to build up that sleep pressure.

There’s a lot more we can discuss about sleep habits and routines to naturally improve sleep, but I’m out of space. I am a certified sleep coach and a holistic weight loss coach. If you’d like to ask more questions about sleep, weight loss, or healthy habits, please shoot me an email at