You might think having difficulty sleeping is just a part of getting older. With a never-ending to-do list, increased stress, and the advent of new aches and pains that seemingly pop up out of nowhere, it could feel inevitable—and maybe even normal or expected—that you’ll have trouble nodding off at night.
Except, it actually isn’t normal at all. It’s true that countless Americans struggle with getting the recommended seven to eight hours of nightly shuteye. But often, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep is the result of a series of lifestyle choices that snowball together to yield night after night of tossing and turning.
Over time, that can add up to all kinds of problems. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, chronic sleep disruption can cause fatigue, trouble concentrating or remembering, moodiness, low motivation or energy, and an increased risk for errors or accidents. Regularly skimping on sleep can also lead to depression, high blood pressure, and weight gain.
So how can you nip your sleep problems in the bud before they end up wrecking your health—and your life? Here’s what you need to know for how to sleep through the night naturally and wake up refreshed in the morning.
Reasons You Wake Up At Night
There are all kinds of things that can disrupt your sleep. It’s not uncommon to get struck with a bout of short-term insomnia in the face of major stress, illness, or severe pain. Certain medications, an uncomfortable sleep environment, or changes to your normal sleep schedule (like jet lag or a different work schedule) can make it harder to nod off, too.
The good news is that once those situations clear up, you’ll probably be able to get back to sleeping easy. But if those issues stick around—like in the case of depression or anxiety, chronic stress, or chronic pain—your insomnia might take on a life of its own and stick around long term.
Sleeping trouble can be the result of some medical issues, also, like asthma, allergies, hyperthyroidism, or acid reflux. And of course, sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome are other common culprits.
In those cases, it’s usually a matter of finding a solution to the root of the problem before you’re able to truly achieve deep, restful sleep. If you know that you’re dealing with a chronic health issue and suspect that it’s affecting your sleep, or if your insomnia persists even after improving your lifestyle, talk with your doctor. Together, you can figure out a plan to manage your condition more effectively–and in turn, make sleep easier to come by.
The Issues with Sleeping Pills
If you spend any time watching TV, you might think the answer to your sleepless nights lay in a pill. And while the CDC reports that roughly 4% of Americans do use prescription sleep aids, the meds can lead to side effects including headache, muscle ache, constipation, dry mouth, daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating, dizziness, and more.
In other words, you might not feel much better than if you had stayed up half the night. While prescription (or over-the-counter) sleeping pills may seem like a quick fix when you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s easy to build up a tolerance to their sedative effects. Over time, it’s also common to become dependent on sleep medications, which saps your confidence in your body’s ability to sleep and can make insomnia worse. As a result, most doctors and sleep specialists only recommend taking them for a few weeks, tops.
This is why consistently practicing good sleep hygiene is so important. It’s sort of like trying to lose weight. You can try a crash diet in an effort to drop 10 pounds in a week—and you might get results. But in order to keep that weight off and reap the long-term health benefits, you need to make permanent changes to the way you eat that you can sustain for the rest of your life.
Striving for a Consistent Sleep Cycle
Show of hands if you’ve ever done the following: Stayed up super late and/or had trouble falling asleep during the week, only to feel exhausted when it’s time to wake up for work. Once the weekend hits, you’re so zonked that you end up sleeping until noon. When it’s time to go to bed at a reasonable hour on Sunday night, you’re not tired.
We’ve all fallen victim to the weekday/weekend snooze shift—but the constant schedule change and effort to catch up on missed sleep is destroying your chances for a solid night of quality shuteye. Need proof?
When U.S. and British researchers put healthy volunteers on a cycle of 33 hours awake followed by 10 hours of sleep for 21 days, the volunteers suffered even though they had longer sleep time to make up for the extra time awake. Although the “catch up sleep” seemed to restore the volunteers’ performance for the first few hours after waking, as the study period wore on, the volunteers’ reaction time slowed and they developed more trouble concentrating.
“Making sleep a priority and considering sleep to be a significant component to your health and well being is a good start [to sleeping all night],” added, Lucy Wolfe, pediatric sleep consultant and owner of Sleep Matters. Establish an appropriate bedtime that allows you to get enough sleep to feel well-rested when you wake up, said Wolfe. For most people, the prime bedtime for getting a full night’s sleep is between 10 pm and 11 pm, she added.
Experts like Wolfe know that your body needs consistency—not endless hours of being awake coupled with occasional long bouts of sleep—to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle and function at your best. To avoid the fate of those sleep-deprived volunteers, it’s essential to follow a sleep routine and make an effort to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day of the week (including weekends).
Like a puppy who learns that he gets his walk every morning at 7:30, your body will adapt to your new schedule. You’ll start to feel tired at bedtime, and might even get to a point where you wake up on time without your alarm clock. Sure, it might sound crazy now—but it can happen!
Make Exercise a Priority for Better Sleep
If you’ve ever spent the day doing absolutely nothing in front of the TV, you know that by late afternoon, you usually end up feeling even more sluggish than you did when you first plopped down on the couch. And yet, it’s usually pretty difficult to fall asleep at night.
Experts have long known that active people tend to sleep better than their sedentary counterparts. In a Mental Health and Physical Activity study of more than 2,600 men and women ages 18 to 85, getting 150 minutes of exercise per week meant feeling much less sleepy compared to those who worked out less or not at all.
Of course, there’s an obvious reason for this: Moving around wears you out more than sitting still does. According to behavioral sleep medicine expert Dr. Jade Wu, Ph.D. of Duke University, being active during the day helps to build up homeostatic sleep drive, which is essential for getting good sleep at night.
“The homeostatic sleep drive is like a balloon–it starts out empty in the morning and builds throughout the day,” Dr. Wu says. “The bigger your balloon is at bedtime, the more likely you are to get solid, good quality sleep. Exercising helps to fill your balloon–the more, the better.”
But it’s not just a matter of sweating it out to make your body feel exhausted. According to Brazilian findings, exercising helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety among folks with insomnia—which in itself might help increase sleep time by more than 20%.
But you don’t have to run marathons or spend hours in the gym every day to reap the benefits. Both studies looked at people who participated in moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging, or riding a bike. And while 150 minutes might sound like a lot, it’s not much when you divide them over the course of the week: You could do 20 minutes of exercise every day, or 50 minutes just three times per week.
Oh, and one other thing. You might think that working out in the morning is a must, since exercising after work could amp you up and make it harder to fall asleep. But that doesn’t pan out in the research.
One poll suggests, there is no harm at all to exercising in the evening, despite the conventional wisdom. In fact, one study found people snoozed better when they went to sleep 90 minutes after a vigorous workout session.
Harness the Power of Natural Light
Considering the fact that we snooze in the dark, you might not think that exposure to light has much, if anything, to do with the quality of your sleep. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The body’s internal clock—the one that dictates when you wake up and when you feel tired—is dictated by the 24-hour cycle of day and night. When the suprachiasmatic nucleus—the brain area that operates as the body’s master clock for sleep-wake and all sorts of other biological functions—senses changing light cues, it tells your body to produce more or less of the sleep hormone melatonin. During the day, you produce less melatonin so you feel energized and alert. At night, you produce more melatonin so you feel sleepy.
That’s why natural light exposure during the day can help you sleep better. But if the only time you see the sun is when you’re walking to or from your car, you might not be getting enough.
Skeptical? When Brazilian researchers compared workers who had windows in their offices to workers whose offices were windowless, the results were striking. Compared to windowless workers, workers with windows had lower levels of melatonin at 8:00 A.M., when they needed to be alert for work.
What’s more, they had higher levels of melatonin at 10:00 P.M., when it was time to start winding down for the night. And guess what? They tended to sleep better and report fewer depressive symptoms than their windowless counterparts.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If darkness signals your body to produce more sleep-promoting melatonin, too much exposure to light at night might leave you tossing and turning.
Using heavy curtains or blackout shades in your bedroom can block outdoor light and cocoon you in a shroud of sleep-friendly darkness. But these days, the problem is less likely to be a sliver of moonlight or street light streaming into your room. More often, the snooze-stealing nighttime light is coming from computers, smartphones, tablets, and even some energy-efficient lightbulbs.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a full 95% of Americans say that they regularly use some type of computer, phone, or video game within an hour of going to sleep, according to a recent National Sleep Foundation poll.
But the light that comes from your electronic devices suppresses the production of melatonin, so you end up feeling energized when your head hits the pillow rather than sleepy. In fact, Harvard research suggests that exposure to blue light throughout the day can suppress melatonin production twice as much as exposure to other light colors, and can shift your body’s natural sleep-wake rhythm by as much as three hours.
To increase your odds of sleeping better, experts recommend maximizing your exposure to daytime natural light and minimizing your exposure to nighttime short wavelength light (i.e., blue light, or full spectrum lights) as much as possible. You can start by lifting the shades or blinds in your bedroom as soon as you wake up, and by sitting near windows or spending time outdoors during the day. (Get your daily exercise outside, and it’s a pro-sleep double whammy.) If that’s not enough, try going sans sunglasses for even more sun exposure.
As for avoiding stimulating blue light? Harvard sleep experts suggest powering down your electronic devices two to three hours before bed, which will give your body enough time to wind down before turning in for the night. If you can’t unplug for that long, try to at least go tech-free for the last hour of the evening.
Or, consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses. Sure, it might seem weird to wear sunglasses indoors, but research suggests that doing so really can make a difference. In a recent study, Chinese researchers looked at the sleep quality of elderly patients who had received blue light-blocking artificial lens implants during cataract surgery. Two months after receiving the lens implants, the patients were sleeping longer and more soundly, and felt less tired during the day.
That’s not all. Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Toledo, compared adults who wore blue light-blocking glasses for three hours before bed to those who wore regular UV-blocking sunglasses. Over the course of three weeks, those who donned the blue light-blocking glasses reported sleeping better and being in a better mood. The other folks? Not so much.
Use Naps Throughout the Day to Your Advantage
Short naps (20-30 minutes) earlier in the day can be a tool to help keep your sleep cycle from getting thrown out of whack. When you come home exhausted after a tiring day, you might be more likely to crash on the couch and fall asleep in the early evening. But that can lead to waking up in the middle of the night or waking up too early, which will only leave you feeling tired the next day.
And when you do them right, they won’t make it harder to hit the hay at bedtime. The main key is to keep your nap relatively short. A 20- to 30-minute snooze is enough to leave you feeling refreshed and recharged without making you groggy, experts say. But keeping your siesta even briefer could be better. In a study published in the journal SLEEP, a 10-minute nap was shown to be the most effective at reducing daytime sleepiness and boosting cognitive performance.
If you worry that turning in for a midday nap could turn into an all-afternoon snooze fest, set an alarm. It might not be fun, but it’s better than waking up totally disoriented two hours later—and tossing and turning all night long because you’ve used up all your sleepiness for that long nap.
Another important tip? Avoid napping too late. Most of us typically experience a lull in the mid-afternoon, usually around 2 or 3pm—which is exactly when you want to power down. At that time, a nap that’s shorter than 30 minutes won’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night.
Still, everyone’s different. If you find that even a short nap taken anytime after 2pm makes it harder to nod off at night, or if you’ve been struggling with chronic insomnia, don’t do it. Experiment with different times and lengths to find the naps that leave you feeling refreshed and replenished, but that still let you sleep at bedtime.
Eat Healthy Foods to Promote Sleep
You probably know that steering clear of caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime can significantly up your odds for having a good night’s sleep. (But in case you didn’t, it takes around six hours for caffeine to clear out of your system. So if you’re shooting for a 10pm bedtime, cut off the java by 2pm.)
But sleeping well isn’t just about avoiding the wrong foods or drinks. Certain edibles can actually help you sleep even better, like these:
- Bananas: When you’re craving something sweet before you turn in, reach for one of the yellow fruits, which are rich in muscle-relaxing minerals like potassium and magnesium. Bananas also contain the amino acid tryptophan, which breaks down into melatonin and serotonin (both important neurochemicals for sleep regulation) in the brain.
- Low-fat cottage cheese: If you suffer from nighttime heartburn, snacking on high-protein, low-fat foods like cottage cheese before bed can help fight acid reflux. It’s also loaded with calcium, which helps regulate your body’s production of melatonin.
- Cherries: They’re one of the few food sources of melatonin, which is why eating a bowlful before bed might just help you conk out. But if the fruit isn’t in season, try a glass of tart cherry juice instead. Recent research from Louisiana State University found that drinking the stuff twice a day helps insomnia sufferers log 90 more minutes of snooze time.
- Salmon: It might not be your first choice for a midnight snack, but dining on salmon for dinner could help you sleep more soundly. Recent British research found that having higher blood levels of DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish, is associated with better sleep in kids. But if you’re not a fan of fish, popping a 600-mg daily supplement is just as good.
- Toast: We’ve all experienced that sleepy feeling that comes after chowing down on a carb-heavy meal. And now, experts are starting to understand why. Carbohydrates affect insulin levels, which appear to play a role in regulating your body’s sleep-wake clock, suggests a recent Japanese study done with mice. Of course, eating too much can lead to restless, interrupted sleep. So skip the giant bowl of mac and cheese in favor of a lighter carb source, like a piece of toast or a few whole grain crackers.
- Kiwi fruit: Another sweet treat that can help you sleep are kiwis, which are rich in potassium, calcium, phosphorus, folate, magnesium and more. A study from Taiwan found that eating two kiwis an hour before bed significantly improved sleep.
- Brazil nuts: One of the best sources of selenium, which is a micronutrient short sleepers tend to lack, these mega nuts also pack minerals like phosphorus and magnesium. Brazil nuts are especially good for vegetarians, since most other selenium sources are animal-based.
- Popcorn: When air-popped and made with minimal oil, popcorn can be a healthy and satisfying snack. Two cups popped is only about 60 calories, and it brings satisfying carbohydrates, minerals and polyphenol antioxidants. Drizzle it with a little coconut oil instead of butter to up the ante with lauric acid.
Have a Bedtime Routine, and Get Comfy
You already know that waking up at the same time each day makes it easier to fall asleep. And to bring on that feeling of sleepiness, it helps to have a quiet bedtime routine.
“For those who are susceptible to insomnia, I suggest eating light and early, no alcohol or coffee and switching off the computer at least 2 hours, if not 3 hours before bed,” said Alison Francis, the Sleep Guru, a sleep consultant. “For a really great night’s sleep you could practice a breathing exercise. It is so soothing and relaxing, [it can] stimulate serotonin and quiet the mind.”
Bedtime routines serve two important purposes. First, they’re meant to be relaxing—not crazy exciting—so you naturally start to feel calmer and less alert. Second, they form a behavioral association. Just like putting on your sneakers gives you the signal that it’s time to exercise, a bedtime routine gives you the signal that it’s time for sleep.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. If you want to light a bunch of candles and meditate for an hour, by all means, go for it. But simple activities like these work just as well:
- Taking a warm bubble bath
- Reading a book
- Listening to quiet music
And once you crawl into bed, make sure that your environment is comfortable. Sure, it might sound a little high maintenance, but it can really make a difference. Here are a few simple ways to turn your bedroom into a pro-sleep haven:
- Keep it cool. The ideal temperature for sleep is around 65°, so set your thermostat accordingly. If that seems too chilly for comfort, experiment to find the temperature that’s right for you.
- Keep it dark. Remember when we talked about light being bad for sleep? It really, really is. Invest in heavy shades that keep outdoor light from creeping in. If you’re really sensitive, put black tape over your clock or stereo. And keep your smartphone out of your room!
- Keep it quiet. If you live in a city or have noisy roommates or family members, find a way to block out the sleep-stealing sounds. Earplugs work wonders, but if you’re not a fan, a white noise machine will do the trick, too.
- Keep it comfortable. Opt for natural fiber blankets and pillows, which trap less heat and allow you to sleep more comfortably. And if your mattress isn’t cutting it, consider shopping around for a new one. After all, it’s an investment in your health.
Steps to Address Chronic Pain
Chronic pain doesn’t stop just because you’re ready to go to hit the hay. Pain issues often flare up at night, making it harder to reach dreamland and stay there. In fact, the 21% of Americans who deal with chronic pain have an average sleep deficit of 42 minutes compared to their pain-free peers.
Whether you’re dealing with lower back pain, headaches, facial pain like TMJ, or joint or muscle pain like arthritis, severe discomfort has the tendency to wake you up throughout the night, leading to fragmented sleep. To make matters worse, that sleep deprivation can intensify whatever you’re dealing with. One study published in SLEEP found that just one night of poor sleep can increase pain sensitivity by up to 25%.
All of which adds up to this: If you’re suffering from chronic pain, taking steps to minimize your nighttime discomfort could help you sleep better. And by sleeping better, you could actually end up feeling a little bit less uncomfortable the next day.
Depending on where you’re hurting, certain positions may help you sleep more soundly. Here are some adjustments to try before seeking advice from an orthopedic or pain doctor:
- Back pain: Sleep on your back or side with a pillow beneath your knees to take pressure off of your spine. If your pain is frequent or severe, we recommend investing in the best mattress for back pain and pairing it with an adjustable bed frame. Mattresses designed for pain relief support healthy spinal alignment, which can ease discomfort and prevent future pressure points.
- Neck pain: Sleep on your side with a pillow that’s higher under your neck than under your head. Or, sleep on your back with a flat pillow.
- Shoulder or hip pain: Lighten the pressure and sensitivity by sleeping on the side that’s pain-free.
- Heartburn: Sleep with a wedge pillow or on your left side. Both make it harder for acid to escape your stomach.
Of course, if you’re dealing with really serious discomfort, it’s likely that changing your sleep position will only take you so far. For deeper relief, it might make sense to take a look at your mattress. If yours is more than eight to ten years old, it’s probably worn out and sagging in the middle. So instead of sleeping on a flat, supportive surface, you’re sleeping in a space that’s sort of like a hole.
What kind of mattress should you get? That depends on how you like to sleep. Side sleepers might do best with a plush to medium firm mattress, while those who prefer sleeping on their backs will do better with a mattress that’s medium to firm. If you sleep on your stomach, a firmer bed might be best, since it can help keep your upper body from bowing down. Considering your personal preferences and sleep needs will steer you towards the best mattress for you.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.