11 Things To Avoid Doing When You Can't Sleep, According To Experts
As tempting as it may be to reach for your phone or Kindle when you can’t sleep it’s the last thing you should be doing, according to several sleep experts. As you can imagine, the light from these devices suppresses melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep, so they usually keep you awake even longer. In actuality, there are several things not to do when you can’t sleep. Yes, you may have been raised on old wives’ tales of drinking some warm milk or chamomile tea to help you sleep, which still may be legit for some. But as far as the new rules of sleep go, there are plenty of things to know about what to do — and what not to do — before bed. After all, getting enough sleep has major benefits.
"A well-rested brain results in a person with better coping skills, improved learning and attention and better immune function," Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a board-certified sleep psychologist at Yale, tells Bustle. "If a person has obtained adequate sleep, [they] will feel alert and in a good mood shortly after arising."
Navya Mysore, MD, Family Physician & Office Medical Director at One Medical — Tribeca, believes that practicing good sleep hygiene is key to battling insomnia. As an insomnia sufferer, she practiced what she preaches. “This includes reworking any bad sleep habits, weaning off sleep aids, meditation, increasing exercise, and the book the helped me the most was Say Good Night to Insomnia by Gregg D. Jacobs,” she tells Bustle.
Along the same lines, below, sleep experts weigh in on what NOT to do when you can’t sleep, so the next time you are tossing and turning, keep them in mind.
1. Don’t Look At Your Phone (Or Any Other Electronic Device)
In fact, a study was published last year in the journal PLOS One that backed up this theory. Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert and the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program, agrees. “Screens and sleep don’t mix,” he tells Bustle. “The technology we often use before bed (computers, phones, etc.) emit a harmful blue light that can actually keep us awake and prevent us from falling asleep." He recommends avoiding screens for 30 minutes to an hour prior to bed.
Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie Sleep Advisory Board Member, seconds the theory. “Sleep is supposed to happen when it’s dark and you feel calm and safe,” he tells Bustle. “As tempting as it may be to grab your phone when you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t!”
If you need help not reaching for your phone — you should keep it far away from your bed anyway — you can always use Bagby, aka a sleeping bag for your phone.
2. Try To Late-Night Eating
Yes, you may be craving a midnight snack, but if you have insomnia, eating at night is not the answer, according to Dr. Schneeberg. “Eating at night can set a ‘stomach alarm clock’ and then your stomach might start expecting or waking you up to ask, ‘Isn’t it time for peanut butter on toast now?'" she says.
To prevent late-night cravings in the first place, Serta’s sleep health expert Natalie Dautovich, PhD, environmental fellow at National Sleep Foundation, advises to eat earlier in the evening, and to have healthy, light meals. “Doing this will help you to stay asleep during the night and avoid unwanted awakenings due to indigestion,” she tells Bustle.
However, Harrison Doan, director of analytics at Loom & Leaf, an online mattress retailer, feels that if you need a snack, OK. “Blood sugar drops during the night, and if it gets too low, the sensation can be so strong it wakes you up or keeps you awake,” he tells Bustle. “Getting up and grabbing a snack is sometimes all you need. But, better yet, try eating protein-rich snacks before bed to prevent the issue in the first place.”
If you're craving something warm and soothing though, you're in luck. You also may have heard that mug of warm milk will do the trick, and Dr. Smarr seconds the milk-for-insomnia idea and suggests adding honey, too. “The warmed sugar and fat really do combine to promote sleep,” he says.
3. Don’t Drink Caffeine For Hours Before Bed
Although limiting your caffeine consumption may seem like a given when it comes to preventing insomnia, when you think about it, what time is it when you have your last caffeine of the day? “Even morning caffeine can linger in your system when it’s time to sleep,” Dr. Kansagra says. “Our body clears about half of the caffeine in our system every 4-to-7 hours. Although most coffee from breakfast is out of our system by bedtime, traces of caffeine can still be present at night, with coffee, tea, dark sodas, and dark chocolate being the main offenders.”
4. Don’t Stare At The Clock
Although you may want to stare at your alarm clock and hope it will lull you to sleep, it’ll have the opposite effect. “Don’t keep a visible clock next to your bed,” Katie Davis, PsyD, a Manhattan-based clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, tells Bustle. “Seeing the time in the middle of the night will only make you more worried about sleeping.”
Dr. Dautovich agrees. “Checking the clock, calculating how much time you have until you have to wake, thinking about the upcoming day, etc., will increase your cognitive arousal and make it that much more difficult to fall asleep,” she says.
5. Don’t Stay Awake In Bed
Kathy Morelli, LMT, LPC, and author of the BirthTouch series of books and blog, on touch, emotion management, and motherhood, also has training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). If you’re lying awake, she says you must get out of bed versus lie there endlessly — since you want to condition yourself to associate positive sleep time with your bed, not negative awake time. “If you stay in bed and lie awake, what you’re doing is conditioning yourself to feel anxious and awake in bed,” she tells Bustle. “You don’t want to reinforce this negative behavior, so get out of bed and move to a nearby chair and read something boring.” This way, you’ll only spend sleep time in bed, and can go back to bed once you start nodding off from reading, she says.
Dr. Schneeberg also warns not to spend too much time lying in bed awake since this ‘position’ stays associated with sleep only. She suggests keeping the “20-minute rule” in mind. “If you are awake for more than 20 minutes, you should do something to distract yourself so that drowsiness will return more quickly,” she says. These things can include anything from reading a book to listening to a podcast.
“Using some form of distraction when you are awake at night prevents you from doing the sort of ‘brain download’ that most of us would do in the middle of the night (mentally clicking through your to-do list, rehashing an event at work, doing some problem-solving about a situation in your life, and so on),” Dr. Schneeberg says. “And definitely don’t just lie awake in the dark hoping that sleep will return. This leads to anxiety and longer wake times, and sleep returns much more quickly when you are instead focused on a relaxing, quiet activity.”
6. Don’t Keep The Bedroom Temperature Too Warm
Dr. Dautovich says another key to sleeping well and not suffering from insomnia is to make sure your bedroom is not on the warm side. “A cool bedroom is conducive to better sleep — room temperatures between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal,” she says. “A drop in core body temperature is associated with feeling sleepy, so cooler temperatures can help with sleep onset.”
7. Don’t Avoid Using The Bathroom
Even if you don’t feel like getting out of bed, it’s better to use the bathroom if you have to go versus lying awake being uncomfortable. “If you find yourself wondering more than once if you should get up and go to the bathroom, just get up and go,” Dr. Schneeberg says. “But keep the lighting along the way very dim.”
Dr. David Edelson, owner and medical director of HealthBridge in Great Neck, NY, who specializes in SleepMedicine, agrees. “Don’t forget to empty your bladder, as a full bladder can also be stimulating, and keep you awake,” he says.
8. Don’t Do A High-Energy Activity
You may hear that exercise and staying active can help promote sleep, but not immediately before sleep and definitely not while you’re lying awake with insomnia.
However, instead of just lying in bed restless, Dr. Davis says not to force yourself back to sleep. “Just get out of bed, do something quiet and relaxing, and go back to bed when you’re tired again,” she says.
Doan thinks so, too. “Try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity without light, like meditation, an audiobook, or yoga,” he says. “Often, the act of trying to fall asleep engages our minds so much that it becomes counterproductive. Low-energy activities like these help to relax your mind, making you sleepy and ready to hop back into bed.”
9. Don’t Drink Alcohol Before Bed
Perhaps you remember your grandma and grandpa having a drink before they’d go to sleep, but if you want to fall asleep easily, skip alcohol before bed. “Although alcohol may help you fall asleep, it will actually disrupt deep sleep and wake your earlier than you want,” Dr. Kansagra says. “It affects the overall quality of sleep — in otherwise healthy adults, the feeling of sleepiness initially caused by alcohol is followed by withdrawal later in the night.” He says this causes frequent arousals and lighter sleep in the second half of the night, and may result in an early morning without sufficient rest.
10. Don’t Watch TV Before Bed
You already know watching something on a screen is not a good thing to do before bed (see #1), but it’s not just because of the blue light from the screen. “TV can disrupt sleep for three main reasons,” Dr. Kansagra says. “First, the excitement of a TV show promotes chemicals in your brain that are not conducive to sleep. Second, the light from TV will trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime outside, since the brain cannot distinguish artificial light from sunlight.” Third, Dr. Kansagra says the noise and light from the TV may cause you to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, thereby slowly robbing you of deeper, more restorative sleep.
11. Don’t Go To Sleep At Different Times Every Night
Part of any good routine is maintaining it, and this includes what time you go to sleep and what time you wake up. Dr. Edelson agrees. He says that having a defined time to go to bed at night and awaken in the morning will help your body develop a natural circadian rhythm. This nightly routine can then help you reach the deep restorative phases of sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep.
“These positive habits before bed, known as sleep hygiene, will improve this critical time for your body and mind,” he tells Bustle. “In the restorative phase of sleep, neurons are regenerated, synaptic connections are repaired, and critical hormones get replenished.”
Dr. Edelson also suggests making sure your bedroom is a restful environment — which includes having it fully dark and free of sound, and wearing an eye mask and earplugs if need be. “Additionally, avoid eating and working in your bedroom, and treat it as a sacred space for relaxation,” he says.
Of course, if nothing seems to be working to help you sleep, you may need to see a doctor or sleep specialist. “If you are waking at night more than once to urinate and/or you are experiencing some heartburn (reflux), you should consider speaking with your physician about this,” Dr. Schneeberg says. “These symptoms can be associated with undiagnosed sleep apnea, which can cause waking up at night. Undiagnosed apnea can put a person at risk of a heart attack or stroke, so it’s best to talk this over with your doctor.”
There you have it — things not to do if you’re trying to sleep. Sure, they may take some practice, but the feeling you’ll have after you’re well-rested and more energetic will be worth it.