Mom giving you a glass of warm milk to help you sleep – a long-standing tradition. This bedside calming method may have worked during your childhood, but does warm milk help you sleep better as an adult?
Why is drinking a glass of milk before bed a good way to make you sleepy? To understand how milk may help you get your zzzz's, we did some research on the beverage, its nutritional value, and other factors that make it a popular relaxing drink.
The Science of Warm Milk
Milk has many good points, but studies on its use as a sleep aid show mixed
results. On the plus side, milk does contain low to moderate amounts of chemicals known to cause drowsiness.
Does warm milk make you sleepy, or is that just a myth? Milk, whether heated or cold, contains an important calming substance, tryptophan, and melatonin, a chemical that regulates your internal body clock.
An amino acid found in milk, yogurt, fish, eggs and turkey, tryptophan makes you drowsy. When you eat or drink something with tryptophan in it, your body turns this amino acid into a B vitamin called niacin. Niacin helps create the sleep-inducing hormones serotonin and melatonin.
Eating food and drinking beverages containing tryptophan get to sleep. Eat bread, fruit or other carbohydrate-rich foods with warm milk before bed (or shortly before drinking milk) to boost insulin and remove other amino acids from your blood. With other amino acids gone, tryptophan quickly enters the brain to increase serotonin levels.
Your pineal gland produces melatonin, a chemical that regulates the sleep cycle. Inactive during the day, the pineal gland begins operating after the sun goes down, and releases melatonin into the blood. About nine p.m., you should feel less alert as the melatonin floods your bloodstream. This sleep hormone stays in your body for twelve hours, till about nine a.m., when you should feel attentive again.
As we age, melatonin production wanes, leading to insomnia and tampering with our circadian rhythm (body clock). The melatonin in warm milk may help us retain a healthy sleep schedule now, and when we become senior citizens.
A study conducted at the University of Kuopio in Finland showed that warm milk, when given at night for eight weeks to elderly subjects in rest homes, increased sleep quality after the winter solstice. Drinking milk also boosted the participants’ daytime activity. (Engaging in more physical activity during the day makes it easier to fall asleep at night, regardless of your age.)
Warm milk has a psychological effect on sleep, even if there's no conclusive proof it helps physically. Well-known as a sleep drink for generations, a glass of milk at night brings back pleasant childhood memories, which may calm you down and help you fall asleep.
Increase the relaxing power of milk with these warm milk recipes. Add one or more ingredients you probably have in your kitchen cabinet to stop worrying and start sleeping.
Warm milk and honey increase your chance of getting to sleep. Honey augments your insulin level, making it easier for the tryptophan in milk to cross the blood-brain barrier and make you sleepy. A study on children with nocturnal coughs showed honey at night improved their cough and sleep quality.
Heat a cup of milk and add one teaspoon of honey. A milk and honey drink tastes sweet without being overwhelming.
Sugar, Nutmeg, and Vanilla
Nutmeg has important tranquilizing qualities, so it will relax you and make you sleepy. Use too much, and you may feel ill and start hallucinating. Put no more than a quarter-teaspoon in your warm milk recipe to comfortably float off into slumber.
Vanilla has a warm, comforting scent, and it contains vanillin and other antioxidants to soothe the anxiety that causes insomnia. It controls inflammation in the body, reduces fever and lowers cholesterol Add a teaspoon of real vanilla to a cup of heated milk and enjoy, or make homemade vanilla extract using vanilla beans.
You can include sugar to taste, but avoid adding too much.
Ovaltine has several relaxing vitamins and minerals, including sleep-inducing magnesium. The lack of magnesium in the standard American diet affects everything from sleep habits to energy level and nerve function.
Adding more magnesium, at bedtime and throughout the day, will help you sleep better. Foods containing magnesium include green leafy vegetables, beans, brown rice, and cashews. Ovaltine, with its malted milk taste, will increase the success of the warm milk sleep method.
Other Tips to Fall Asleep
If heating up warm milk at nighttime doesn’t improve slumber, experiment with several other methods to get to sleep without using prescription sleeping pills, which can be harmful.
Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender essential oil increases slow-wave sleep or the deep sleep that relaxes muscles and slows the heartbeat. Scientific research shows the smell of lavender slows nervous system activity and stabilizes mood.
Research also demonstrates the smell of lavender essential oil helps people sleep better. A study by Britain's University of Southampton showed participants slept 20% better in a room diffused with lavender versus one with a placebo.
Use pure lavender essential oil to lull you into sleep. Sprinkle a few drops on a piece of tissue, and put it under your pillow. You can also use an aromatherapy diffuser.
A diffuser releases and dilutes essential oils into the air, and can cover a small, personal space or a large room, depending on the type of diffuser you buy. A nebulizer diffuser may provide the best benefits overall. It breaks molecules down so they can be absorbed better.
Some health and beauty shops sell small pillows filled with dried lavender for sleep or travel, or you can make your own.
The 4-7-8 breathing method will put you to sleep in 60 seconds, according to health expert Dr. Andrew Weil.
How to do it:
- Sit up with your back straight.
- Exhale through your mouth and make a whooshing sound.
- Close your mouth. Inhale trough your nose quietly to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a mental count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth, whooshing for an eight count.
- You’ve now completed one breath. Repeat three more times for a total of four repetitions.
The last step-holding your breath for eight seconds lets oxygen fill your lungs and circulate in your body to help you relax. You’ll probably need to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique twice a day for eight weeks until you can master it. After that, you should be able to use this breathing exercise to fall asleep in a minute.
Take a Low Dose of Melatonin
You can take melatonin tablets to relax and fall asleep. Although they're no substitute for exercise, keeping electronics out of the bedroom, and other sleep-friendly activities, pills can replicate the effects of naturally produced melatonin.
Melatonin pills can help relieve insomnia caused by shift work or travel, but they only help you sleep an average of eight minutes longer and may interfere with blood pressure or diabetes medication. Use sparingly, and choose an established brand from a vitamin store or online supplier.
Reduce or Eliminate Caffeine
Replace coffee with zero-caffeine herbal tea, low-caffeine green tea or moderate caffeine black tea. You'll need to cut back or find a substitute drink if you like cola.
The daily limit of caffeine for most healthy people tops out at 400 milligrams a day, the amount in four cups of coffee or ten cans of diet or regular cola. Reduce your caffeine intake as much as possible if you have trouble sleeping. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, and a small amount may cause insomnia.
Meditation helps reduce stress and clear your mind, which leads to better sleep. Meditating also lowers your heart rate, improves concentration and slows the aging process. Learn to relax with meditation by practicing one or more of the following exercises:
- Count backward from 100. Calmly start over if you lose your place. The purpose of this exercise is to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts and focus. If you lack the patience to count from 100 at first, try 50 or even 25.
- Use a mantra such as “Om” or “I live a happy and peaceful life.” Choose anything positive and calming. Repeat the mantra until you clear your mind of clutter. When you mind strays, acknowledge it, then simply return to your mantra.
- Concentrate of a lit candle, vase of flowers or another object in your room, or visualize a place, object or person’s face in your mind. Concentrate on this image for a few minutes or more, dismissing all other thoughts.
Progressive relaxation (PMR), a method for calming tense muscles, can rid you of the anxiety that often keeps you awake at night. First developed in the 1920s, it combines aspects of meditation with tensing and relaxing each muscle group. You'll perform PMR in a dim or darkened room, and start by relaxing the muscles in your toes and work up to your neck and head.
You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. This method allows you to become more aware of what relaxed muscles feel like, so you can get used to the sensation.