Trouble falling and staying asleep? A doctor weighs in on the best aids for light sleepers

best sleep aids for light sleepers
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Getting to sleep and staying asleep are two entirely different things — but unfortunately, most sleep aids focus primarily on the former. If you often wake up in the middle of the night, the best sleep aids for light sleepers could help with that. To help differentiate the best from the rest, I got in touch with an expert.

"I'm a light sleeper myself and easily awakened," Robert Rountree, M.D., a family medicine doctor and Chief Medical Officer of Thorne, tells Mic. "Having the right tools and a peaceful environment is critical, especially for light sleepers." That said, "it’s all relative," according to Dr. Rountree; what works for one person might not work for someone else, so a little introspection will help you make good purchases.

First, you'll want to pinpoint what's inhibiting your sleep: Is it an environmental factor, like noise or light pollution, or is it internal, like stress or an inability to relax? If it's environmental, your best bet is a tool that blocks out disruptions, and if it's internal, there are some great supplements and relaxation aids on the market.

With Dr. Rountree's help, I've narrowed down nine of the best sleep aids for light sleepers no matter what is waking you up. This list includes several supplements, which affect everyone differently and could have unanticipated side effects, so be sure to talk to your doctor before trying them (especially if you're taking prescription medicines or other supplements). Also, keep in mind that the sleep aids below all work best in conjunction with good sleep hygiene.

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The melatonin

According to Dr. Rountree, melatonin is one of the most popular sleep aids for light sleepers and it's relatively gentle. "Melatonin gives your brain the signal that starts the sequence of neurochemical events that lead to sleep. I think everybody has trouble falling asleep should try melatonin," he says.

He recommends Melaton-5 from Thorne, because it skips common allergens and additives like gluten, eggs, nuts, dairy, soy, yeast, and shellfish — and all flavorings are derived from natural ingredients.

One reviewer wrote: "This brand of melatonin was recommended to me by my chiropractor and I have found it to be much more effective than the several other brands I had already tried. It is my go-to sleep aid every night."


The aromatherapy

According to Dr. Rountree, aromatherapy is the real deal because "the olfactory nerve in your nose is directly connected to the limbic system (which is where you process emotion). It’s also connected is the amygdala, which is like the fear organ in the brain, so it's the part of your brain [...] that tells you whether things are safe or not."

Lavender is not only a popular scent but also well-researched, he adds. "The theory on how lavender works is essentially that it gets into the limbic system, and it turns on neurotransmitters that calm the body down [...] If you smell things that induce a soothing, pleasant feeling, then it should help you sleep."

This pick from Alteya Organics contains only pure, USDA-certified organic lavender oil. It's steam-distilled from high-quality Bulgarian lavender plants, and it can be used in your diffuser or topically after being diluted by a carrier oil.

One reviewer wrote: "I think this definitely helps me to have better sleep. I thought scent was relatively subtle. So I decide to compare this one with lavender oil (same species) from a non organic brand that I already have. The result was that Lavender oil from Alteya Organics was softer flowery and very pleasant scent, while other lavender oil was strong but it smelled almost like gasoline."


The weighted eye mask

"Weighted sleep accessories act as a sensory override device," explains Dr. Rountree. "If you are the kind of person that lays down and your thoughts are going a hundred miles an hour, there is something soothing about having that heavy weight."

This eye mask offers three different features that help you relax: For one, it's lightly weighted. For another, it blocks out light with its soft, breathable material, adjustable strap, and contouring design. Finally, its compression beads can be cooled in the fridge or heated in the microwave for additional relaxation.

One reviewer wrote: "I have trouble staying asleep and this mask has made me sleep better! Completely blocks out light, soft and the weight makes me feel calm and relaxed enough to go to sleep and stay asleep."


The powdered magnesium

"Another popular ingredient is magnesium, but I specifically recommend it in the form of glycinate," says Dr. Rountree. "Magnesium is well known for its calming effects, so I have a lot of patients that will just take [a] little magnesium powder right before bedtime. It affects neurotransmitters and has a calming effect."

This powder from Seeking Health is well-rated because it's virtually undetectable in water, juice, and smoothies. It mixes in without impacting the texture and with minimal flavor to deliver easily absorbed magnesium into your body. It's also vegan-friendly and free from common allergens like wheat, soy, fish, and dairy.

One reviewer wrote: "I react badly if supplements have any artificial fillers, etc. This Magnesium Gylycinate is pure – all it does [is] make me sleep a little better and help continue healing my gut, exactly the reasons I purchased it."


The white noise

"White noise and noise-blocking tools also provide a sensory override of sorts, especially if the noisemakers are rhythmic. It can block out any sudden noises that can happen in the night," Dr. Rountree explains. "I grew up in the south with hot summers and grew up being used to having a big powerful fan blowing all night, and I find that very soothing, so I actually sleep with a noise generator that sounds like a fan every night now."

With thousands of five-star reviews, LectroFan is widely considered one of the best sound machines on the market. Even though it's compact and doesn't create any kind of draft, it emits 10 different non-looping fan sounds — plus 10 other ambient noises that help soothe you to sleep. It also has a volume control button and a built-in timer.

One reviewer wrote: "The volume on this can get VERY LOUD, it definitely drowns out my husbands loud snoring and any outside noise (lawn mowers, fireworks, basketballs, neighbors loud music ect.) There is no light on the machine which is nice since I like a dark room and It's easy to use. The size of the machine (pictured) smaller than a 16oz can of crisco. The speakers are on the top (perfect for sound distribution) I am a very light sleeper so any noise would wake me up and drive me nuts, this machine takes care of all of this!"


The amber light

According to Dr. Rountree, the moments leading up to bedtime are extremely important. "There are a lot of people that work on their screens," he says. "They put their iPad in bed, and they've got this bright light in their eyes. iPads and Kindles are obviously convenient for reading, but they don’t help with sleep. Especially for people that don't sleep well, having a good transition period where they wind down from the day and don't have electronic stimulation in particular is pretty important."

To facilitate the aforementioned screen-free transition period, there's the amber book light from Hooga. Yes, it clips onto your reading material or headboard and has a flexible gooseneck to direct the light any which way — but that's not why it's revolutionary. Unlike most other light sources, this one uses a gentle, orange illumination that's free from 99.94% of blue light. As a result, it encourages melatonin production and aims to reduce eye strain and stress before bed.

One reviewer wrote: "My GOODNESS this book light has exceeded my expectations by soooo much! [...] Order this light if you’re tired of ruining your sleep with blue light. I’ve a FitBit that logs sleep quality, so I know it works!"


The nighttime tea

When Dr. Rountree's patients can't sleep, he often recommends "sipping hot tea" as "a transition for an hour before bed." And he suggests the lesser-known ingredients passionflower, hops, valerian root, and lemon balm to help promote better sleep.

Traditional Medicinals's Nighty Night Extra tea has many of those ingredients, and it's certified organic, kosher, non-GMO, and caffeine-free. Each box contains 16 bags, and reviewers have raved about both the taste and the effectiveness.

One reviewer wrote: "This tea smells strange, but it tastes very pleasant, sort of like black tea, a mild touch of mint and something flowery. [...] It is a very pleasant relaxation."


The L-theanine

"I [also] like Thorne’s Theanine, which contains L-theanine, an extract from green tea that's been extensively researched in Japan," Dr. Rountree says. "The idea behind L-theanine is that it inhibits the excitatory signals in the brain. There's a receptor called the NMDA receptor that can overexcite the brain. You need that receptor to learn, but when it's time to wind down, you want to calm down that receptor. L-theanine has been called 'Zen in a capsule.' Again, it doesn't knock you out, it just makes you calmer and more mellow, and that makes it easier to fall asleep."

This supplement is also free from many common allergens including gluten, soy, dairy, peanuts, and tree nuts. Reviewers on Amazon seem to like it too; it boasts a 4.4-star overall rating after more than 50 reviews.

One reviewer wrote: "Love this! Helps me with my insomnia. My homeopathic Dr recommended this after reviewing my neurotransmitters for sleep test results."


The therapy light

Using a therapy light during the day can help establish a better circadian rhythm, and it can take as little as 20 minutes a day to reap the benefits. This best-selling therapy lamp offers the doctor-recommended 10,000 LUX strength, and is backed by thousands of five-star reviews. The compact size makes it super convenient to bring from room to room or even travel with.

One reviewer wrote: "I love my HappyLight! It's made such a difference for me! I have it on my desk and use it everyday. I have noticed over the past month, my energy levels are higher, I am more focussed and my sleep patterns have never been this great! I wake up at the same time in the morning (give or take 5-10) which has been a blessing."


The sleep set

To fall asleep, Dr. Rountree says he needs to be in "a dark quiet room." When that environment is hard to achieve, the right mask and ear plugs could help you to experience disruption-free sleep. Cue the MZOO sleep set, which includes a contoured, adjustable 3-D mask made from memory foam and ear plugs that adapt to most sizes. The former blocks out light without putting unnecessary pressure on your face, and the latter dampens sounds that might otherwise jolt you awake. Currently, this set has an incredible 8,000-plus reviews and a 4.7-star overall rating. Choose from three mask colors: black, blue, and purple.

One reviewer wrote: "I'm a light sleeper and use an eye mask and ear plugs every night. They help me sleep better because I don't have dark curtains at home and my street is quite noisy."