6 Things to Try When You Can’t Sleep

A Black man sitting on the edge of a bed looking at the clock on the night stand that says 4:40am


Key Takeaways

  • Stress, anxiety, excitement, work, school, and travel can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • To get better sleep, experts recommend making small lifestyle changes like creating the right sleep environment and avoiding screens before bed.
  • If lifestyle changes do not help, talk to a sleep specialist to figure out how to improve your sleep.

There are a lot of things that can keep you up at night—from travel and excitement to health conditions and stress. With risk factors this broad, it’s no surprise so many people have trouble sleeping.

“Everybody will have experiences of insomnia at certain points in their lives, and nearly 20% of the population already experience insomnia,” Eric Yeh, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at University Hospitals in Ohio and an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Verywell.

In fact, data has shown that sleep problems like insomnia affect 50 to 70 million people of all ages and socioeconomic statuses in the United States.

If you’re one of the millions of people tossing and turning in bed at night, here’s what experts recommend doing to improve your sleep.

Why You Can’t Sleep

Rafael Pelayo, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and a sleep specialist at the Sleep Medicine Center, told Verywell that many things can affect your ability to fall asleep and get quality sleep, such as:

“So many things can disturb sleep, but the important news is that the vast majority of our patients improve and get better,” said Pelayo. “No matter how poorly you’ve been sleeping, the truth is that you can get better.”

What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

Getting quality sleep every night is necessary for the health of your brain and body. If you don’t get enough sleep, it can negatively affect your physical and mental functioning, metabolism, and immunity, as well as increase your risk for serious health problems.

Sleep deficiency can also affect your ability to learn, focus and react. These deficits can lead to injuries, decreased productivity, and chronic health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, depression, obesity, and kidney disease.

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep 

If you find yourself lying awake in bed or having sleep disruptions throughout the night, here are some things experts recommend trying.

Exercise Daily 

Jade Wu, PhD, a board-certified sleep psychologist and a Mattress Firm Sleep Advisor, told Verywell that getting regular physical activity and exercise not only promotes good health, but can also improve your sleep. It doesn’t have to be vigorous or lengthy; even 30 minutes of light exercise during the day can help.

“Simply moving your body throughout the day can even be helpful,” Wu said. “Exercising regularly improves sleep quality, and good sleep can also lead to better workouts.”

Exercising outside, in particular, gives you the chance to get some natural light. This helps to establish a proper sleep-wake cycle.

Avoid Caffeine and Heavy Meals 

For a good night’s rest, people should stop eating about two to three hours before bed time, allowing the body enough time to digest, Wu said.

“When you eat foods high in sugar, carbs, and caffeine shortly before heading to bed, your metabolism is still working hard,” she said. “This keeps your body temperature higher than ideal for sleep, and potentially tricks your brain into not feeling the sleepiness it has accumulated.”

Yeh recommends avoiding caffeinated drinks before bedtime, too.

Drinking caffeinated beverages can make you go to sleep later, disrupt your sleep cycle, and negatively affect your sleep quality throughout the night. One study suggests that having caffeine three to six hours before bed contributed to sleep disturbance and reduced a person’s total sleep time by one hour.

Limit Distractions Before Bed 

If you can’t fall asleep, Wu recommends getting rid of distractions to help you wind down at night. For example, avoid using your phone or tablet to check emails, read the news, or scroll through social media. 

When you avoid phones and televisions at night, you also reduce your exposure to the blue light that screens emit. Blue light is not only harmful to your eyes, but can also prevent the production of a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle, melatonin.

“If you like to wind down by using your devices or consuming media, try switching from TV and games to listening to an enjoyable podcast or audiobook,” said Wu. “This way, you get less light stimulation and it’s easier to wind down your mind.”

Do Something Relaxing

Experts also recommend doing calming activities that you enjoy before bed, like taking a warm bath, reading a book, meditating, engaging in breathing exercises, journaling/writing about your day and any thoughts you have, or listening to soothing music or audio stories. 

According to Yeh, doing something that you enjoy that is also calming can help relax your mind and body.

Create the Right Sleep Environment 

To improve your quality of sleep, Wu said you need to have the right sleep environment. That means having a comfortable bed, enough blankets and pillows, and a bedroom that is quiet, dark, and cool.

Your sleep environment and temperature are unique to you, but if you’re looking for a rough guideline, the National Sleep Foundation recommends a bedroom temperature of 60–67 degrees.

“A lot of factors, including bedding, clothing, ventilation, body heat from a partner, and your own biology and age all influence your ideal sleep environment, and the ideal temperature range is different depending on these factors,” Wu said. “Protect your sleep environment and use tools like earplugs, eye masks, or consider sleeping separately from your bed partner—human or animal.”

Change Your Mind

Experts say it’s important to adjust your mentality about sleep. Going to bed shouldn’t feel like a burden or chore.

“It shouldn’t be a hassle to go to bed and it shouldn’t be a chore to go to sleep. Some people have become conditioned to staying awake because they no longer enjoy sleeping,” said Pelayo. “It’s not that you have to go to sleep—it’s that you get to go to sleep. It’s a privilege to have a place to sleep and you should enjoy that you have a safe place to sleep.”

When to Seek Help From a Professional 

If you are having trouble sleeping, Yeh recommends seeking help from a sleep specialist sooner rather than later, especially because it can take weeks to months to get an appointment. 

“I think the national average is about two months to see a sleep specialist, so it could be beneficial to call and put yourself on the waitlist first,” he said.

If you’re struggling to sleep, Yeh said you can try the various recommendations first—like avoiding screens, caffeine, and heavy meals before bed or engaging in calming activities such as meditation and journaling—and then see a specialist if none of the changes have helped.

If you find something that works for you and see an improvement in your sleep, you can always cancel your appointment with a specialist. Or you can keep your appointment to ask about ways to make further improvements.

“The most important thing for somebody who has trouble sleeping is to tell somebody about it,” said Pelayo. “We’re no longer in an age where there’s nothing that can be done. Most sleep disorders can be improved and all of these sleep-related problems are treatable.”

What This Means For You

If you are struggling to fall asleep or wake up during the night, experts recommend making small changes in your lifestyle like avoiding caffeine and screens before bed to promote better sleep. If you don’t see an improvement after making lifestyle changes, consider making an appointment with a sleep specialist.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.