This document provides tips to help adults fall asleep faster, or fall back asleep faster after you wake up.
You can click on each heading below to see more details.[expand all | collapse all]
Why sleep guidelines matter
Getting enough sleep is very important. The biggest mistake that people with primary insomnia is to address the problem unsystematically. They leave out some of the important recommended measures that promote sleep. Or they rely on ineffectual folk wisdom (like counting sheep). This leads to many problems:
- Their sleep problems drag out, because they skip important measures.
- They fail to discover which measures are particularly important to them.
- They don’t use a super-somnolent mentation technique like The Cognitive Shuffle.
- They come to believe that sleeping is out of their control.
- They wake up tired the next day, resort to drinking coffee, which interferes with their sleep: a vicious cycle.
- They use unnecessary medications that interfere with their cognitive functioning the next day. (This is particularly problematic for knowledge workers.)
Therefore, if you’re having considerable difficulty falling asleep at night, I recommend you implement all of the following recommendations, while making allowances for your particular circumstances. In particular, check with your medical doctor to ensure that these sleep guidelines apply to you.
Take a scientific approach
Not everyone’s sleep problems have the same cause. It is important to take a scientific (“empirical”) approach to one’s problems.
If your insomnia is a real problem for you, then:
- implement as many of the recommended measures as possible.
- Using a spreadsheet, every day, record (a) which measure you implemented the previous day; (b) the approximate time it took you to get to sleep for each sleep onset attempt.
- after you have achieved a desired level of sleep,manipulate one measure only (e.g., caffeine).
- Determine the effect on your sleep.
The advantages of this approach are:
- you are likely to see a benefit very early on, because you’ll be doing all the recommended actions.
- you will be able to zero in on the factors that are a problem for you.
- you will be able to determine what does not make a difference to you.
Work with your biology
- Entirely eliminate caffeine and other stimulants. That means no coffee (not even “decaffeinated” coffee), no tea (not even “decaffeinated” tea), no caffeinated drinks, no Red Bull®. Some web sites will tell you to avoid caffeine a few hours before bed. The authors should read the sleep literature more carefully because that’s not good enough for many people: The half-life of caffeine increases as people age. Also, caffeine and other stimulants have bi-products whose half-life are not always measured in studies. So, don’t just reduce caffeine, take all forms of caffeine out of your diet. Also remove other non necessary stimulants.
- Exercise early in the day (preferably in the morning) rather than in the evening. Exercising early in the day can help you get to sleep. However, exercising too close to bedtime can prevent you from falling asleep.
- Try to get exposure to sunlight early in the day. This will help the sleep control centres in your brain synchronize your circadian rhythm.
- Avoid exposure to natural light before going to bed. Bright light suggests to your brain that it is time to be awake.
- Dim the lights around you before going to bed for reasons stated above.
- Avoid looking at computer screens, mobile device screens (smartphones, tablets, etc.), television and any other device that emits blue light; or, configure your devices to reduce blue light. Your eyes have blue-light receptors that affect sleep. The activation of these receptors cause you to produce less melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps induce sleep. Amber lenses filter out blue light, as explained here. To our knowledge, no research has demonstrated that brief exposure to computer screens is an issue. E.g., a study published in PNAS in Dec. 2014 required that participants use a mobile device at full brightness for almost 4 hours before bed.
- If you tend to have difficulty falling back asleep after waking up at night, then control your fluid intake several hours before going to bed such that you don’t need to get up to urinate. Fluid retention is also affected by how much salt you consume. You shouldn’t got to bed parched, either. It may take a week or two before you figure out precisely how much fluid to have at night, and when to have it. But you’ll be able to figure it out. (If need be, document when you drink after supper, how much you drink, and when you wake up. Experiment with these parameters, analyze these statistics and you will hone in on the right time.)
- Avoid going to bed on a full stomach.
- Learn what foods help you sleep and which ones interfere with sleep. Many web sites make overly simplistic recommendations about food and sleep.
- Regulate the ambiant temperature. Core body temperature tends to decrease towards evening bedtime. However, a slightly higher peripheral body temperature appears to be conducive to sleep, perhaps because it signals that it is safe to sleep (that one’s temperature won’t sink too much). (Compare papers by Roy J. E. M. Raymann and Leon C. Lack.)
- Melatonin is a naturally produced hormone that helps regulate sleep. Melatonin supplements help some people with sleep onset. Consult your physician about dosage and duration. Do not drive or engage in other dangerous activities after having consumed melatonin. (Beware of false advertising regarding other supplements that claim to help with sleep onset. Some of them may adversely affect manifest or latent medical, including psychiatric, conditions.)
Train your brain that bedtime is sleep time
The most basic level at which the brain learns is by association. It’s very important to train your brain that when you go to bed, it is time to sleep.
- Dim the lights in your room at night.
- Make your bedroom a quiet place. Use earplugs if you can’t. Consider using a source of white noise. Consider sleeping in a more quiet room. If your home is too noisy (e.g., close to a train station), consider moving.
- Keep the bedroom at a comfortably cool temperature at bedtime, but let yourself be relatively warm. (See “Sleep, vigilance, and thermosensitivity” by Nico Romeijn et al. Our argument for the cognitive shuffle is analogous to the one they made for peripheral body temperature.)
- Use your bed only for two purposes, one of which is sleep. Do not read, watch television, listen to the radio, do crossword puzzles, play, eat, or extensively chat in bed. Otherwise, your brain may have a hard time figuring out what the bed is for.
- If you can’t fall asleep for a long time (e.g., 30 minutes), consider moving to a different, dimly lit or dark room for several minutes until you are ready to go back to bed and sleep. Either just sit patiently, or try to sleep in a different room. Do not busy yourself. In particular do not work with information technology (the light and the activity will arouse you).
Manage your thoughts in bed
- While it is true that sleep deprivation is undesirable, don’t catastrophize about it either. (See Russ Harris’s book, mentioned below, about dealing with emotions.)
- Avoid looking at your watch or a clock in bed. Research has shown that sleep monitoring delays sleep.
- Keep in mind that many people with insomnia underestimate the amount of time they sleep.
- Avoid trying to solve problems, planning, ruminating, etc. If you must perform these mental activities, get out of bed and go think somewhere else. It’s almost always better, however, to schedule thinking time during the day when your mind is more alert and you’re less tired. Remember, your brain needs to learn that bedtime is sleeping time.
- Use mySleepButton in bed, which helps you use The Cognitive Shuffle, or
- Use the Do-It-Yourself Cognitive Shuffle technique.
Primary insomnia is often caused by high levels of stress—particularly distress. The following tips can help you deal with stress and stressors.
- The best way to deal with stress is normally to address the problems that are causing the stress. Address them during the day, not while you are trying to sleep. Talk to people that you highly respect. Read and talk to professionals. This will normally require that you take concrete actions.
- Educate yourself about stress and moods. They are very subtle concepts that are often confused, even in otherwise good literature. See Robert Thayer’s, Calm Energy. There are two major dimensions to moods: energy and activation (tension). High tension can interfere with sleep. Learn how to reduce tension and improve your energy in a healthful way, without resorting to alcohol, caffeine, poor eating, and the like.
- Everyone from time to time is or will be subjected to very unpleasant life events. It is very important to learn to handle difficulties and the adverse feelings that are often unavoidable consequences of stressors. A high caliber, easy to read book on this subject is Dr. Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap. It is designed to help you (a) accept and move on from unhelpful thoughts and emotions; (b) pursue a valued direction with serenity. It conveys “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”. It takes several weeks to develop the serenity described in this book. These kinds of books are best read using reading tips provided in Cognitive Productivity.
- Exercise as vigorously as you safely can (but check with your medical doctor first), preferably in the morning. Next to eliminating stressors, vigorous exercise is perhaps the best thing most people can do decrease their stress. Listen to the Brain Science Podcast episode where Dr. Ginger Campell interviews Dr. John Ratey about his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. And read his book. See also the text on exercise, above.
- Don’t get fooled by herbal supplement vendors who claim they have pills to help you cope with stress. Read this article by the NYU Langone Medical Centre.
- Consult a registered massage therapist, and have them give you a massage. This might release some of the tension that can contribute to sleep difficulties.
- Minimize the intensity of stimulation near bedtime. Don’t watch or read the news, watch stimulating shows, play violent or highly competitive video games, or do anything particularly arousing at that time. Conduct your stimulating activities during the day instead. For reasons mentioned above.
- In particular, try not to engage in mentally taxing and stressful thinking soon before bed. Instead, in the early evening, write down the issues that concern you, and decide on a course of action, which might be to revisit the issues the next day.
- Consider having a bath and/or reading a light, pleasant, non-stressful book. The former will give an additional (thermal) signal to your brain that it is sleep time. The latter may help calm your brain and distract you from your concerns.
- Learn to meditate. We recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. The techniques it describes can be used in combination with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
- In bed, if such thoughts come to your mind, remember that you’ve dealt with them as well as you can for the day. Don’t simply try to avoid stressful thoughts; instead, replace them (consider a “body scan” meditation if you’re feeling tense, and then doing the cognitive shuffle if you’re still awake.)
- Socialize with reasonable, agreeable people.
- Do not live or spend too much time with toxic people, whether they are family, “friends”, coworkers, supervisors, or clients.
- Hunger triggers a stress response and can be distracting. You may want to spread your calorie intake to ensure that you don’t go to bed hungry.
- Let yourself feel safe. Dr. Roy J. E. M. Raymann (personal communication to Luc P. Beaudoin) emphasized that the human brain makes a critical computation at bedtime that affects sleep onset latency: Is it safe to sleep? We agree. This explains why anxiety can delay the onset of sleep.
- Consider seeing a registered psychologist who is an expert at dealing with the kinds of problems that seem to be stressing you (though the underlying causes might be different from what you think). Mention your concerns about sleep.
Note that not all stress is bad. You need a certain amount of stress to live, for instance. However, intense stress (whether it is positive or not) delays sleep onset.
Manage your bed time
- Avoid napping. If you need to nap, keep your nap shorts and have them early in the day. The optimal time to nap is 12 hours since the average midpoint of your sleep cycle. For example, if you tend to sleep from 6 hours from 10PM to 4AM, then nap at 1PM.
- Try to wake up at a regular hour. It is more important to control your wake up time than your sleep onset time.
- But also try to go to bed at a consistent time 7 days a week.
Help your young children sleep so that you too can get some sleep
Many parents have great difficulty training their young children to sleep. This is unfortunate for the children themselves. It also can deprive the parents of sleep. We recommend the following book:
Ask yourself whether your bed is sufficiently comfortable
Considering how many hours a night you spend in bed, is your bed sufficiently comfortable? Check out the review and buying guide from The Sleep Judge.
Read good literature on sleep and stress management
Insomnia is a problem within the realm of psychology and cognitive science. As with any other health matter, it is important to get your literature from reliable sources. Chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity, authored by the president of CogZest, can help you assess literature on any topic.
- Read a book on insomnia from a credible source, such as: Silberman, S. (2009). The Insomnia Workbook. New Harbinger Publications. It is endorsed by a world-renown sleep psychologist, Dr. Charles Morin.
- Read Robert A. Thayer’s Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise. It contains a lot of very helpful information that explains moods. It doesn’t focus on insomnia, but it has implications for insomnia because “hyperarousal” is a major contributor to insomnia.
- Read Hans Selye’s Stress Without Distress. Selye is the originator of the modern biological concept of stress. And he was Canadian. Why he did not get a Nobel prize for this, I do not know.
- Stanley Coren’s (1997). Sleep Thieves explains the effects of lack of sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation has adverse impacts on productivity, error rates, accident rates, biological health and mental health. This book debunks macho myths about sleep. The upshot is that people with a strong work ethic can now pride themselves on getting more sleep, because they will get more and better work done that way, in the long run.
- Russ Harris (2008) The Happiness Trap can help you deal with stress. This book is based on an important body of scientific literature.
Check out mySleepButton
mySleepButton is a CogSci Apps™ Invention designed to help facilitate sleep onset.