You flop your head back on the pillow, silently cursing Mr. Sandman and the sleep he promised to bring. Your mind races with tomorrow’s to-dos as you glance at the floating red numbers from your nightstand—2:45 AM. Well aware of the bounty of beauty (and health) that a full night’s slumber can bring, you hoped that tonight would be different. You brushed, flossed, and bounced into bed early, anticipating the sweetest of dreams—so why are you still counting sheep?
Insomnia (which simply means “no sleep” in Latin), happens to everyone at some point, thanks to things like anticipatory stress, jetlag, or a too-late-in-the-day double shot of espresso.
But for some people, “no sleep” progresses past a night or two, and battling the dream-stealing demon becomes a nightly activity. If that’s you—don’t worry. You’re not doomed to restless nights forever. Try these surprisingly low-tech lifestyle changes for a better night’s rest, and also learn when it’s time to call your doctor.
Set the Stage
In the sea of everyday stress, your bedroom should be the end-of-the-day sanctuary—a nightstand stacked with bills, a bed strewn with the discards of this morning’s wardrobe fail, and your ever-chiming smartphone resting on your pillow is hardly a restful space.
Diane Stein, MD, an Orange County, CA, neurologist, suggests powering down anything requiring a plug 30 minutes prior to bedtime—that means lights, television, your laptop, phone, and other electronic devices (although your Kindle may make the cut, if you find reading before knocking out a relaxing ritual).
Clear the clutter, dial down the thermostat (overly heated rooms may disrupt sleep), invest in some low lighting, and slap on some soft-colored sheets you find suitable for snuggling (yes, that’s a green light to buy those 1,000-thread counts you’ve been craving).
Map Out Your Plan of Attack
Channel your inner five-year-old—yes, the one who refused to call it a night without the right pair of pink polka-dotted pajamas, her stuffed bunny under her left (not right) arm, and one last drink of water out of the same purple plastic cup.
Performing a series of bedtime activities in the same order—whether that’s drawing a bath, getting in your robe, or reading a chapter of a good book—at the same time, every single night, will cue your brain and body that it’s time to wind down. Your wake and bedtime should also be the same daily (even on the weekends).
Move Back Your Midnight Snack
You often hear not to eat before bed. But, “hunger can prevent you from sleeping,” says primary care nurse practitioner Torrey Higgins. “Eat a small snack if you haven't eaten for more than four hours before bedtime.” Just keep in mind that your snack should be small (a too-full stomach can interfere with sleep), decaffeinated (we’re looking at you, chocolate), and non-alcoholic.
Other dietary do’s include discontinuing caffeine after lunch and consuming your favorite glass of Pinot at least six hours before lights-out. Alcohol may initially have a sedative effect, but it’s known for disrupting the second part of sleep.
Also try sipping chamomile tea, says Higgins, citing a Japanese study where chamomile extract given to sleep-disturbed rats was just as effective as commonly prescribed sleep aids (though, avoid it if you have ragweed allergies).
Sweat it Out
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again—exercise fixes everything (except for a broken heart and your carburetor, but even that’s debatable). A recent study concluded that people who get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week (the national guideline) enjoy a 65% improvement in sleep quality. To ensure a seamless voyage into dreamland, make sure your last crunch or bicep curl is done four to six hours before calling it a day.
If All Else Fails—Get the Toilet Brush
“My mother’s rule was that ‘If I don’t fall asleep [soon]...then I’m going to get up and clean the toilets.’ With 10 people living in the house and three toilets, she really didn’t want to get up—so she slept,” says Dr. Stein. “If it’s after bedtime, do something that you enjoy a lot less than sleep!” If it’s been 20 minutes and you still haven’t drifted off, get out of bed and attack the most boring, least stimulating task imaginable. Sleep might seem more welcoming after spending a lively half-hour with a dusty college textbook on literary theory.
When to Surrender (And Call Your Doctor)
When does “no sleep” become a diagnosable condition? If you have difficultly falling or staying asleep at least three times a week for one month, and it results in daytime fatigue, it’s time to fly the white flag and schedule that appointment.
Yes, there are over-the-counter (OTC) sleep remedies like diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) or melatonin (a synthetically produced hormone responsible for sleep and wake cycles), but consider talking to your doctor first. She’ll be able to investigate potential drug interactions—for example, birth control pills may increase melatonin levels and worsen side effects like daytime fatigue, dizziness, headache, and abdominal discomfort.
She’ll also explore underlying medical issues (like depression or acid reflux) that might explain your sleeplessness and may prescribe medication; however, keep in mind that all sleep aids (OTC and prescription) are designed to be short-term and optimally used for four weeks or less. Long-term solutions like cognitive behavioral therapy (which aims to restructure your thoughts and feelings surrounding sleep) and learning techniques to relax your body (like meditation or muscle relaxation) may also be prescribed.
The bottom line: Lying awake in the dark (both literally and figuratively) probably isn’t going to help when you can’t sleep. Get out of bed and fight back—and you’ll be pillow-talking with Mr. Sandman in no time.