What To Do When You Can’t Sleep

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Most people struggle to fall asleep at least occasionally. Difficulty falling asleep can occur for a variety of different reasons. We investigate why you might have trouble sleeping and share tips to help you fall asleep more easily.

Why Can't I Sleep?

Lifestyle factors such as consuming caffeine, using electronic screens, or engaging in vigorous exercise too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep. Individuals may also be kept awake due to environmental disturbances, such as noise.

Certain people are more likely to have trouble falling asleep than others. Those with a late chronotype — often called night owls — may be genetically predisposed to staying up late. As a result, they might have trouble falling asleep when they try to go to bed earlier. This predisposition could be exacerbated by less daylight exposure or light exposure that occurs later in the day due to not waking up as early. Similarly, people living in a home with high amounts of evening light may take longer to fall asleep.

For many people, stress and worry may delay bedtime. Stress can increase blood pressure and heart rate, putting people in a state that is not conducive to sleep.

When children and young adults take longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, or middle-aged and older adults take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, they may be diagnosed with insomnia. Insomnia can occur on its own, or it can be linked to other sleep, medical, or mental health disorders, which may need to be treated in their own right.

Tips for Falling Asleep

If you are experiencing difficulty falling asleep, there are many research-backed strategies that might help.

Try Breathing Exercises

Some researchers hypothesize that an overactive nervous system could cause difficulty falling asleep. This inability to relax can result from everyday stressors, but it may also be exacerbated by sleep deprivation. Thus, the more trouble a person has falling asleep, the more stress they might feel, and the more stress they feel, the more trouble they have falling asleep. Deep breathing may help calm this response.

Studies have shown that slow, deep breathing can help calm the nervous system, while fast, shallow breathing may trigger the fight-or-flight response. To lower stress levels, experts recommend breathing at a rate of 0.1 hertz, which equals about one breath every 10 seconds. Other relaxation techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction may also help reduce pre-sleep worry.

Get Out of Bed

After more than 20 minutes of trying to sleep, it may be better to get out of bed and do something in another room until you feel sleepy again. Using the bed for reading, looking at your phone, or watching the clock can build unhelpful mental associations. Experts recommend only using your bed for sleep and sex.

Exercise Regularly

Dozens of research studies suggest that regular exercise helps people fall asleep faster and improves sleep quality. Some studies find that the time of day you exercise does not matter. Other studies suggest that morning exercise can help you fall asleep faster at night, whereas exercise in the hour before bedtime could make falling asleep more difficult.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend engaging in a combination of moderate-intensity aerobic and strengthening activities for at least 150 minutes each week. Studies have found benefits of both aerobic and resistance exercise for sleep.

Avoid the Use of Electronic Devices

Using digital devices in the hours before bedtime can make falling asleep more difficult for both adults and adolescents. Restricting smartphone use before bed has been found to help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and experience improved sleep quality, mood, and memory. Consider turning off your phone a few hours before your bedtime and avoiding the television, tablets, and video games during this time as well.

Write in a Journal

Some research has found that journaling before bed can help people fall asleep more quickly. Specifically, writing out a to-do list for tasks that must be accomplished in the next few days may help reduce anxiety and negative thoughts.

Mask Outside Noise

Many people sleep with a calming noise machine or leave the fan on in an attempt to fall asleep more easily. One study found that listening to broadband sound, or a background sound with tones from across the sound spectrum, helped people fall asleep 38% faster than they did when listening to regular ambient noise. Listening to white noise at night may promote sleep in part because it helps drown out disruptive noise in the environment.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine can impact your ability to fall asleep. You may want to limit your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption to the morning hours if you are having trouble falling asleep. Likewise, although alcohol might initially help some people fall asleep, it negatively impacts sleep overall and could end up causing more problems in the long term.

Maintain a Bedtime Routine

Experts recommend keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule and adhering to a consistent bedtime routine that tells your body when it is time to sleep. A bedtime routine may involve brushing your teeth, taking a warm bath, and setting the alarm clock.

Optimize the Bedroom

In addition to keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, you may find it easier to drift off by investing in a comfortable mattress and bedding. Some research has found that uncomfortable mattresses can contribute to poor sleep quality, and a study of older adults with chronic pain found that adapting the mattress firmness helped participants fall asleep more easily.

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes people improve their sleeping habits and still cannot fall asleep quickly or easily. If you believe your sleep problems result from chronic insomnia or another sleep or medical disorder, consider reaching out to your doctor. Lifestyle changes can help improve sleep, but they are not a substitute for diagnosing and treating underlying disorders. Your doctor can ask questions and order tests to help determine what is causing your difficulty falling asleep.

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