What to Do When You Can't Sleep, According to Experts

Many of us have experienced sleepless nights at some point in our lives.

The impacts of not getting enough sleep are well documented too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults who get less than seven hours of sleep per day are more likely to report being obese and physically inactive, and more likely to be smokers, than those who sleep for seven hours or more.

In addition, a 2002 study found that people with severe insomnia had more problems in their work lives, including work-related accidents.

Yet 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. reported getting less than seven hours of sleep, according to 2014 CDC data. If you're one of them, read on for expert advice that might help you nod off.

What Not to Do When You Can't Sleep

Perhaps counterintuitively, you should not stay in bed if you can't sleep, according to Michael Scullin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas.

"If you stay in bed when you're worried then you form an implicit association between bed and worry—and that just disrupts sleep further," he told Newsweek. "If you can't fall asleep in 15-20 minutes then get out of bed and go do something boring—twiddle your thumbs—until you feel your body start to calm down again, get drowsy, and so on.

Then and only then should you get back in bed and try to sleep."

Last year, Scullin and colleagues published a paper investigating the impact of listening to music on sleep, noting that this is something many people do near bedtime.

They focused on the "rarely explored mechanism" of involuntary musical imagery, better known as earworms. They found that, based on a cohort of 199 people, those who listened to music more frequently reported "persistent nighttime earworms," which were associated with worse sleep quality.

In other words, music may not help you to relax before bed. "It boils down to whether you catch an earworm," Scullin added.

Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at Oxford's Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, said: "Trying to sleep will keep you awake."

This includes worrying about monitoring sleep or focusing too much on it, Espie told Newsweek. He cautioned against relying on certain sleep products.

"Apps, devices and marketed pills and products that don't have any evidence base won't help resolve a chronic sleep difficulty—well, not beyond the placebo effect," he said.

Woman stretching
A stock photo shows a woman stretching on a bed. Trying too hard to sleep may cause issues, one expert has said. oatawa/Getty

What to Do When You Can't Sleep

People who are persistently struggling with sleep should make an appointment with their family doctor, according to the U.K. National Health Service.

It might seem obvious, but going to sleep when one is tired may be a good idea. The problem is, going to bed early might feel socially unacceptable to some people who then end up pushing through to a "second wind" of energy, said Scullin.

He proposes the "sleep when sleepy" challenge.

"I've done this challenge in my undergraduate class for a few years and it's always interesting to hear accounts from 'night owl' students who feel tired around 9 p.m., decide to go to bed, and then sleep all night and feel great the next morning," he told Newsweek.

Working out might seem like a good idea to tire yourself out before bed. But according to Sara Mednick, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, exercising later in the day can "stimulate the stress response associated with intense exercise."

Instead, people may consider switching hard workouts to the morning, said Mednick, author of the book The Power of the Downstate. This is not the case for all physical activity, though.

"Consider engaging in relaxing poses before bed, such as legs up the wall, as a way of reversing the stress on your cardiovascular system and engaging your more restorative systems just before bedtime," she added.

Menick said people may also consider avoiding eating at least three hours before bedtime, since "late eating delays melatonin." Melatonin is a sleep regulation hormone.

Espie recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, for people struggling with insomnia. "All the clinical guidelines in the world are agreed on CBT having lasting benefit and being much more effective than sleeping pills," he told Newsweek.

CBT has demonstrated effectiveness for a wide range of problems.

Newsweek has previously reported on why people may wake up in the middle of the night worrying.