The little known ‘smart drug’ that could help you sleep better

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Let’s be real: We’re all just trying to sleep better…and even more so lately, given the stressful times we’re living in.


From cryotherapy and infrared saunas to sleep masks and adaptogens, there are so many different options treatments and products that promise to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and everything in between.


More recently, a slew of cognitive enhancers has entered the market, promising deeper, better sleep. Enter: nootropics.

What exactly are nootropics—and can they help you sleep better? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a nootropic?

“Essentially, a nootropic is an ingredient that directly impacts the availability of neurotransmitters in the trillion synapses in your brain,” explains Dan Freed, founder and CEO of the nootropics company Thesis, which offers personalized nootropics for clients based on a quiz they take on the website.


Related Slideshow: 5 sleep tips from former US presidents


Presidents have a complicated relationship with sleep. Either they boast about how little they need (we’re looking at you, Trump and Clinton), or, like George W. Bush, they go to bed so early that even their wife makes fun of them.

As we’ve noted previously in our post on the Lincoln bedroom, it’s ironic that President’s Day has become associated with mattress sales, because at least some presidents have had extraordinarily bad luck with mattresses, starting with George Washington, who complained as a young man about having to sleep on a bed of straw ridden with “vermin such as lice and fleas, etc.” Then there was James Garfield, whose new White House mattress may have hastened his demise when its metal coils interfered with Alexander Graham Bell’s attempts to use a metal detector to find the assassin’s bullet lodged in his abdomen.

But despite those tales of presidential mattress misfortune, there are also positive sleep lessons from the occupants of the Oval Office that anyone, regardless of party or political leanings, can learn from. Here are some of the best presidential sleep habits and the science that supports them.


The habit: Exercise. Adams, the nation’s sixth president, maintained a morning workout routine that involved getting up at 5 a.m. and taking either a six-mile walk or an hour-long swim.

The science: Even back then, Adams understood the benefits of a workout early in the day. A 2011 study found that people worked out in the morning slept longer, experienced deeper sleep cycles, and spent 75% more time in the most reparative stages of slumber (both mind and body) than those who exercised at later times in the day.

Another more recent study found that exercising in the early morning led to a greater decline in nighttime blood pressure than exercising in the afternoon or evening. The decreased blood pressure, in turn, resulted in a night of better quality sleep.


Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons


The habit: Taking a bath. Presidential nappers didn’t just stick to the prescribed 20-minute time slot usually thought of as a “power nap.” In fact, LBJ’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, sometimes took up to two hours for his nap, always followed by his second hot bath of the day and a fresh suit of clothes to begin his afternoon of meetings in the Oval Office.

The science:Although JFK took his two daytime baths in large part to soothe his injured back, studies suggest that taking a bath at night can contribute to a better night’s sleep. Body temperature naturally dips at night, helping prepare the body for sleep. A warm bath can help hasten that temperature drop. One study, from Gunma University in Japan, measured the effects of a hot bath before bedtime and found that those of their study subjects who had a warm bath reported better, deeper sleep.


Library of Congress


The habit: Napping. Johnson was famous for his daily afternoon siestas. After waking at 6:30 or 7 a.m., LBJ read the papers, worked until 2 p.m., took a swim or brisk walk, then put on his PJs and napped for 30 minutes. Back up at 4, he resumed what he called his “two-shift day,” sometimes working until 1 or 2 a.m.

The science:Johnson didn’t need to read our Five Reasons to Take a Nap Right Now to know that a nap of just 26 minutes can boost performance by as much as 34%, according to a NASA study. Napping helps with alertness, learning new skills, and memory processing. Daytime naps can also enhance your sex life, aid in weight loss, cut down on workplace and auto accidents, and reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Even a short, 20- to 30-minute nap can help improve mood, alertness, and work performance—which is why companies like Google, Nike, and British Airways are among the businesses that encourage napping at work. Some employers have dedicated “nap rooms,” while others have “nap pods” placed throughout the office or even encourage employees to take a quick snooze at their desks.


Arnold Newman, White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons



The habit: Prioritize sleep. Like father, like son. Both of the Bushes made getting enough sleep a stated goal of their presidencies. So much so that when George H. W. Bush jetted between time zones on Air Force One, he would pop a sleeping pill to get extra shuteye.

George W. Bush also guarded his sleep, regularly going to bed as early as 9 p.m. and sleeping upwards of nine hours per night. He also rose early and was ready for his debriefings at 6:45 a.m. After his 2000 election, the younger Bush joked, “I’m trying to set the record as the president who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”

The science: There’s no shortage of scientific evidence of the tangible benefits of sleep for health and life, including:

Better memory—According to the National Institutes of Health, sleeping after learning something new can actually improve your memory. (Anything new you learn is cemented in your brain during the deeper stages of sleep.)

Better quality of life—One sleep study found that people who slept six to nine hours each night reported having a higher quality of life and ranked lower for depression. Those who slept less than six hours or more than nine hours reported having a lower quality of life and had higher scores for depression severity.

More creativity—Even when we sleep and dream, our brain is still very active, connecting ideas and thoughts throughout the night. If you’ve gone to sleep after trying to solve a problem or two all day, your brain actively keeps trying to solve them while you sleep.

Improved attention span—Without enough sleep, your body doesn’t get the right dosages of body chemicals like dopamine (“the feel-good hormone”) and adrenaline. This negatively affects your concentration level and attention span throughout the day. Just one night of bad quality sleep can result in ADHD-like symptoms such as forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining concentration.

Lower stress level—When you don’t get enough quality sleep, your blood pressure and stress hormones increase. When you’re tired, you’re also more likely to become agitated and impatient, which in turn can increase stress levels. Stress can also affect your overall quality of sleep, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. More sleep and healthy sleep hygiene are key to helping lower stress.


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The habit: Healthy late-night snacks. Seven lightly salted almonds helped keep Obama going during his regular late-night solitude of reading and writing in the Treaty Room.

The science: Studies show that certain foods promote sleep more than others. Foods high in melatonin, like tart cherries, can help you fall asleep, while greasy foods like pizza and hamburgers are hard to digest and can keep you up at night. Here are our lists of the best foods to eat before bed and what not to eat before you hit the sheets.

So this Presidents Day, take advantage of that extra time off to get some quality shuteye. Think of it as your civic duty.

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As Freed explains, everything you think and feel is controlled by your levels of these neurotransmitters—your body’s chemical messengers, which carry messages from one nerve cell to another.


When you’re incredibly happy, for example, it’s because of the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, says Freed, while sleep is related to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), another neurotransmitter.


“Just as you can use nootropics during the day to get your neurotransmitters to the optimal balance for energy, focus, and memory, you can use nootropics at night to achieve quality sleep,” says Freed.


Nootropics (also known as “smart drugs”) can help enhance cognitive function, allowing your brain to function better and release those neurotransmitters that will then lead to better memory, more focus, more relaxed sleep, and so forth.


These supplements all have different functions, so it’s important to look for the ones that target sleep issues in particular if that’s your concern.

What is the connection between nootropics and sleep?

As we stated previously, certain nootropics can help enhance the neurotransmitters you need for good, quality sleep.


When you add these nootropics to your daily routine, the idea is that the correct neurotransmitters will be in balance, giving your body the signals it needs to regulate your sleep cycle.

The best nootropics for sleep

“There are several nootropics out there, and they all have different benefits,” says David Tomen, founder of comprehensive wellness website Nootropics Expert.


When it comes to sleep specifically, Tomen says you want to look for nootropics that will control and enhance your regular sleep cycle—also called circadian rhythm—so you know when to fall asleep at night and rise naturally.


You also want to use nootropics that will activate the neurotransmitters responsible for less stress and drowsiness, he says.


“Ideally, you’d also want to be able to take nootropics close to bedtime that suppress the neurotransmitters responsible for wakefulness and keeping us energized,” adds Tomen.


Below are the best nootropics to take for sleep, according to Freed and Tomen.


Yup, that tried-and-true supplement is a nootropic, says Tomen. “Studies have shown that melatonin has a key role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm, which means it helps your brain know when it’s time to go to sleep at night,” he explains.


Magnesium has been known to reduce classic signs and symptoms of insomnia, such as trouble falling asleep and shorter sleep durations per night. Magnesium bisglycinate, which relaxes muscles, and magnesium threonate, which calms the nervous system, are two types of magnesium that can help aid in sleep.


“Our partner, Andrew Huberman, PhD, has conducted a lot of research on nootropics for sleep, and L-theanine was found to increase both sleep duration and latency,” says Freed. L-theanine can help reduce anxiety in order to prime your body for better sleep.


Another favorite of Freed, apigenin can also help reduce anxiety, allowing the body to relax into sleep. Apigenin is also found in chamomile.


“5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, which boosts the good mood feeling in the body,” explains Tomen. “It’s used for sleep because, again, serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, and that regulates the sleep cycle.” One study found people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo.

How to find quality nootropics

“The main issue with nootropics right now is that since they’re a supplement, they’re not regulated by the FDA,” notes Freed. “And this means that you can buy a lot of fake, cheap, poorly sourced options on the market, which may cause more harm than good—or they may no longer do what they’re required to do.”


There are two clear ways to differentiate between low- and high-quality nootropic products, says Freed.


The first is that the product was produced in a CGMP facility or one that follows the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. This means the manufacturer’s process and facilities follow regulations for proper design, monitoring, and control.


“The second is the gold standard for nootropics: third-party lab testing,” says Freed. “Most nootropic brands do not test their products at third-party labs, but the best nootropics companies will get an external lab to confirm that the ingredients in their products are pure and don’t include any biological contaminants or other harmful ingredients.”


You should ask a brand for its third-party lab certificate if it’s not listed on the site, suggests Freed.


Additionally, Tomen recommends you always check the nutrition labels of nootropics when you buy them: Just because a supplement advertises it contains a certain nootropic, that doesn’t mean it contains the correct amount of the ingredient.

“It isn’t that you should look for a certain number of milligrams, but since ingredients are always listed in the order of most prominent to least, the nootropic you’re looking for should be closer to the top of the list,” he says.

Product recommendations

Below are some recommended brands and products that source their products carefully and can help with sleep.

Kin Euphorics

Try: The Dream Light, formulated with reishi, melatonin, and L-tryptophan


Try: The Thesis Starter Kit, with specific blends for energy, creativity, calm, and focus


Try: The Dream Powder, formulated with melatonin, L-theanine, and magnesium

Form Nutrition

Try: The ZZZs supplement, formulated with 5-HTP, magnesium, and zinc

How to use nootropics properly

“Most nootropics will have instructions on the back, explaining how many to take and how often,” says Freed. “You can usually take them with or without food, but since each person is different, it will vary when it comes time to see results.”


Freed says some people notice results right away, while others may need a few days.


“There’s definitely some trial and error when it comes to the best option for you, so ideally, you should try a nootropic out for about two weeks before you decide whether you want to add it to your routine or not,” he says.


Are there any concerns when it comes to nootropics?

The biggest concern is the sourcing of ingredients, says Tomen. In general, though, nootropics are thought to be relatively safe.


Of course, it’s best to stick to the recommended dose and consult your doctor if you take certain prescription drugs since those can combine in ways that could have an adverse effect, says Tomen. For example, it could cause migraines or digestive issues or render the nootropic useless, he explains.


However, if you’re not taking any medications and stick to the recommended dose, you likely shouldn’t have any issues, says Tomen.

The bottom line on nootropics and sleep

Nootropics can help promote restful sleep and regulate your circadian rhythm—but you may need to test out different options to see which ones work best for you. Sourcing can also be a concern, so make sure to check the labels and consult with your doctor before trying.


Certain herbs can help you snooze too. Check out our roundup on the best herbs for sleep to find out which ones really work.



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Can alcohol actually help you sleep?


I’ve never been a huge drinker, but I’ve definitely imbibed more than usual over the last year and a half. With all the added stress from the pandemic, I’ve found myself reaching for a large glass—or two, let’s be real—of wine almost every night.


Not only does drinking alcohol leave me with a serious case of acid reflux, though, but it also makes getting a good night’s sleep pretty difficult. That’s not surprising, given studies show alcohol negatively impacts sleep.


“While some people notice that an alcoholic drink or two causes drowsiness and aids them in falling asleep, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol, particularly in high doses, can interrupt and negatively affect the quality of one’s sleep,” says Emma M. Laing, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics at the University of Georgia.


To get my sleep (and health) back on track, I’ve decided to temporarily quit drinking and do a dry month challenge. Here, learn more about how alcohol affects sleep and the many benefits you can expect from a dry month.


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In general, alcohol quickens how fast you’ll fall asleep — and it also makes it harder for noise and commotion to wake you up.


Research shows alcohol increases the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, although recent data suggests this only happens in people who are already deficient in deep sleep. (This could be the case if you have a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.)


These effects only occur in the first part of sleep, usually within the first four hours of the night as your body metabolizes the alcohol. Once your body has broken down all of the booze, you’ll start to experience worse sleep. Now you’re awakened and can be aroused from sleep more easily.


Why is that? According to studies on alcohol and sleep, you tend to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and REM sleep (the period when you dream) during the later part of the night, after you’ve thrown back a few cocktails.


In general, most people can metabolize one drink every one to two hours. But when it comes to how alcohol will affect your individual body and sleep, a lot of factors come into play. These include:

  • What you drink: Some types of booze have a higher alcohol content than others and will therefore hit you harder. A standard serving of beer (12 ounces) usually has around 5% alcohol; a standard serving of wine (5 ounces) usually has around 12% alcohol; and a standard serving of distilled 80-proof liquor (1.5 ounces) usually has around 40% alcohol.
  • How much you drink: The more alcohol you drink, the higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will be.
  • How quickly you drink: The faster you down drinks, the higher your BAC will be.
  • Your gender: Alcohol affects men and women differently. Women tend to weigh less than men and ultimately tend to get intoxicated more quickly. Women also have less dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This can lead to higher BACs for women even if they drink the same amount of alcohol as men.
  • Your body size: People with smaller body sizes will feel the effects of alcohol faster.
  • What you eat: Food also plays a role in how alcohol will affect you. Having something in your stomach, whether it’s carbs, fat or protein, will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. The larger the meal and the closer you time it to your drinking, the lower your peak BAC is likely to be.

That said, research shows as little as one drink could worsen your sleep, regardless of your gender or your weight. A 2018 study found that one drink reduces the restorative quality of sleep by 9.3%. Moderate alcohol consumption (three drinks), meanwhile, was shown to lower sleep quality by 24%. High alcohol consumption (seven drinks) was shown to decrease sleep quality by as much as 39.2%.


Results were similar for women and men, as well as for people of smaller and larger body sizes and people who were physically active versus those who were more sedentary.


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Research shows alcohol can increase the amount of deep sleep people with insomnia get. But this increase in deep sleep is only temporary. After about six nights, people with insomnia will start to develop a tolerance to alcohol and need to drink more to get the same effect, according to one study.


While the research isn’t conclusive, it does suggest using alcohol as a sleep aid for insomnia could increase the risk of alcohol abuse.


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There’s a link between alcohol consumption and sleep apnea. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing down the part of the brain that controls breathing, along with the firing of the muscles that keep your airway open. When you have sleep apnea, this part of the airway gets repeatedly blocked during sleep. This causes brief arousals throughout the night.

Moderate to heavy drinking can lead to episodes of sleep apnea, even if you don’t have the condition. And for people who do have sleep apnea, studies show drinking can exacerbate this problem.


Yes, alcohol can disrupt sleep. While it has sedative effects that can cause feelings of sleepiness, studies show alcohol, particularly when consumed in excess, can reduce sleep quality and sleep duration.


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Drinking alcohol isn’t going to do your sleep any favors. But if you’re smart about when, what and how much you imbibe, a glass (or two) of Pinot noir won’t necessarily ruin your night, either. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Stop drinking a few hours before bed. Exactly how long you should leave between your last drink and hitting the pillow depends on how much you drink and how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol. Most of us metabolize about one drink every one to two hours.
  • Don’t overdo it. The more drinks you consume, the longer it takes your body to metabolize the alcohol. Regardless of whether your body metabolizes alcohol quickly or slowly, the less alcohol in your system, the less potential for your sleep to get disrupted.
  • Watch out for heavy pours. Stick to standard-size drinks, not doubles, extra-large wine glasses or mixed drinks with multiple shots of different liquors. Bonus: You’ll certainly save money the next time you hit the bar.


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Now you know all the ways alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep. So naturally, you might be wondering whether taking a break from booze could improve your shut-eye.


Here’s what you need to know about Dry January, the benefits of doing a dry month, and how to stick with it to experience the best results.


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Dry January involves taking a month-long break from alcohol. Because it begins on January 1, some people participate in Dry January to kick-start a New Year’s resolution to cut back on alcohol. Other people use it as a way to reset after lots of holiday drinking.


The first Dry January took place in 2013. The campaign originated with Alcohol Concern, a U.K. organization, as a way to encourage mindfulness around alcohol consumption.


That first year, 4,000 Brits took the challenge, and it’s since expanded worldwide. Close to 25% of Americans reported interest in participating in Dry January in 2019.


Other popular months to stop drinking include September and October, which you’ll often see referred to as Sober September and Sober October. But really, you can do a dry challenge any month of the year.


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Even taking a short hiatus from drinking alcohol can result in better quality sleep. According to 2015 research out of the University of Sussex, 62% of Dry January participants reported better sleep.


“Appreciating the various ways in which alcohol can disrupt sleep, it makes sense that taking a break from drinking can result in more restful nights,” says Laing.


She does note, however, that heavy drinkers who decide to stop drinking abruptly may experience withdrawal symptoms before they start to see the sleep benefits. “Multiple factors, including how much and how often you drink, can contribute to the severity of these withdrawal symptoms,” she says.


Hilary Sheinbaum, journalist and author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, first took the Dry January challenge in 2017 and noticed improvements in her sleep.


“When I gave up alcohol for one month, one of the most surprising epiphanies was my quality of sleep,” she says. Before taking the challenge, Sheinbaum says she used to sleep an average of five hours a night, often waking up in the middle of the night.


“I truly thought that was due to my crazy-busy New York City life, my around-the-clock job and my anxiety as a whole,” she says. “Nope! Not long into my first Dry January, I realized that even though my work and lifestyle were as busy as ever, I was sleeping seven to eight hours each night, which was a personal record.”


The only change Sheinbaum had made in her life? Giving up alcohol.


Laing says additional health benefits of cutting out alcohol, even for a short period, include an improved immune system and liver function, as well as a heightened ability to curb mindless snacking.


Per the University of Sussex research, 62% of Dry January participants reported more energy, while 82% felt a sense of achievement. Additionally, 49% of participants said they lost weight.


One of the more surprising benefits for Sheinbaum, meanwhile, had to do with her skin.


“My skin looked infinitely clearer and more glowy, even in the dead, dull, month of January,” she says. “As it turns out, alcohol dehydrates your body, including your skin.”


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A month without booze might sound daunting, but there are some things you can do to ensure the process goes smoothly, no matter if you plan it for January or any other month:

  • Be clear about your intentions. Make a list of the top reasons you’re giving up alcohol to remind yourself why you’re taking this break in the first place, suggests Laing. “Keep your list in a prominent place and refer to it when the urge to drink strikes,” she says. “If possible, talk about your intentions with your friends, family, and your healthcare provider, so they understand and are able to offer support when needed.”
  • Enlist a friend to do it with you. “For first-timers, I suggest recruiting a friend or friends to partake in the challenge with you,” says Sheinbaum. Her first Dry January stemmed from a spontaneous bet she made with a friend on New Year’s Eve in 2016. “The first year I did the dry challenge, and made a Dry January bet, it felt like a group effort,” she says. “It was so helpful to have a friend to keep me accountable—and also share tips and tricks along the way.”
  • Replace drinking with another activity. These last few months, I’d always reach for a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day. But there are healthier ways to relieve anxiety, and Dry January is the perfect time to incorporate some of these activities into your routine. Try taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk around the block with your pet or cooking a new recipe, says Laing.
  • Keep alcohol out of sight. “If you think you’ll be tempted by having alcohol in the house, put it away or give it to a friend to temporarily hold,” suggests Sheinbaum. As she notes, the point of a dry challenge isn’t to torture you. “It’s to make a dry month as simple, easy and as enjoyable as possible,” says Sheinbaum.
  • Sip tasty non-alcoholic beverages. “Replacing what is in your glass or cup doesn’t have to be fancy or require a lot of effort,”  Laing says. “Making a cup of soothing hot or iced tea, coffee or hot chocolate can be a helpful alternative, along with juices, smoothies, bubbly waters, and other beverages you have on hand that pique your interest.” Sheinbaum likes flavored seltzers, as well as Gruvi’s non-alcoholic prosecco and Athletic Brewing Company’s non-alcoholic beers. (For more inspiration, we’ve rounded up these delicious mocktail recipes.)


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