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How to Sleep Without Sleeping Pills: 6 Science-Backed Tips

Sleep without sleeping pills by talking to a doctor about tapering off, improving your sleep hygiene, and solving the root cause of your sleep problems.
Published
2024-02-29
Updated
13 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man consulting with doctor about how to sleep without sleeping pills

How to Sleep Without Sleeping Pills?

  • Sleep without sleeping pills by improving your sleep hygiene, talking to a doctor about tapering off, syncing up with your body clock, trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, and getting treated for sleep disorders and medical conditions.
  • How you sleep without sleeping pills will depend on what’s stopping you from sleeping in the first place. 
  • The RISE app can help you build bulletproof sleep hygiene habits and sync up with your body clock for the best chance of falling and staying asleep naturally. This can help alongside other treatments if needed.

You know taking sleeping pills every night to drift off isn’t good for you, but sleep deprivation isn’t exactly great, either.

Whether you’re on prescription drugs or over-the-counter sleep aids, it is possible to break out of the cycle of relying on a pill to drift off night after night.

Below, we’ll cover how you can sleep without sleeping pills, why you can’t sleep without them right now, and how the RISE app can help you on the journey to sleeping naturally.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“If you’re turning to sleeping pills to fall asleep each night, the first step to stopping is speaking to a professional,” says Dr. Chester Wu, double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine, and one of our Rise Science sleep advisors and medical reviewers.

“A doctor can recommend a plan to slowly cut down your dosage to reduce withdrawal symptoms, and they can help solve the root cause of your sleep problems.”

How to Sleep Without Sleeping Pills? 

You can sleep without sleeping pills by improving your sleep hygiene, speaking to a doctor about tapering off, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, getting tested for sleep disorders and health conditions, and giving yourself time. 

Here’s our advice on how to sleep without sleep aids: 

1. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene 

Sleep hygiene is the name for the daily behaviors you can do to get better sleep. Good sleep hygiene can help you feel sleepy at bedtime, fall asleep faster, and wake up less often in the night without taking a sleeping pill. 

On the other hand, poor sleep hygiene could be the reason you can’t fall or stay asleep, and the reason you’re reaching for sleeping pills in the first place. 

Good sleep hygiene can also help you get the best sleep possible if there’s something else — like a medical condition — messing with your sleep. 

Here’s what good sleep hygiene looks like: 

  • Get light first thing: Get natural light for at least 10 minutes each morning, or 15 to 20 minutes if it’s overcast or you’re getting light through a window 
  • Avoid light before bed: Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed. 
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, large meals, and vigorous physical activity close to bedtime: RISE can tell you when to avoid each one. 
  • Avoid napping too long or late in the day: If you have insomnia, it may be best to avoid napping altogether. 
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: This is especially useful if you’re nervous about trying to sleep without popping a pill or if stress is the reason you can’t sleep. Try reading, listening to your favorite podcast, taking a warm bath or shower, or following RISE’s guided relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation. 
  • Make your sleep environment cool, dark, and quiet: Aim for 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, wear earplugs, and use blackout curtains and an eye mask.

To help you stay on top of all this, RISE tells you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits at the time that'll make them most effective for you. 

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app guides you through 20+ healthy sleep habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

2. Speak to a Doctor About a Plan to Taper Off 

Depending on which type of sleep aid you’ve been taking, going cold turkey might not be advised. 

Stopping sleeping pills like benzodiazepines suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms like: 

  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Shivering 
  • Circulation problems 

These withdrawal symptoms can cause sleep problems themselves, and they can make it tempting to slip back into using sleep pills again. 

Speak to a doctor to get a personalized taper plan that’ll gradually lower your dose over several weeks or months to reduce the likelihood of withdrawal symptoms. 

Avoid making decisions before bed about your dose or if you’ll take sleeping pills. This decision-making and anxiety could cause sleep problems. Make a plan during the day, ideally with a doctor, and follow it as calmly as you can come nighttime.

Sleeping pills are sometimes the best course of action (such as when going through grief or battling chronic insomnia), but a doctor can advise on the best ones for you, how long to take them for, monitor your use, and recommend complementary treatments, as well as help you come off them when the time is right. 

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3. Get in Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm 

Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock. If you’re trying to sleep out of sync with your body clock, you might struggle to drift off and may turn to sleeping pills to make you feel sleepy. 

To get in sync: 

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on your days off 
  • Eat meals at roughly the same times and during the day 
  • Head to bed during your Melatonin Window — this is what we call the roughly one-hour window of time when your body’s rate of melatonin production (the sleep hormone) is at its highest. You’ll have an easier time falling and staying asleep if you head to bed during this time.

To take the guesswork out of syncing up, RISE predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm and Melatonin Window each day. You can see when your body wants to sleep and wake up and try to match these times. 

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up a reminder to check their Melatonin Window here.

4. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) 

If you have insomnia, sleeping pills aren’t the only treatment. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says there’s weak evidence sleep aids like trazodone, diphenhydramine (benadryl), and melatonin work for insomnia. 

The evidence for CBT-I, on the other hand, is strong, and it’s recommended as a first-line treatment.

CBT-I can help solve the root cause of insomnia by changing your thoughts and behaviors around sleep. 

It can include: 

  • Education about sleep hygiene (see tip #1!)  
  • Relaxation training 
  • Sleep restriction — which counterintuitively involves restricting your sleep time to help increase your sleep efficiency (how long you spend sleeping in bed) in the long run
  • Stimulus control — which involves going to bed only when sleepy and getting out of bed if you can’t sleep after about 20 or 30 minutes 

Speak to a healthcare professional about CBT-I. Different types of insomnia may require different treatments. And you may not have insomnia — many sleep problems look a lot like insomnia, but require different treatments.

5. Get Tested (and Treated) for Sleep Disorders or Health Conditions 

A sleep disorder or physical or mental health problem could be the reason you can’t sleep. 

This can include: 

  • Sleep apnea
  • Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder 
  • Restless leg syndrome 
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes 
  • Depression 

Speak to a healthcare provider who can diagnose and recommend the best treatment. That may not include sleeping pills. It may be a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for sleep apnea or light therapy for delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, for example. 

A 2022 paper provides some hope: 

“Although the process is never easy, stopping the use of sleeping pills is not that difficult if the patient’s sleep disorder is treated (e.g., sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, etc.) and the innate circadian rhythm is restored.” 

6. Give Yourself Time 

When you stop taking sleep aids like benzodiazepines you may experience a side effect known as rebound insomnia. This is when your sleep problems are temporarily worse than before you started taking the pills. Slowly tapering off can reduce how bad rebound insomnia is, but it can still happen.  

As frustrating as this is, hang in there. Rebound insomnia — along with any other withdrawal symptoms — should get better with time. There’s no set time frame for this, unfortunately, and you can’t rush the process.  

Try speaking to a therapist or getting support from friends and family. And remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place — for natural, healthy sleep without any external aids.

We’ve covered more background information on sleep aids here, including prescription, over-the-counter, and natural sleep aids.

Expert tip: Check your sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the worse your energy levels will be. You may build up sleep debt when you first start coming off sleep meds, but, with time, this should even out. When you start treating the root cause of your sleep problems, you should be able to get enough sleep, reduce your sleep debt, and feel better each day.

RISE can keep track of your daily sleep debt. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app works out how much sleep debt you have.

Sleep debt is compared against how many hours of sleep you individually need. This is known as your sleep need, and it might be more than you think. 

We compared the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users and found they ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes, but 48% needed eight hours or more sleep a night.

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
RISE users' sleep needs

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

Why Can’t I Sleep Without Sleeping Pills? 

You may not be able to sleep without sleeping pills because you’re physically addicted to them, you’re physiologically dependent on them, you’ve got rebound insomnia, something else is causing sleep problems, or you’re sleeping better than you think. 

Here’s what we mean: 

  • You’re addicted: You can become addicted to sleep aids like benzodiazepines and Z-drugs (such as Ambien and Sonata), especially if you’ve been using them for a long time. You may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them.
  • You’ve got rebound insomnia: When you stop taking sleeping pills, your sleep problems may become worse than they were before you started taking sleep medication.
  • You’re psychologically dependent: If you take sleep medication every night, you might feel anxious when you try to sleep without it. This anxiety can keep you up. If you try to force sleep without a sleep aid, sleep effort (when you try to control sleep) can exacerbate or perpetuate insomnia. You can be psychologically dependent on a sleep aid that isn’t physiologically addictive, like over-the-counter sleep aids such as Tylenol PM or NyQuil — although more research is needed to know if these are truly addictive or not.
  • Something else is causing sleep problems: Poor sleep hygiene, being out of sync with your circadian rhythm, a sleep disorder, or a medical condition could be behind your lack of sleep, and sleeping pills are just masking the problem, not curing it.
  • You’re sleeping better than you think: It’s normal to take 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep and to wake up a few times in the middle of the night. Sleep aids are sedatives that can knock you out fast, but that’s manufactured sleep. Don’t panic if natural sleep feels different and you’re taking a little longer to drift off.

Learn why else you can’t sleep here.

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Can You Become Addicted to Sleeping Pills?  

Yes, you can become addicted to sleeping pills, depending on the type of sleeping pills you take. Addictive sleep aids include benzodiazepines — such as flurazepam (Dalmane) and temazepam (Restoril) — and Z-drugs — such as zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta). 

Antihistamine sleep aids — such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl and Tylenol PM) and doxylamine succinate (Unisom SleepTabs and NyQuil) — and antidepressant sleep aids are not thought to be addictive, but more research is needed. You may become physiologically dependent on them and feel like you need them to sleep. 

“Natural” sleep aids like melatonin supplements, magnesium, valerian root, and CBD aren’t thought to be addictive, but you can become physiologically dependent on them, too.

We’ve covered more on whether melatonin is addictive here.

What Can I Take Instead of Sleeping Pills?

If you want to take something before bed, go for something natural that won’t impact your sleep, health, or next-day energy levels — like chamomile tea. 

Dr. Wu recommends chamomile tea to his patients. While more research is needed to know if it helps sleep, it doesn’t appear to have any downsides and it may help you unwind before bed. 

However, good sleep hygiene is best, as it’s not good to feel dependent on something to sleep and there may be nights when you can’t have your crutch — like when traveling.

Natural sleep aids like melatonin, CBD, valerian root, and magnesium may help in some cases, but there’s not enough research behind them to say for sure. 

Natural Sleep Is Possible 

Even if you rely on sleeping pills to sleep now, there’s hope that one day you’ll be able to fall asleep naturally again. 

Speak to a healthcare professional about tapering off slowly and focus on treating the root cause of your sleep problems — whether that’s stress, a sleep disorder, or one too many cups of coffee. 

RISE can help with two key components for natural sleep: improving your sleep hygiene and syncing up with your circadian rhythm. With RISE, you’ll get personalized reminders for 20+ daily sleep hygiene behaviors and you’ll see when your body naturally wants to sleep as part of your circadian rhythm. 

Heading to bed at the right time helps users get a good night's sleep without any external help: 

“If I go to sleep according to my schedule, within my Melatonin Window, I am guaranteed to satisfy my sleep needs without any additional sleep aids, supplements, or medications. I am blown away by the accuracy and effectiveness of RISE.” Read the review.

And restful nights may happen sooner than you think — 80% of RISE users get better sleep in five days. 

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