13 Sleep Tips for When You Have Insomnia

Are you one of the more than 50 million Americans who have trouble sleeping? Michael Breus, PhD, a.k.a. The Sleep Doctor, tells his patients: "Don't wait until bedtime to start thinking about your nightly rest."

Don't stay in bed

S_L/ShutterstockAfter a restless night, the lure of the snooze button can be strong, but you're better off getting up at your regular time in the morning. If your bedtime and wake-time schedule is erratic, you're likely to experience social jet lag. That's when your biological clock is out of sync with social time. Social jet lag comes with all the symptoms of regular jet lag, including fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and insomnia. Rising at the same time every morning strengthens circadian rhythms. You might have a low-energy day, but you'll be ready to nod off when bedtime arrives. This is my number-one tip for people with insomnia.

Soak in morning sun

Kristi-Blokhin/ShutterstockExposure to sunlight first thing in the morning helps stimulate alertness, elevate energy, and lift mood. It can also help you rest better at night. Our circadian rhythms are strongly influenced by light exposure. "My mornings feel easier and I'm getting to bed earlier," a patient told me after starting morning sun sessions. You don't need a lot of sunlight in the morning. Just five minutes is enough to send a powerful message to your biological clock, a message that resonates all the way to bedtime. If morning sunlight isn't an option, exposure to bright light indoors works, too. Don't look directly into the sun, just be outside. Here are some more signs you're not getting enough sunlight.

Give yourself a caffeine window

kikovic/ShutterstockMy patients often look at me in shock when I tell them: Caffeine first thing in the morning does nothing to wake you up. That's because your body is already working to make you alert and boost your energy, releasing a surge of stimulating hormones right as you wake for the day. The stimulating power of caffeine can't compete with the body's natural stimulants. An immediate cup of coffee will make you jittery and contribute to rising tolerance for caffeine. To get the benefits of caffeine, create a caffeine window in your day that starts about 90 minutes after you get out of bed, and ends by early afternoon.

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Switch to decaf by 2:00 PM

JMSTOCK/ShutterstockThink a mid-afternoon coffee can't disrupt your nightly routine? Think again. Caffeine has a half-life of six to eight hours: it can take that long for your body to eliminate one-half of the caffeine you consume in a serving. Caffeine also suppresses the hormone melatonin. A two o'clock cut-off time for caffeine can make it a whole lot easier to fall asleep at 10 or 10:30. If you're cutting back on caffeine, do it gradually—by about a half-cup of coffee every few days—to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. In search of an afternoon energy boost? Treat yourself to a ten-minute sunshine break.

Exercise earlier in the day

Oksana-Yurlova/ShutterstockI recently treated a patient with terrific bedtime habits who was still wide awake late at night several times a week. The culprit? A vigorous early evening workout that left her feeling wired well past her 11 o'clock bedtime. Shifting her weekday work out to late afternoon helped her wind down more easily. A regular exercise routine can improve both the quantity and quality of your rest. A National Sleep Foundation survey found people who exercise report sleeping longer and more soundly than non-exercisers. To avoid being too energized at night, finish your workout at least four hours before bedtime.

Don't nap

Leszek-Glasner/ShutterstockI'm a big proponent of taking naps during the day—but not for people who have insomnia. After a restless night, your sleep drive will be higher than usual, and you may feel tempted to catch up during the day. Even a short nap can leave you alert in the evening, setting you up for another night of too-little rest. A patient who couldn't get to bed before midnight was able pull her bedtime back to 10:30 PM when she eliminated her after-lunch catnap. By cutting out this midday rest, she stabilized her bedtime and slept longer overall.

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Take a look at your bed and pillows

Ivelin/ShutterstockOld mattresses and worn-out pillows can make for uncomfortable nights. Not long ago, I treated a patient who'd been using the same mattress for 18 years. Without the right support, it was no surprise he was struggling at night. The typical life of a high-quality mattress is seven to eight years, but you may need to replace your mattress sooner if you're experiencing discomfort. Pillows need to be replaced more often. Memory foam pillows can last up to three years, while other pillows should be swapped out every 18 months.

Eat lightly in the evening

Elenadesign/ShutterstockA body that's busy digesting a big meal has a hard time shifting into rest mode. Lots of late-night snacking can have the same effect. Research shows that eating heavily at night can lead to poor sleep. Plan to take your last bite three hours before bedtime. Make dinner the lightest meal of the day. This isn't about depriving yourself of food: going to bed hungry also can trigger insomnia. If you find yourself feeling hungry after dinner, opt for a small snack that combines complex carbohydrate and protein: a slice of toast or a banana with nut butter is a perfect before-bed snack.

Block out blue light

ALDECAstock/ShutterstockLight exposure at night will keep you awake, suppressing melatonin and stimulating alertness. Blue wavelength light—often found in high concentrations in energy-efficient lightbulbs and digital screens—is an especially aggressive melatonin suppressor. Research has shown that blue light inhibits melatonin levels for twice as long as other light wavelengths. Blue-light-blocking glasses, screen filters, and apps that limit blue-light emissions from digital screens can help reduce your exposure to this particularly stimulating form of light. In my bedroom, I use light bulbs that filter blue light, which I talked about recently on CBS. Many mobile devices have built-in, blue-light reducing modes (Apple's Night Shift is one) you can set to take effect in the evening hours. I recommend shifting into blue-light-blocking mode 90 minutes before bedtime.

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Jot down your thoughts

Hannah-Green/ShutterstockA worried, racing mind is one of the most common reasons people lie awake instead of drifting off. Night is a time when the brain re-charges, renewing itself at a cellular level, consolidating new memories, processing emotions and learning. But you can't start receiving all those benefits until you quiet your mind enough to nod off. Give your wound-up mind a head start before bedtime by writing down the thoughts preoccupying you. One patient of mine makes a next-day to-do list before bed. Another spends five minutes writing about stress at work. It doesn't matter what form your writing takes—what matters is getting those anxious, pressing thoughts onto the page and off your mind, so you can relax. Do this about three hours before bed, especially if you are writing down stressful thoughts.

Turn your clock around

Atippan-Sinsakolwat/ShutterstockWhen patients ask me how to cure insomnia, I tell them to stop looking at the clock. Lying in bed awake at night often creates anxiety. Watching the hour grow later and later can make your anxiety worse. "I start feeling so trapped. The later it gets, the more I worry about what the next day will be like when I'm exhausted," is how one patient described his habit of checking the clock at night. Turn your clock to face away from you, so you can't fixate on the time. You'll feel less pressure as you relax and begin to doze off.

Don't get in bed until you're tired

Africa-Studio/ShutterstockThis is a piece of guidance I give to all of my patients. When you associate bed with relaxation and rest, you're much more likely to nod off quickly. That means avoiding associations between bed and other activities: Lying there thinking about your day, watching TV late into the night, even reading. Bed is for slumber and sex, only. If you're not feeling tired, hold off on crawling into bed. One patient of mine keeps a Sudoku puzzle next to her favorite chair—it's her ready-made relaxation station where she can decompress until she feels tired.

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Get out of bed

Dean-Drobot/ShutterstockIf after 20 minutes or so you just can't seem to nod off, then it's best to get up from bed. Settle yourself someplace comfortable and relax, do some simple slow breathing or progressive muscle relaxation (move from your toes to the top of your head, relaxing each part of your body). Then go back to bed. Give it another 15 minutes and if you're still awake, repeat this process. Prolonged tossing and turning can make bed a stressful place to be, rather than a relaxing one. Getting up helps preserve your bed as a welcome, soothing place for rest.
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