10 Sleep Aids to Help You Maximize Fitness Performance

Sleep and Performance are Intricately Entwined

Sleep and Exercise
Getty Images/Visual Ideas/Camillo Morales

Do you want to be a better athlete (or a fitter parent)? You need to prioritize sleep.

Do you want to sleep better? You need to prioritize exercise.

When it comes to healthy habits (physical exercise, cognitive exercise, nutrition and sleep), each healthy habit tends to work in conjunction with the other habits to enhance overall performance and well-being. That's why sleep is so important when it comes to physical performance, and physical performance is so important when it comes to quality sleep.

In other words, both sleep and exercise should rank as top priorities, especially if you're an active individual.

But, if you're really overloaded, struggling to prioritize both habits, Dr. Rosenberg, a Board Certified Sleep Medicine Specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, suggests focusing on sleep first. It's no secret that after a good night's sleep, everything feels easier and more manageable, making it more likely you'll have the energy to lace up your shoes and work up a sweat.

If a sound night's sleep seems impossible, though, check out these science-backed sleep aids to help you get started. Who knows? Eight hours of great sleep tonight could make you better, faster and stronger tomorrow.

Memory Foam Mattress

Essentia Mattress

When it comes to quality sleep, you need to start from the ground up. Dr. Rosenberg points out that "several good studies have shown that Sleep Number Beds and memory foam improve sleep quality versus the old box spring."

If you're still using a standard mattress, it's time to level up. Memory foam mattresses are widely available, and while they aren't the cheapest option on the market, you'd be surprised what a significant difference they can make, especially if you're a chronic pain sufferer or you struggle with exercise-induced aches and pains. As someone who regularly struggles with back pain, I can tell you that my world improved drastically after getting a memory foam mattress.

One brand to consider is Essentia, a Canadian company that makes the world's only natural and organic memory foam mattresses. The foam itself is made from the sap of a rubber tree in a patented process, and the company stands by their product so much so that they offer a 60-day trial period so you can test the mattress in a real-world setting.

Plus, if you're an athlete or active individual with a generous budget, the company's ProCor mattress can be custom-built to your body's specifications using a proprietary process called Essentia ID. During this process, the athlete answers specific questions that enable health experts to match a muscular comfort formula to best support an athlete's body type and provide a mattress with customized physical support. The whole point is to help athletes reach deep sleep faster, then stay there longer, further promoting muscle and tissue repair to recover from athletic activities.

While not everyone can afford the $5,000 to $10,000 required for a completely custom mattress, it's definitely something to look into if you're looking for a leg up on the competition.

Performance Pillow

Performance Pillow

Mattresses aren't the only "basic" item that can make or break a good night's sleep. Pillows and bedding play a key role in regulating body temperature at night and supporting your head, neck and spine to promote sound and restful sleep. In other words, if you can't throw down the big bucks on a mattress, at least put some thought into picking out a high-quality pillow.

Bedgear is one brand that focuses solely on creating pillows designed to improve athletic performance, and I can tell you, their products are pretty amazing.

The process is interesting. Rather than simply feeling different pillows and choosing one based on price or what you think you need, you instead select pillows based on your preferred sleep style (stomach, side or back), as well as your height and weight. These factors affect the "fit" of the pillow, and should be considered when making a selection.

The result is a pillow designed to offer the support you need, with added "technical" properties similar to those seen in the athletic apparel market. For instance, Bedgear pillows include: 

  • Moisture and heat wicking Dri-Tec® fabric to help reduce tossing and turning
  • REACT™ ergo molding memory foam for neck and spinal support
  • BOOST™ foam crown layer for pressure relief that won’t bottom out
  • AIR-X ® to keep air flowing, moving heat away from your head, neck and shoulders while maintaining ambient temperatures in the pillow core
  • Ver-Tex® fiber for climate control - it's cool to the touch

These pillows definitely aren't your $5 Walmart special, but at $72 to $180, they don't cost that much more than a good pair of athletic shoes, and chances are they'll help you just as much.

Blue Light-Cutting Glasses

Orange Glasses

Richard L. Hansler, PhD, performed research for GE Lighting for 42 years, working to make better and brighter lightbulbs. It wasn't until he retired to John Carroll University (JCU) that he realized these bulbs were actually robbing people of their sleep.

According to Dr. Hansler, the problem with bright bulbs and electronics, such as cell phones, computers, TVs and eReaders is that they emit bright white light with blue rays that inhibits the natural production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep cycles.

After realizing the negative effects of such lighting, Dr. Hansler began working at JCU to help develop light bulbs that don't produce blue light, while also inventing orange glasses that can block it. These blue-light cutting glasses ($60 to $80, depending on style) are an excellent solution to a tough problem because you can still use all your electronics before bed, but without the negative melatonin-inhibiting side effects.

Granted, I'll admit they do take some getting used to (and if you live with other people, you might receive a few chuckles), but for a good night's sleep, they're well worth it.

Tart Cherry Juice

Cheribundi Cherry Juice

Tart cherries (a different varietal of cherries from the typical grocery store version) are packed with antioxidants and the phytonutrient anthocyanins. The level of these compounds found in tart cherries qualifies them as a "superfood," with science-backed benefits including improved sleep quality and athletic recovery. To date, more than 50 studies have been conducted on the benefits of tart cherries, including a 2010 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food that found significant improvements in sleep for individuals suffering from insomnia.

One of the best ways to reap the rewards of tart cherries is by drinking 8-ounces of 100% tart cherry juice. It can be a little hard to come by, and it's especially important to make sure you're buying 100% juice, but Cheribundi is one brand that's widely distributed, and if you sign up for the brand's 7-day challenge, they'll send you coupons to get you started.

Side note: Not all of Cheribundi's tart cherry products are 100% juice, so stick to the original red bottle. Each bottle includes cold pressed juice from 50 tart cherries.


Getty Images/Jon Feingersh

Dr. Joshua M. Hanson, a practitioner at the Tampa Center for Acupuncture, points out that, "According to a study in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, acupuncture helps to reduce stress, fall asleep faster, toss and turn less and increase total sleep time. It does so by helping to calm your nervous system so you can rest and digest, while also increasing nighttime melatonin production." You can find a qualified practitioner near you by searching the database maintained by the American Association of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine.


magnesium oil

Magnesium is a micro-mineral and electrolyte that's necessary for cellular function within the body. Without consuming proper levels of magnesium (recommended daily intake for adults is 420 milligrams for men and 320 milligrams for women), many chemical reactions don't "fire on all cylinders," which can contribute to detrimental side effects, including headaches, insomnia, depression and fatigue.

Several studies have investigated the impact of magnesium supplementation on sleep, and the mineral has been found to significantly reduce the symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and improve quality of sleep in the elderly.

Because magnesium is also essential for muscle activation and the creation of energy within the body, it's particularly important for active individuals to consume adequate amounts. Some of the foods that contain magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, avocado and bananas, but you can also add a magnesium supplement if you're concerned about your intake.

Kathryn Gates, a health coach and licensed therapist, recommends using a spray on magnesium supplement that comes in oil form, "Magnesium isn't absorbed as well when taken orally. I spray Life-flo Pure Magnesium Oil on every night before bed to help me sleep."

Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender Essential Oil
Getty Images/Wladimir Bulgar

Dr. Gabrielle Francis, a Naturopathic Doctor, Chiropractor, Acupuncturist and Licensed Massage Therapist swears by the benefits of lavender oil to help stimulate sleep.

"Essential oils work because of their pharmacological effects on your physiology, and because of their olfactory effects on the limbic system of your brain. Lavender is great for insomnia, and there are four ways to use it for results:

  1. Diffuse 1 to 2 drops in the air with a diffuser
  2. Inhale directly from a cloth or bottle
  3. Add several drops to bath water
  4. Apply 1 to 2 drops topically, either directly under your nose, or 3 to 5 drops to a carrier oil, like almond oil."

You can pick up high-quality lavender essential oil from the healthy living section of your local grocery store.

Epsom Salt Bath

epsom salts
Dr. Teal's

Dr. Francis also suggests Epsom salt baths, due in part to their high levels of magnesium, "Nightly Epsom salt baths just before bed will help you calm down before sleep. High in magnesium and other minerals, they relax muscles and calm the mind. Soak 20 minutes in warm water mixed with two cups of salts."

Consider picking up lavender-scented Epsom salts, like Dr. Teal's Sleep Epsom Salt Soaking Solution ($5) for a triple-whammy of slumber-inducing benefits: warm bath, lavender scent and topical magnesium.

Personal Fan

Sleep With Fan
Getty Images/fStop Images - Emily Keegin

Unexpected noises - doors slamming, utensils knocking plates, or sirens on the street - can make falling and staying asleep difficult. But the challenge of these unexpected noises can be tempered by introducing white noise into the bedroom.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, white noise reduces the difference between background sounds and "peak" sounds, such as a door slamming. By providing a constant level of noise, you're more likely to sleep through unexpected external sound.

Almost anything that provides a constant ambient sound can work to create white noise, but I'm a big supporter of using a small, personal fan next to the bed. Not only does the fan's whirring create white noise, but it also helps keep you cool throughout the night (especially nice if you tend to wake up from the heat).

Deep Relaxation or Meditation

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You don't necessarily need a lot of gadgets, gizmos and products to stimulate sleep. According to Dr. James Millhouse, a Medical and Clinical Sport Psychologist, "The best sleep aid is to learn mental skills to put yourself to sleep. These may be in the form of relaxation, meditation or self-hypnosis. Some research suggests that deep sleep following a meditation is a better quality of sleep than those from pharmaceutical sleep aids."

It does take practice and training to effectively use nighttime meditation to stimulate sleep. Dr. Millhouse suggests following the instructions provided by Dr. Herbert Benson in the book, The Relaxation Response, but he offers his own quick tips for starting an intentional bedtime sleep routine:

1. Set a clear intention a half-hour before bed that you're going to go to bed and have a deep and restful night's sleep. Even if it doesn't happen, keep creating the intention each night and it will eventually have an effect.

2. Take care of everything such that you can be mentally done with it for the rest of the sleep cycle. Either finish dealing with it, or consciously decide to set all thoughts about it aside until a specific time the next day.

3. Shift your mind to fall asleep. Reserve the bed only for sleep, not any work or mentally active pursuits. Avoid using electronics in bed. Then, follow a meditation or relaxation exercise without feeling pressure for results. Simply use it as an exercise, understanding benefits come with time.

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