There's nothing worse than lying in bed, bug-eyed and wide awake, trying to force yourself to fall asleep. The harder you try, the more awake you become, haunted by tomorrow's responsibilities or that email you should've sent in the evening, but didn't, gahhhh!
While an extra glass of wine or sleeping pill can make you pass out pretty quickly, the best sleep is the natural kind. Here's how to make sure your circadian rhythm is on point, and your eyes aren't bleary, bloodshot balls of fire every day at work.
Shut off personal electronics -- yes, even your phone
For many people who treat their phones as an extension of their hands, turning it off completely is blasphemy -- how else are you supposed to stalk your ex for the 57th time before bed? But it's that artificial light radiating from the screen so close to your eyes that could be throwing off your sleep cycle.
It's not just any light; personal electronics emit blue light, which throws off your body's natural rhythms if you get too much of it before bed. Rebecca Scott, PhD, sleep specialist and research assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center--Sleep Center, says you don't want to use any type of personal electronics for the hour before falling asleep: phones, computers, and iPads especially. The only exception is a TV, which gives off a different light than other electronics, and is usually far enough away from our eyes to not make too much of an impact.
That means your nightly Netflix binge is fine, but having your phone glued to your hands is not. Do your final round of social media checks, set your alarm, put your phone on your nightstand, and forget about it until the next morning. You'll survive, I promise!
Adopt a nightly routine that you actually enjoy
In addition to prying your phone out of your own stiff, resistant hands, Dr. Scott recommends adopting an hour-long wind-down routine to calm your mind and prepare yourself for bed. "That hour before bed is the end of your day, and you're setting the stage for sleep to come," she says.
It should be something enjoyable, like watching your favorite TV show, reading a book, listening to music, or taking a bath -- a routine that's relaxing. There's no specific behavior that's going to make sleep easier; the biggest factor is to make sure it's something you actually like doing. If sitting for an hour in the tub sounds awful, you'll just be in a bad mood when you get in bed, not more relaxed.
Stick to (roughly) the same bedtime every night
This goes hand-in-hand with setting up a routine. You should get in the habit of giving yourself a grown-up bedtime and hitting the sack at around the same time every night. This preps your body to get into a familiar routine and stick to a regular circadian rhythm. Dr. Scott says to generally stick to around the same time, within an hour, to both go to bed and also wake up in the morning to keep your sleep schedule regular.
Spend less time in bed
Your bed should be for sleeping (and other fun stuff), but that's it. The more time you spend in bed doing non-sleeping activities, the less your mind will associate your bed as strictly a sleeping place. Don't crawl into bed until you're pretty certain you're about to fall asleep.
"When someone has trouble falling asleep, they actually could be spending too much time in bed," Dr. Scott says. "If you wanted to go to bed at 11, then I wouldn’t get into bed until just before 11. I would be winding down and watching TV, reading, or having that nice enjoyable routine between 10 and 11, and then get into bed." Having a few minutes to read a book before you finally shut your eyes is fine, but any longer could throw you off.
Make sure you expose yourself to natural light in the morning
Your morning routine seems irrelevant to how you'll fall asleep that night, but how you wake up -- and the behaviors you engage in the minute your eyes open -- set you up for the whole day, and your circadian rhythm.
"Getting outdoor light in the morning can help you fall asleep consistently that next night," Scott says. You need to get it within the first hour or hour and a half of waking up, but she says just 10 or 15 minutes of being exposed to bright natural light can set up your whole internal clock to make it easier to get some shut-eye that night.
As much as you may want to keep things dark while you're still waking up, make sure to open up the blinds, let the sunshine pour in, and try and hang out near a big window or even step outside -- just make sure to put on some clothes first. Or not, it's your life.
Try to get your blood pumping during the day
Working out first thing in the morning may seem like it should be added to the list of what international institutions consider torture, but working out in the morning is something you may want to consider. Getting your heart pumping during the day will help expel excess energy, and make you more tired and ready for bed come nighttime.
The only caveat is that the time you hit the gym matters. If you're a morning or lunch-hour exerciser, you should have no problem. But some people can't get their workout in until the evening, which could leave you feeling wired instead of tired. Dr. Scott says if that's your only option, then keep working out -- it's so healthy for you, after all -- and just plan on going to bed later and sleeping in a bit.
Go the old-fashioned route and pick up a freaking book
You know that feeling you get when you can't fall asleep, so you end up just staring at the clock trying to force yourself to fall asleep and it makes you more frustrated and awake? Then you end up feeling anxious and worried about everything you have to get done the next day?
"The brain perceives that there's a threat going on, and you can't fall asleep and feel threatened at the same time," Dr. Scott explains. Rather then letting your brain run in circles, which will only keep you awake later, she recommends grabbing a book to distract your brain, and reading in bed until your eyes feel heavy. Although she's normally against spending too much time in bed that's not sleeping, Dr. Scott says that if all else fails, distracting yourself with reading in bed is a great way to calm down and feel drowsy again.
"The No. 1 thing is that you never want to lie awake in bed and try to fall asleep," she adds. "You just can't, you've lost the battle right there."
If all else fails, try (the right) OTC supplement
If nothing works, Dr. Scott says there are some over-the-counter supplements that could help, but she doesn't generally recommend them as a first line of defense. First of all, they don't get to the root of the problem -- why can't you fall asleep in the first place? -- and people tend to misuse the dosage.
Melatonin, for example, is something people tend to take way too much of and it makes them groggy the next day. Generally, melatonin can be helpful for people looking to reset their sleep cycles -- let's say you started a new job and have to wake up much earlier -- but overdoing it isn't going to help you feel rested and ready in the morning.
She recommends L-theanine instead, which can be taken by itself and is also found in a supplement called Cerenity PM. It's an amino acid that can help calm some of that OMG-I-can't-sleep anxiety and help you settle into bed.
Otherwise, the best way to make sure you fall into bed and shut your eyes immediately is to follow a calming wind-down routine about an hour before bed and forego those distracting electronics. Settle in with a good book, a mug of (decaffeinated) tea, and try to shut out of your brain all the annoying things you have to do the next day. It may be easier said than done, but it's a better long-term solution than popping an Ambien every night.