How to get better sleep
Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 01/19/2023
I’m a night owl and always have been. My brain and body are just wired to keep me up late and make it harder for me to get up in the morning.
But like most people, I have a regular schedule to keep, which means I need to go to sleep at a certain time. Unfortunately, being in bed by 10 doesn’t guarantee I’ll fall asleep quickly and get a full eight hours.
If I’ve been working late, I’ll still be thinking about it. If I just finished watching a great show, I’ll still be thinking about it. And if I have all sorts of things on my to-do list for the next day, you guessed it—I’ll still be thinking about those, too.
On these restless nights, I end up lying awake, incapable of escaping my own racing mind. Then I pay the price for it in the morning.
The risks of poor sleep
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with sleep habits (also known as “sleep hygiene”). But even if you have a regular routine, life has a way of throwing a wrench in the works.
The amount of sleep you need each night depends on your age and lifestyle, but in general, the average adult needs at least seven hours.1 Even one night of low-quality sleep can impact your mood and cognitive functioning the next day.
Get too little sleep often enough, and you may face more serious consequences. Chronic sleep deprivation, or insomnia, can lead to serious health risks such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and heart disease.2
Why can’t I sleep at night?
It’s easier to get frustrated about a lack of sleep than it is to address the underlying cause. In most cases, though, the reason (or reasons) we can’t sleep are pretty straightforward.
Here are some of the most common causes of sleep struggles:
- Daily stressors and busy schedules
- Shift work, working late at night, or getting up early for work
- Uncomfortable beds, mattresses, and pillows
- Caffeine or alcohol consumed late in the day
- Poor nutrition
- Not enough physical activity
- Too much screen time or exposure to blue light in the evening
- Noise and ambient light
- Kids who need care throughout the night
- Pets who sleep on the bed or in the bedroom
- Jet lag from traveling across time zones
- Start or end of daylight saving time
- Common illnesses like a cold, the flu, or allergies
- Acute or chronic pain from an injury or health condition
- Hormonal changes, especially in people who menstruate, are pregnant, or are experiencing menopause
- Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance abuse (including drugs and alcohol)
- Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
- Side effects from meditation
Do I have insomnia?
If you struggle regularly with sleep, you may have insomnia—a common sleep disorder that can result in difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, getting back to sleep, and waking up on time.
If changing your lifestyle habits and following a good routine aren’t helping, the best solution is to get help from a professional. A therapist can help you find new ways to manage any anxiety or stress that may be keeping you up at night.
Some people turn to natural sleep aids like melatonin, cannabidiol (CBD) products, or herbal supplements to help them sleep. Although these may help, they’re not a silver bullet—and it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting on any new supplements.
Tips for better sleep hygiene
As a night owl, I’ve had to learn how to get better sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. Unless you have a medical condition affecting your sleep, getting better sleep starts with your daily habits.
1. Stick to a routine
Routines may be boring, but they work. Keep it up long enough, and you’ll train your body to have a much healthier sleep-wake cycle.
A routine for better sleep might look like this:
- Go to bed at a regular time every night.
- Wake up at the same time every day.
- Stay out of your bedroom except for sleep, and avoid laying in bed during the day.
- Limit naps, especially in the evening.
- Create a wind-down routine that helps you relax.
2. Optimize your sleep environment
Many of us struggle to get quality sleep because we can’t relax once we go to bed. The key to solving this problem is to make your bedroom a sleep haven.
This might mean:
- Reducing any noise
- Removing all light sources
- Keeping the room at a cool temperature (60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal)3
- Investing in the right mattress and pillow
3. Limit evening distractions
Many people love to use phones or laptops in bed or watch TV to help wind down at night. What you may not realize is that the blue light emitted from device screens can slow your body’s melatonin production, which is needed for sleep.4
If you typically use devices in the evening, try these tips:
- Make a habit of shutting them down 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
- Use that half an hour to do something that relaxes you, like reading a book.
- If you need to work occasionally in the evening, wear a pair of glasses that block blue light.
- Silence your phone or put it in airplane mode an hour or two before bed.
- Keep your phone and other devices with screens out of your bedroom.
4. Maintain good daytime habits, too
Giving your body what it needs during the day will make a big impact on how easily you can fall asleep—and stay asleep—at night.
Daytime habits that promote better sleep hygiene include:
- Increasing your exposure to daylight (especially in the morning)
- Staying active and getting regular exercise
- Eating nutritious foods and drinking plenty of water
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol, especially at night
- Managing your stress with healthy coping mechanisms
How to fall asleep more quickly
A lot of people take a while to fall asleep, even if they’re doing their best to change their lifestyle habits to support better sleep hygiene.
Thinking about trying to fall asleep—or getting frustrated with yourself for not falling asleep—can work against you. If you can’t sleep after half an hour, you might try one of the following tactics while you’re still in bed.
The 4-7-8 breathing method: Exhale completely through your mouth. Then inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat this cycle until you start to drift to sleep.
Body scan meditation: Start by noticing any sensations, good or bad, beginning at your feet and working your way up to complete a “body scan.” As you do this, try to relax each part of your body until the whole body is relaxed.
If you still can’t sleep, try getting up and doing something. While it might sound counterintuitive, actively distracting yourself from not being able to fall asleep can help ease some of the pressure you may be feeling.
Here are examples of distractions to try:
- Reading a book
- Listening to music quietly
- Strolling around the house
- Working on a puzzle
Whatever you do to help distract yourself, make sure you stay away from your phone, laptop, TV, and other screens.
Getting better sleep is a constant work in progress. But even when life throws you a curveball and makes it hard to rest, remember it’s always possible to get back on track. With a little effort (and some help from a therapist, as needed), you can be sleeping soundly again soon.
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
Insomnia: Causes, symptoms, effects, and treatments
Can’t sleep? Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling...
There’s a lot that scientists don’t know about sleep and why we dream...
Revenge bedtime procrastination: Why we do it and how to stop
Revenge bedtime procrastination involves putting off going to bed in order to...
Sleep and mental health are closely intertwined, with a lack of sleep leading...