Most people who lie awake at night tossing and turning (which is all of us at some point) know about counting sheep or reading until you’re drowsy to bring on the shut-eye. Those methods don’t always work though. Fortunately, there are also lesser known strategies with some real science behind them that can help you drift off into the blissful, deep sleep you so desperately want.
Here are nine surprising things to help you sleep.
1. Drink tart cherry juice
Tea is often the drink associated with bedtime, but when it comes to things to help you sleep, tart cherry juice might be more effective than even that cup of Sleepytime. Tart cherries are high in melatonin, the hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle, and a few small studies have shown that they have promising effects on sleep.
For a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, 20 participants ages 18-40 drank either tart cherry juice concentrate or a placebo twice a day for a week. Those who drank the cherry juice had higher levels of melatonin afterward and showed modest sleep improvements.
Another study, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics, looked at the effects tart cherry juice had on the sleep quality of eight participants 50 and older, all of whom had insomnia. The researchers noted that drinking two eight-ounce servings of tart cherry juice per day for two weeks extended the sleep time of the participants by 84 minutes versus those who took a placebo.
This study was funded by the Cherry Marketing Institute, so take the results with a grain of salt (or perhaps sugar in this case)—but still, it can’t hurt to sip some tart cherry juice an hour or two before bed to see if it makes any difference for you. As an added bonus, research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that tart cherry juice, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, quickens recovery time in athletes.
2. Sniff lavender
As with tart cherry juice, a few small studies point to lavender’s ability to aid in sleep. According to a report in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, inhaling lavender oil decreased the blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature of the 20 participants.
Another study, published in Chronobiology International, looked specifically at how aromatherapy impacts sleep. For the study, 31 participants ages 18-30 slept in a sleep lab for three consecutive nights. On the second and third nights, half the group was given lavender essential oil and half got distilled water (essentially a placebo), which they breathed in for two minutes. The researchers reported that those who sniffed the lavender essential oil had small but significant increases in deep sleep and felt more energized in the morning.
Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, an assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says that it may not be the lavender itself that causes you to conk out—rather, when you do something over and over again before bed (such as smell lavender) it can become a signal to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep. “All of us wash our face at a certain time, drink our chamomile tea, grab our novel—these all become cues for sleep,” she says.
3. Take a warm bath
If you’re more of a morning shower person, then you may want to reconsider your schedule. Nighttime baths can improve sleep quality. For a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, participants in two age groups (17-22 and 65-83) took baths before bed. Both groups had less frequent body movements during sleep, while the older group specifically reported falling asleep quicker after bathing.
Here’s why bathing works—if the water is hot, that is: Your body temperature naturally dips at night, and that helps you fall asleep. A hot bath raises your temperature, but then you cool down once you’re out of the tub. That mimics the drop in temperature you naturally experience at night that prompts you to fall asleep. “That’s why you feel so sleepy after getting out of a hot tub,” says Schneeberg. “Once you cool down, your body goes, ‘Oh, it must be nighttime.'”
Schneeberg says your evening bath should last about 20 minutes for maximum sleep benefits. Pamela Reilly, a naturopathic physician, suggests sprinkling in two cups of Epsom salts, which are full of magnesium. “Most people in the US are magnesium deficient, and magnesium has a relaxing, calming effect of the on the body,” says Reilly. “Adding 10 drops of a high-quality lavender essential oil can help increase the bath’s calming effect and prepare your mind and body to easily drift off to sleep.”
4. Lower the temperature in your room
We just explained how a cooler body temperature is essential for a good night’s sleep. One of the ways you can get your body to cool down is to turn down the thermostat in your bedroom. According to the National Sleep Foundation, keeping your bedroom between 60° and 67° Fahrenheit will promote sleep and make it easier for you to stay snoozing. Another way to cool down: sleep naked.
5. Make your bed in the morning
Take an extra minute in the morning to make your bed. “When you come in and see a neat bed, it helps contribute to sleep,” says Sharon Lowenheim, a professional organizer in New York City. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, respondents who said they made their bed every day were more likely to get a good night’s sleep. “Your bedroom is often a dumping ground for clutter—and when you see clutter all around, it can be stressful and make it harder to sleep,” Lowenheim says.
6. Snack on protein and carbs
Skip the sweets (sugar can have a negative effect on sleep) before bed. “Eat a snack of one serving of protein and one serving of carbs before bed,” suggests Reilly. “Blood sugar swings are one of the most common reasons people wake up in the middle of the night.” As for foods that help you sleep, Reilly recommends something like an apple with almond butter or organic cheese and gluten-free pretzels to keep your blood sugar stable.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out that the best time to eat carbs might actually be four hours before bed, as participants in the study had a much easier time when hitting the hay when they ate white rice four hours before bed, compared to those who ate white rice an hour before bed.
7. Use a weighted blanket
I started sleeping with a weighted blanket a few months ago, and I was pleasantly surprised at the results—I feel more, well, comforted than I do when using my normal comforter. (You can see my weighted blanket review on NBCNews.com). The deep pressure stimulation you experience while lying under a weighted blanket, which is filled with plastic pellets to make it heavy, relaxes your body and encourages sleep.
While there aren’t any studies proving that weighted blankets promote sleep, some emerging research linking deep pressure stimulation and sleep exists. In a study published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, for example, 32 adults ranging in age from 18-58 each sat with a 30-pound weighted blanket on them for five minutes, and 63% reported lower anxiety afterward.
The researchers write that deep pressure stimulation is “generally referred to as a form of touch pressure applied to the body providing the feeling of a firm hug, holding, swaddling, or massage.” If you want to try a weighted blanket, pick one that is about 10-15% of your body weight.
8. Have more sex
As if you needed another reason to get busy more frequently, sex is one of the best things to help you sleep. “Sexual activity releases endorphins, which help calm us for sleep,” says Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo.com. “In particular, stimulation leading to climax causes endorphin and dopamine release, which can really help you wind down and get to sleep.”
Brantner points to a recent survey of close to 500 people conducted by Central Queensland University. In it, 64% of respondents reported better sleep when sex involved a partner and led to climax. “The researchers hypothesize that it’s not just the endorphin release, but also the fact that sexual activity with another person keeps you away from your devices—less Facebook, less TV before bed—which ties into all the recent research about how smart devices and social media are really hurting our sleep,” says Brantner. (Here’s how to choose the best mattress for sex.)
9. Focus on your breath
Forget counting sheep—focus on your breath and practice mindful meditation instead. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine had 49 participants with moderate sleep disturbances either complete a mindfulness awareness program (which included meditation) or take a sleep education class. The group that did the mindfulness awareness program had significant improvement in sleep quality versus the group that took the sleep class.
Meditation doesn’t have to be something that only the most enlightened among us can take advantage of. “For those who go to bed and are then kept up as their mind refuses to shut down, simple breathing exercises can help change your focus and calm down your mind,” says Reilly. All you have to do is breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four, repeating the process until you fall asleep. “Deep breathing has a calming effect in itself, and focusing on your breathing helps turn off the thoughts tumbling through your head,” she says.