What to Do When You Can't Sleep

Mar 10, 2022 Sleep Tips

What to Do When You Can't Sleep

Quick Health Scoop

  • Sleep problems can affect both mental health and physical health.
  • Researchers identified four key elements that help promote relaxation, which can affect a good night’s sleep.
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene involves healthy habits throughout the day that could impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Establishing a consistent pre-bedtime routine includes putting screens away, spending time in a relaxing activity, and dimming the lights.

As an essential bodily function, sleep helps you recharge your body and mind. According to the National sleep foundation, most adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night to wake up feeling refreshed. [1] 

Unfortunately, many factors can stand in the way of a good night’s sleep—from stress and illness to poor eating habits and medications. [2] While an occasional sleepless night is normal, some people struggle with more serious sleep issues.

Poor sleep can lead to both mental and physical health issues, too. Sleep deprivation can cause

short-term problems (lack of alertness, excessive daytime sleepiness, impaired memory, relationship stress, increased likelihood of car accident) and long-term health issues. [3]  

Having trouble sleeping? If you’re wondering what to do when you can't sleep, read on to discover the steps you can take to help promote better sleep.

Elements to Cultivate Relaxation

When certain issues delay or disrupt sleep, relaxation works to diminish the barriers to falling asleep or staying asleep. Recent sleep research has focused on what fosters the relaxation response, finding these four elements hold the key: [4]

  1. A quiet environment. While the environment could be silent, it could also mean calming sounds like white noise or soothing music.
  2. An object to focus on. To decrease thinking about external problems, turn your focus inward. How? Concentrate on a positive mental image, a mantra, an intention, or a breathing pattern.
  3. A passive attitude. Adopt a judgment-free zone, knowing that it’s perfectly normal for the mind to wander. Stay calm and return to your inward focus object or breathing pattern. 
  4. A comfortable position. Settle in and get cozy, whether that’s laying down or reclining in a comfy chair. To promote sleep, lay in bed.

Note that most of these elements defer to personal preference. If soothing nature sounds lull you into a relaxed state, listen to that. If focusing on a specific intention (“I am peaceful”) works for you, do that. If you like to fall asleep propped up on a few pillows, go for it! Do what works best for you. The one steadfast principle is that you simply accept your mind will wander. When it does, just refocus on your breath, positive mental image, intention, or mantra.

How to Improve Sleep Pattern

Your sleep/wake cycle (called the circadian rhythm) determines when you fall asleep and wake up. As part of this cycle, the body’s production of melatonin—the hormone that promotes sleep—increases as it gets dark and decreases as it gets light. Your sleep cycle focuses on the four stages of sleep that include dozing off, subdued stages, deep sleep, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Truly restorative sleep involves moving smoothly from one stage of the sleep cycle to the next. Typically, you progress through four to six rounds of sleep cycle every night. [5]

You might turn to naturally acting sleep aids (such as those containing melatonin) to support sleep. But you also need to practice good sleep hygiene to help improve your sleep patterns (including circadian rhythm and sleep stages). Follow these tips for restful sleep: [6,7]

  • Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed and alcohol before bedtime
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends.
  • Eat light before bedtime, with heavier meals consumed earlier in the day.
  • Balance fluid intake in the evening to avoid nighttime bathroom trips.
  • Exercise earlier in the day—at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Establish a comforting, predictable pre-bedtime routine. 

Pre-Bedtime Routine to Help You Fall Asleep Quickly

If you don’t already have a consistent pre-bedtime routine, it’s time to create one. By establishing a healthy routine, you’re signaling to your body that it’s time to relax, slow down, and prepare for sleep. Follow these tips: [8]

Put the screens away. The blue light emitted from electronic devices can disrupt your ability to fall asleep by suppressing the body’s production of melatonin. Turn off the TV and put away cell phones, laptops, and other electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. 

Relax for 30 minutes. Put your body at ease and quiet your mind by spending at least a half an hour engaged in activities that help you wind down. Listen to relaxing music, read a book, take a warm bath, do light stretching exercises, or practice relaxation techniques as mentioned above.

Dim the lights. Turn off bright lights to help your body transition to slumber. Turning the lights low helps promote melatonin production.

The Bottom Line

What to do when you can’t sleep at night starts with practicing good sleep hygiene long before your head hits the pillow. By focusing on a healthy lifestyle throughout the day and following a pre-bedtime routine at night, you increase the likelihood of experiencing a peaceful slumberConsult your health care provider if you think sleep supplements would be a good option for you.

Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.

Learn More About Sleep:

  • Answers to Your Melatonin FAQs
  • Does Melatonin Cause Nightmares?
  • Food to Help You Sleep

  • This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or a recommendation for any specific product. Consult your health care provider for more information. 

    †These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

    References

    1. National sleep foundation. “How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?” October 1, 2020. Accessed on: February 21, 2022. https://www.thensf.org/how-many-hours-of-sleep-do-you-really-need/ 
    2. Harvard Health Publishing. “Top 4 reasons why you're not sleeping through the night.” January 19, 2022. Accessed on: February 21, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/top-4-reasons-why-youre-not-sleeping-through-the-night 
    3. Cleveland Clinic. “Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (And How Much You Really Need a Night).” June 16, 2020. Accessed on: February 21, 2022. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/ 
    4. H. Benson, The Relaxation Response, William Morrow, New York, NY, 1975
    5. Sleep foundation. “Healthy Sleep Tips.” November 18, 2021. Accessed on: February 21, 2022. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene/healthy-sleep-tips 
    6. Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. “Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.” December 18, 2007. Accessed on: February 22, 2022. https://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips  
    7. Mayo Clinic. “Sleep tips: 6 steps to better sleep.” April 17, 2020. Accessed on: February 22, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/sleep/art-20048379 
    8. Sleep foundation. “Stages of Sleep.”  December 20, 2021. Accessed on: February 22, 2022. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/stages-of-sleep

    Authors

    Lisa Beach

    NatureMade Contributor

    Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.

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    Melissa Dorval Pine, RD

    Science and Health Educator

    Melissa is a registered dietitian (RD) and works in our Medical and Scientific Communications department as a Science and Health Educator. She has worked for Pharmavite for over 20 years educating consumers, healthcare practitioners, retailers and employees about nutrition, dietary supplements and overall wellness. Prior to joining the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Melissa launched and managed Pharmavite’s Consumer Relations department. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, and completed her dietetic internship at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in East Orange New Jersey.

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