Having trouble falling asleep is an experience many people (hi, there are 50 to 70 million of us) know like the backs of our eyelids. You would think such a ubiquitous issue would have an equally ubiquitous solution — but alas, here we are. When it comes to getting a good night’s rest, many of us are, well, in the dark.
Long-term sleep loss has severe ramifications on our health and well-being. “Not getting enough sleep impacts every facet of someone’s life, from lowered immunity, disrupted digestion, and increased feelings of depression and anxiety to more long-term consequences such as increased risk of developing metabolic and heart disease,” says Kelly Murray, a certified pediatric and adult sleep consultant.
Still, knowing that we need to sleep doesn’t always help us get the job done (if only!). Ahead, Murray and Abhinav Singh, MD, director of the Indiana Sleep Center and medical review expert at The Sleep Foundation, explain why so many people struggle to catch their zzz’s — and offer six tips for finally putting your mind to rest.
Why Falling Asleep Can Feel So Hard
We need to be calm, cool, and collected to power down our brains at night. But the truth is, many of us haven’t shed the day’s worries by the time we slide beneath the covers.
“Mental and emotional stress are the most common reasons people struggle to fall asleep,” says Murray. “When we experience a stressful situation, our fight-or-flight response is triggered. As a result, ourbody produces cortisol, the alert hormone, to give us enough energy to flee the scene or fight for our lives.” Feeling the evolutionary urge to outrun a lion isn’t exactly a lullaby, right?
Worry isn’t the only thing keeping us awake at night. Factors such as genetics, irregular work schedules, and substance use can also determine how well we sleep. If you suspect that something beyond stress is fueling all that tossing and turning, make an appointment with your primary care physician, stat.
6 Tips for Falling (And Staying) Asleep
1. Limit or Avoid Alcohol Before Bed
Alcohol is a sedative, but while it may help you fall asleep, getting a solid eight hours after a boozy evening is another story. Research shows that alcohol may suppress REM sleep during your first two sleep cycles. This means that, even if you stay in Dreamworld all night long, you may wake up feeling like you spent the night aimlessly counting sheep.
How much and how often you drink is obviously up to you. Knowing that alcohol acts as such a sleep disruptor can help you make well-informed decisions about when that martini is worth it and when you’d prefer to wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day. These are the kind of adult decisions that, *sigh*, must be made by adults every day — so you do you.
2. Create a Borderline-Extra Bedtime Routine
When we say that you need to dream up the kind of bedtime routine that makes other people roll their eyes, we mean it. Dr. Singh recommends creating a wind-down ritual that includes a candle-lit shower, journaling, breathwork, reading, and any other activity you find relaxing.
No matter which pre-sleep practices you choose, make sure that your phone isn’t a part of the equation. “Reduce phone usage 45 min before bed and keep ambient light dim in the evenings,” says Dr. Singh.
3. Make Your Bedroom a Cave
Dr. Singh has a vision for the perfect bedroom vibe: it should be “dark like a cave, cool, quiet, and comfortable,” he says. Once you’ve completed your bedtime ritual and your eyelids start to droop, you can enter your cave-like chamber with its dim lighting, gravity blanket, sound machine, and whatever other cozycore you can think of. Having a space that’s only for sleep will signal to your brain and body that it’s time to shut down and restore.
4. Stick With Your Sleep Schedule
Here is perhaps the most hated of all sleep advice: you should be going to sleep and waking up at the same time every single night. Yes, even on the weekends, according to Dr. Singh.
Keeping a strict sleep schedule reinforces your circadian rhythms, or how your body rests, awakens, and functions on a 24-hour cycle. Over time, staying true to this agenda will teach our bodies that we should be getting sleepy around, says, 10 p.m. and should be feeling up-and-at-’em around 7 a.m.
5. Don’t Stare at the Clock
While it may be tempting to look at your alarm clock and start doing mental gymnastics (“If I fall asleep in one hour, I’ll still get six hours of sleep.”), Dr. Singh and Murray both warn against all this mental math.
Inevitably, some freshman-level algebra won’t help you drift off to sleep; it will stress you out and delay your journey toward rest. In fact, a 2023 study conducted by Indiana University found that time-monitoring behaviors caused frustration and sleep troubles among the study’s 5,000 participants.
The lesson here? Turn your alarm clock away from you or, if you’re feeling bold, ban it from your bedroom entirely.
6. Have a Plan for When You Can’t Fall Asleep
We’ve all been there. Five minutes pass . . . then 30 . . . then 90. We’re still not asleep even though we’ve counted 12 dozen sheep and tried our trusty breathing exercise. If you find yourself in this position, it’s time to remove yourself from your cozy cave — difficult as it may be — and head to a more neutral part of the house. Why? Staying in your bedroom when you can’t sleep may create a negative, sleepless association with that place, which is the last thing we want.
Once you settle into the couch, engage in a hobby or activity that’s enjoyable but not overstimulating. For example, maybe you read a poem or two or engage in some light stretching. What you don’t want to do is dive into the romance book you’re currently obsessed with or turn on the television. Remember, the whole point of this little midnight intermission is to make you start to feel sleepy, not to get you so riled up that you vow never to sleep again.
Go ahead and return to your bedroom when you feel like you can no longer keep your eyes open. And hopefully, with some luck, you’ll drift off without an issue.
7. Seek Help From an Expert
One final note: Dr. Singh says that if you start to have trouble sleeping, it’s vital to seek help sooner rather than later. While you can always create better sleep habits, catching sleep disorders or negative sleep patterns when they first crop up gives you a chance to rule out any larger health issues and avoid many nights of lost sleep.
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