What To Do When You Can’t Sleep

Woman laying awake in bed at night

Can’t sleep? We’ve all been there. You’re feeling sleepy, and have just settled comfortably into bed for the night. A few minutes go by, and your sleep partner is fast asleep while you’re still awake. Those minutes turn into hours, and you’re still wide awake, exhausted and wondering why can’t I sleep? 

According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 85% of American adults do not get the recommended 7 or more hours of sleep they need per night. I think it goes without saying that that number is way too high! 

Everyone has trouble falling asleep occasionally, but for some people getting good sleep is a real struggle. If you want to learn what to do when you can’t sleep, keep reading.

Why We Can’t Sleep

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to poor sleep. Common culprits can include sleep disorders like insomnia— one in four Americans suffer from short-term insomnia each year.

Other conditions can prevent us from falling asleep as well, including aches and pains, allergies, and anxiety. Anxiety especially can be a major factor in sleep problems, where our racing thoughts can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep each night. 

In turn, this can create a vicious cycle where sleep deprivation exacerbates anxiety, further keeping us awake. If you’re struggling with nighttime anxiety, I recommend Remzy weighted blankets, and my special 7-day sleep program that comes with each blanket.

Speaking of blankets, your sleep environment can also affect your ability to rest at night. This includes everything therein including but not limited to how your bed is set up, ambient light, as well as sounds. Making sure your bedroom is an ideal sleep environment is a major part of getting good sleep— we’ll talk about this more later.

Thankfully, a lot of these negative factors are areas within our control and can be addressed or fixed with proper attention. But some sleep problems can spring from a place beyond our control, and the best course of action is to work with this, rather than against it.

Falling and Staying Asleep by Chronotype

Everyone functions differently, but did you know that your body is programmed to work better at certain times of day than others? While you might work better during the morning hours, someone you know could work better at night— This is why some are considered “morning people,” while others are “night owls.” 

You might be a bear while your friends and family could be wolves, lions, or dolphins. Each of these four animals indicates a specific Chronotype, which indicates a person’s biological preferences regarding what parts of the day they are at their most productive.

Part of the reason you could be getting poor sleep at night is because you’re going to bed at the wrong time according to your Chronotype, and fighting against your body’s own natural biological rhythm. Working with your Chronotype’s specific rhythm can help you get better sleep at night, and feel more rested and productive throughout the day.

To find your ideal sleep schedule according to your Chronotype, take my chronoquiz. Regardless of your Chronotype, it’s vital to form good sleep habits to help you refresh and feel your best each morning.

Creating Good Sleep Habits

Fortunately, many sleep problems can be solved with some easy lifestyle changes. While it may be difficult at times to break bad habits and develop good ones, you’ll definitely feel better in the long run!

I’ve spoken many times about restricting caffeine intake before bedtime. In fact, a new study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that caffeine consumption within six hours of bedtime can reduce your total sleep time by up to 41 minutes. So if you enjoy drinking coffee or tea throughout the day, consider a non-caffeinated version after about 2:00pm.  The same goes for soft drinks— if you drink soda or use it as a mixer in your nightcap, try the non-caffeinated versions.

Speaking of alcoholic beverages, it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol about three hours before bed as well. Alcohol usage is associated with sleep disorders such as short sleep duration, insomnia, and circadian rhythm abnormalities. Not only that, but if you drink alcohol too close to bedtime, it can relax the tissues in your throat, which can cause snoring. 

If you or your bed partner are struggling with snoring, check out my article on How to Stop Snoring.

How Much Sleep Should You Get?

We’ve already discussed how 85% of American adults don’t get the 7+ hours of sleep they need each night, but that required “7+ hours” can vary quite a bit from person to person.

It can be hard to tell initially what your ideal bedtime should be, but creating one will significantly increase the chances that you’ll get the quantity and quality of sleep you need.

To learn how much sleep you need each night, I recommend using my sleep calculator tool.

How to Fall Asleep Faster

So now that you’ve created some good sleep habits, you can start thinking about how to help yourself fall asleep faster. Like your good sleep habits, there are holistic changes you can make to help yourself here too.

Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, or breathing exercises, are excellent ways to help you decompress and unwind before bed— I like the 4-7-8 breathing exercise especially. These exercises help your body and mind relax before bed, promoting good sleep.

Another method I encourage is called the Power Down Hour, where you finish your day’s business and get yourself ready for sleep an hour before bedtime, in three twenty-minute increments.

  • In the first 20 minutes, take care of any unfinished business. This includes simple tasks like taking out the trash, or caring for pets.
  • In the second 20 minutes, do something relaxing like chatting with family members, journaling, or breathing exercises.
  • The last 20 minutes should be dedicated to personal hygiene, such as brushing your teeth, or taking a warm bath.

It’s also important to turn off all electronic devices at least 60 minutes, but preferably 90 minutes before bed— the blue light emitted from your devices can inhibit the production of melatonin, making it harder for you to fall asleep on time.

This may seem obvious to some, but making changes to your sleep environment is also a great way to help yourself sleep better.

How to Reduce Noise and Light in Your Bedroom

We may not always think about how our sleeping environment could potentially make it harder to sleep at night, but it’s a very important consideration to make. Fortunately, there are simple and effective ways to reduce intrusive ambiance in your bedroom and rest easy.

Be sure to switch off all lights that can keep you awake at night. If you live in an area with a lot of external light, such as city lights, consider installing blackout curtains on each window in your bedroom.

For reducing ambient noise, you probably won’t find an option as accessible or inexpensive as earplugs, which are widely available in grocery stores and pharmacies. However, if you require just a little noise in the background, white noise sound machines are a good option. These handy little machines play either pleasant white noise, relaxing sounds, or both to help you drift off to sleep.

However, if you want noise blocking and pleasant ambient noise, I recommend using Bose Sleepbuds II. Unlike headphones that play music or podcasts, these only work with Bose’s Sleep app— helping you fall and stay asleep by playing soothing sounds while Bose’s noise-masking technology dampens background noise.

 In complete transparency, I’m a spokesperson for Bose.I partnered with Bose because of their commitment to creating a good night’s sleep by reducing background noise and creating a peaceful environment to rest.

What to Do if You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night and Can’t Go Back to Sleep

Even with the proper preparation before bedtime, we may still find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. Rather than tossing and turning, hoping to fall back asleep quickly, here are some tips I concur with outlined by the Sleep Foundation:

  • Focus on relaxation, rather than sleep.
  • Get out of bed and do something relaxing, preferably in low light.
  • Keep a sleep journal to keep track of your sleep habits.

Sometimes though, we may still need some extra help falling asleep. Many people have difficulty falling asleep quickly, and may still wake up in the middle of the night. Even so, they may hesitate to take anything then if there’s a chance it’ll make them feel sluggish and groggy in the morning.

For this, I recommend Sleep Doctor PM. This unique two-part formula is designed to help you fall asleep, and get back to sleep if you wake up during the night. 5-7 sprays of the first formula under the tongue will help you fall asleep and stay asleep longer— but if you wake up in the middle of the night, 5-7 sprays under the tongue with the second formula will help you get back to sleep with no grogginess the next day.

Once we get to a certain age, however, we may face a host of new sleep problems. This is especially true for middle-aged women who are approaching or currently experiencing menopause.

Menopause and Sleep

Along with the unfortunately familiar symptoms like night sweats and changes in mood, poor and disrupted sleep are also common symptoms of menopause. In fact, changes in regular sleep patterns are often an early sign of perimenopause, the transitional state near menopause when a woman’s hormones are changing greatly.

Thankfully, there are natural methods available to help relieve sleep problems and menopause symptoms together, without hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’ve discussed before how addressing a woman’s mental health as well as her physical health during menopause can be an effective treatment— In fact, lifestyle changes may be as effective as HRT in managing menopause.

Positive changes you can make can include:

  • Creating healthy morning and nighttime routines
  • Staying in touch with friends and family
  • Phasing out bad habits to create good ones
  • Natural supplements, such as melatonin or magnesium.

However, even with these positive changes in place, uncomfortable side effects like hot flashes and night sweats can still persist. Our bodies adjust their core temperatures through a process called thermoregulation, which operates on a 24-hour circadian cycle like our sleep-wake cycle does. Our bodies begin cooling down in the late afternoon and evening as we prepare for sleep, helping us fall asleep and stay asleep during the night.

Of course, night sweats and hot flashes can wreak havoc on a menopausal woman’s thermoregulation, but there are good solutions to help make these symptoms more bearable and get a good night’s sleep in the process.

Sleep systems such as Chilipad allow you to control your body heat through your sleep cycle— like your own thermoregulation, it cools down as you prepare for sleep, and warms up to help you feel awake and alert in the morning. 

This system also allows sleep partners to adjust their ideal sleeping temperatures independently, making this a game-changer for women experiencing menopause, as well as their sleep partners!

Conclusion: What to Do Next and Where to Get Help

If you’ve made the right lifestyle changes for better rest and still find it difficult to sleep, then it may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. If you think you or your sleep partner may have a sleep disorder, it’s important to get tested and treated right away. To find accredited sleep specialists and sleep centers near you, check out the tool provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep, and you don’t have to live with subpar or poor rest. Restful sleep is often just a few easy changes away— you may be surprised by what’s keeping you up at night!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!