It’s 3 a.m. You stare at the blinking lights of the digital clock in your bedroom. You’ve tossed and turned for the past few hours, trying to fall asleep but to no avail. You’re frustrated, definitely still tired, and anxious about what this means for tomorrow’s energy when you finally Google “What to do when you can’t sleep.” So, what’s the culprit behind your sleepless nights?
Unfortunately, there are various triggers — at least 31 we’ve detailed here — for why you can’t sleep. It could be too-late-in-the-day workouts, work stress, or a snoring spouse. Identifying the exact cause(s) of your sleeplessness is fundamental to your game plan for falling and staying asleep.
Much of it boils down to sleep hygiene, which is the upkeep of daytime and nighttime behaviors that influence the way you sleep. You need to time your daily activities to your circadian rhythm (the internal body clock), so you’re working with your sleep-wake cycle rather than against it for sleep hygiene to be truly effective.
If you feel a little overwhelmed, don’t worry. We’ll go into the details below to help you get back on track with sleep so you can feel and function at your best.
From the most immediate thing you can do in bed — like a sleep reset — to healthy sleep-promoting behaviors during daylight, we show you what to do when you can’t sleep.
If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, do a sleep reset.
Here’s how it works:
If you’re new to this concept, don’t worry. The RISE app’s “Sleep Reset” habit will hand-hold you through the process.
The ideal sleep environment should be cool, dark, and quiet, which the RISE app can remind you with its “Check Your Environment” habit.
On a side note, if you’re one to sleepwalk, a safe sleep environment tops your list. Keep your bedroom clutter-free and all windows and doors locked to prevent injuring yourself (or others) during your nighttime wanderings.
Racing thoughts and tense muscles make it hard to fall asleep, leading to a resulting lack of sleep the next day. Unfortunately, many of us are only too good at over-exciting our senses such that we have trouble falling asleep at night. The antidote to sleep deprivation in such cases? Give yourself sufficient time to wind down in the 1-2 hours leading up to your bedtime.
An effective wind-down routine centers around calming activities that put you in the right mind for sleep. Try these sleep tips:
To build your ideal wind-down routine, simply add the “Evening Routine” habit to your Energy Schedule in the RISE app.
It’s tempting to eat, read, work, Netflix, and engage in other non-sleeping activities in your comfy bed. Unfortunately, this only dilutes the association of your bed with sleep. The solution is simple: Practice stimulus control by reserving your bed for sleep and nothing else (with sex being the only exception).
Not many people realize that light exposure can be a double-edged sword. Light starts, stops, and resets the internal clock via a three-pronged approach:
So, how do you make light work for you? Here’s what we recommend:
Bask in bright light the moment you awake. Toss back the curtains, open the windows, and lean into the sun’s warmth. Even better, walk or exercise outdoors in the presence of sunlight.
If natural light isn’t available where you are, turn on the artificial lights that emit blue light in your home. While indoor lighting is substantially less intense than direct sunlight, blue light still mimics the three-way mechanism of natural light to help you feel more awake in the morning.
Throughout the day, make sure you get sufficient daytime light (preferably multiple hours) to act as a bulwark against bright light exposure at night. Noted chronobiologist Till Roenneberg (the author of Internal Time) and colleagues found that every hour spent outdoors during the day brought sleep forward by roughly 30 minutes.
At night, limit light exposure as part of your wind-down routine. Ideally, you want to avoid all sources of artificial lighting four hours before your target bedtime. The “Blue Light Control” habit in the RISE app tells you when to expose yourself to blue light (in the morning) and when to avoid it (in the evening).
That said, we understand it’s not entirely possible to pass your evenings in complete darkness. After all, we aren’t living in prehistoric times. For that reason, don a pair of blue light-blocking glasses. Need help reminding yourself? Simply add the “Block All Blue Light” habit to your Energy Schedule in the RISE app.
If an out-of-tune body clock is the reason for your sleepless nights, a consistent sleep schedule can help reorient your circadian rhythm for better sleep tonight.
The best sleep and wake times are the ones that take your chronotype into account. For the uninitiated, your chronotype dictates your preferred sleep and wake patterns, in addition to other key other biological processes like body temperature changes and cortisol production.
But working with your chronotype may not always be possible, say if you’re a night owl in an early bird world. In that case, you need to identify your wake-up time and work backward to make sure your new sleep schedule accounts for your sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs). For example, if the RISE app measures your biological sleep need as 9 hours, and you need to wake up at 7 a.m., go to bed at least half an hour before 10 p.m. to account for sleep latency (how long you take to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (how often you wake up in the night).
To help you meet your sleep need more effortlessly, align your target bedtime with your Melatonin Window per the RISE app. This is the roughly one-hour window of time in which your brain produces the most melatonin it will all night to help you doze off and stay asleep till morning.
It’s not the quality of sleep — for which there is no official definition — but the quantity of sleep that matters. Instead of fretting over how much time you spend in each stage of the sleep cycle (a medical condition known as orthosomnia that’s concerned with getting “perfect sleep”), focus on getting enough shut-eye, as meeting your sleep need via naturalistic sleep is quality sleep.
That’s where the RISE app can help. It measures your running sleep debt (the amount of sleep you’ve missed in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need), which is the only sleep score you need to care about.
Many of us discount the extent to which our eating and drinking patterns affect our sleep. But what and when you eat and drink has significant influence on your odds of a good night’s sleep. For starters, you’ll want to avoid too-late-in-the-day consumption of these four substances:
On a related note, did you know that keeping consistent meal times during the day can help correct an off-kilter internal clock? Indeed, people struggling with circadian misalignment, such as those battling social jetlag and the shift work populace can use eating as a circadian cue, aside from well-timed light exposure.
Regularly working out does wonders for your sleep, but only if you do it at the right times.
For chronic insomniacs, exercise has been shown to reduce the time taken to fall asleep and improve sleep efficiency (time spent asleep while in bed). It may even help with other sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Sweating it out has also been proven to be an effective stress-reliever.
That said, steer clear of evening workouts as the increased heart rate, body temperature, cortisol levels, and blood pressure make it more challenging for you to doze off. Working out too late also delays your melatonin production the following night, which means you go to bed later and are less likely to meet your sleep need.
So, when’s the best time to work out? Our guide to exercising will tell you it’s one of these three periods:
There’s only one exception to working out at night: sex. Engaging in physical intimacy triggers sleep-promoting hormonal changes. Orgasms release oxytocin (the love hormone) and prolactin (a sleep-influencing growth factor) while suppressing cortisol production. When you aren’t so keyed up post-sex, it’s easier for you to succumb to the siren call of sleep.
For health problems and circadian misalignment issues that negatively affect sleep, you may need to go one step further than strengthening your sleep hygiene.
Depending on your underlying trigger, try therapeutic or pharmacological interventions or both. Here are a few examples to illustrate that:
If you still struggle with what to do when you can’t sleep despite practicing healthy sleep hygiene, it’s time to consult a sleep specialist. Through an in-depth diagnosis, your specialist can help ferret out any underlying causes behind your sleeplessness.
Hopefully, this list has given you a good idea of what to do when you can’t sleep. Almost always, the solution is to bolster your sleep hygiene by practicing healthy sleep habits 24/7.
Indeed, the trick to sleeping better isn’t about what you do in the 1-2 hours before bed (although as we’ve shown you, a well-designed wind-down routine is vital to helping you get the shut-eye you need). Instead, it’s what you do — and when you do them — during the other hours of wakefulness that matters immensely.
Given that many of us are already living a hectic lifestyle, it can be challenging to keep all these sleep habits in mind, much less perform them at the ideal times. That’s where RISE can help. With its easy-to-use interface and 20+ science-backed habits that prompt you to do the right things at the right times based on your unique chronobiology, it’s the only sleep app you need for better sleep for better energy.
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