Whether due to racing thoughts, a regretful amount of caffeine, or a restless schedule, not being able to fall asleep can be *so* frustrating. Soon enough, you’re weighing the cons of sleep deprivation versus a sleeping pill hangover — pick a poison, right? Well, not so fast.
The effects of losing sleep over time are more serious than, oh, zoning out during a meeting. (Been there, too?) Lack of sleep can mess with your health, cognition, and emotions. You don’t have to choose between medicine and a sleepless night, though. The most practical, long-term solution to better sleep lies in developing better sleep habits. We’ve enlisted sleep expert James Maas, PhD, former chair of psychology at Cornell University, to share his best tips for better ZZZs.
1. Get stress under control.
You know how it goes: You’re not falling asleep but falling deep into a rabbit hole of thoughts about a to-do list that’s too long or all the demands that tallied up during the week. Sounds like stress, doesn’t it? Well, consider stress management the secret to better sleep.
“The number one cause of insomnia is stress,” Maas says. To counter stress, you can practice a number of relaxation techniques. Examples include breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness, and visualization exercises (e.g. envisioning what it’s like to lounge on a warm beach, listening to the waves, smelling the salt water, and so on). Relaxation techniques improve sleep and come with several other health benefits, from lower blood pressure to better concentration.
2. Unplug before bedtime.
You’ve heard this spiel before: TV, phone, and computer screens emit blue light, which blocks melatonin. While blue light filters seem like a quick fix, whether these filters actually lead to better sleep remains unclear. Cutting screen time at night isn’t just about blocking blue light, though. Your mind should turn off at night, so to speak, but scrolling through social media or catching up on the news has the opposite effect. Your screen can actually make you anxious, says Maas, who recommends unplugging an hour before bedtime.
3. Create a calming space.
Your surroundings should be serene, comfortable, and as distraction-free as possible. Here are some ideas to make that happen: Cancel out noise with a sound machine or earplugs; Wear a sleep mask or hang up blackout curtains if excess light’s an issue; Set the thermostat to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which Maas says is the ideal temperature for sleep (if that sounds freezing, grab a warm blanket or adjust the temperature a little each night until 65 feels more pleasant); Invest in a comfortable, supportive pillow that’ll keep your head, neck, and spinal cord in a straight line. And last but not least, keep work at work — or at least in another room.
4. Think before you drink.
Yep, sipping a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea at night is a recipe for sleeplessness, but alcohol can also disrupt your sleep. For more restful sleep, cut out caffeine at 2 p.m. and limit alcohol three hours before bedtime.
5. Be consistent.
Having the same bedtime and wake-up time all week (read: don’t snooze that alarm!) is one of the most important sleep habits. “The brain has to know when to shut down,” Maas says. Going to sleep and waking up at different times during the week disrupts your circadian rhythm, much like traveling across time zones. Without a consistent sleep schedule, your brain doesn’t know when to shut down — “You’re never going to be in sync and you’re never going to be well-rested,” he says. Sticking to a consistent schedule even on weekends takes self-discipline, but it’s a solid, safe solution to sleep deprivation.
This can be extra difficult if you’re a night-shift worker, but you can still follow these guidelines to clock in enough hours of sleep. You can also take additional steps to prepare for sleep, like wearing dark sunglasses after work and keeping the lights dimmed at home. Remember, even if you’re next-level tired at the end of a shift, light still tells the brain it’s time to be awake.
6. Say no to sleep drugs.
Popping a pill seems like the simplest answer to falling asleep ASAP, but it’s not. In fact, sleeping pills can be dangerous. “The combination of alcohol — as a depressant — and sleeping pills is deadly,” Maas says. That’s not all. “We have yet to develop a sleeping pill that isn’t addictive psychologically, if not physiologically, and usually, these pills build tolerance. So, you have to take more and more in order to sleep, and that’s not good, either.”
Nor are antihistamines the answer. Yes, these meds can cause drowsiness, but the drowsiness can linger through the next morning, Maas says. Plus, you can develop a tolerance to their sedative effects. For short-term use, supplements of melatonin (a hormone that has a role in sleep) are a safe alternative to sleeping pills, though some people experience side effects.
Just remember, you want to develop sleep habits that’ll last you through the long haul. If downing a couple of melatonin tablets or ZzzQuil pills has become routine, you may be medicating a sleep disorder or another psychological or medical condition. Supplements and medication just cover up symptoms.
You can treat the root cause of insomnia and other sleep disorders with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Under the guidance of a therapist, CBT addresses the behaviors that could be keeping you up as well as the worries and thoughts that crop up right at bedtime.
7. When all else fails…
If you’re not able to fall asleep come bedtime, don’t stress. Instead of sleeping in later, aim to fall asleep earlier the next night. You can also take advantage of the power nap (a term Maas coined). If you’re sleep deprived, dozing off for about 20 minutes in the afternoon can leave you feeling more energetic and alert to power through the rest of the day.