5 Sleep Specialists On What They Do When They Can't Fall Asleep
We've all been there: When your head is on the pillow but your mind is in the clouds, sleep starts to seem like a distant dream. After enough thinking, tossing, and turning, it can start to feel like you're never going to get the rest your body needs.
Struggling to fall asleep is frustrating, but it happens to everyone sometimes—even the experts. Here, we recap top tips from physicians and sleep specialists on how they handle the occasional restless night:
They write down their to-do lists.
Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist, knows how stressful thoughts have a way of keeping us up at night. Her go-to tool for disrupting mental chatter? A brain dump.
Earlier this year, Harris told mbg that one way to quickly get rid of stressful thoughts and worries is to write them down. The next time your mind is racing in bed, take a few minutes to "dump" any to-do's or anxieties onto the page. That way, Harris explained, "If you think about it later, you can go, 'Nope, I already wrote it down.'"
They take a sleep supplement.
For nights when sleep is a struggle, it pays to have a science-backed supplement on your nightstand. (Here are 18 top picks for bedtime.)*
Functional medicine specialist Heather Moday, M.D., vouches for mindbodygreen's sleep support+. Moday has found that the combination of magnesium, jujube, and PharmaGABA® helps her not only fall asleep faster but sleep through the night and wake up feeling restored.*
"When I included sleep support+ as part of my bedtime routine, I saw an immediate improvement in my sleep quality and how I felt in the morning,"* she writes. "My body felt really relaxed, but my mind was clear and ready to tackle the day."*
They get up and do something.
While getting out of bed may feel counterintuitive when you're trying to sleep, Robert Rountree, M.D., board-certified practitioner of family medicine, says that it's better than lying awake with your thoughts.
After 30 minutes or so, "you're better off just going and reading with a little bit of light or doing something that's non-stressful," Rountree previously told mbg. This can help distract your mind, put an end to any repetitive thoughts keeping you up, and tire you out.
A No. 1 rule among sleep experts is that we need to associate the bedroom with sleep. Getting up and going to a different room when you aren't sleeping will keep you from seeing it as a place that's for worrying or stressing.
They perform a relaxing routine.
Before bed (or after a short bout of sleeplessness), Rountree recommends partaking in a calming activity like taking a warm bath or shower, listening to soothing music, or following a guided meditation. Functional medicine expert Stacie Stephenson, D.C., CNS, adds that reading a physical book can help you unwind and take your mind off things—as long as the subject matter isn't upsetting to you.
They avoid stressors.
Along those lines, it's best to avoid any potential triggers at night when you're having trouble sleeping. Sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success! Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., says you can write off the obvious ones first: Alcohol, heavy meals, and copious amounts of water will all get in the way of your sleep quality—either by disrupting REM sleep or causing you to need to get up to go to the bathroom.
Robbins previously told mbg that you should also stay away from the news or any stressful discussions or images when you're struggling to sleep. Leave your phone and tablet out of sight so you're not tempted to doomscroll late into the night.
The bottom line.
Crafting a cozy bedroom and keeping up with a solid nighttime routine should make sleep easier to come by. But for those inevitable nights you find yourself awake, see if writing down your worries, taking a sleep supplement, or getting up and doing a relaxing activity helps you catch those zzz's.*
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.