Some sleep researchers believe that it might be normal to be awake some during the night. (The fact that you sleep straight through the night without budging may again be a sign of inadequate time spent sleeping and increased sleep pressure.) This phenomenon of being awake at night is called "quiet wakefulness" and is often observed when the sleep habits of non-Western cultures are studied. When people sleep in a group in close quarters, there is more time spent awake during the night. This makes sleep a more fluid concept. Time may be spent chatting, eating a snack or engaging others around you. In history, fragmented sleep with periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night was common, reflected in the midnight adventures seen in the plays of Shakespeare, for example.
Try relaxation techniques. Call to arms whatever relaxation tips you know to combat this inappropriately timed alertness. Try your favorite calming yoga pose (Savasana, anyone?). Meditate. In this travel meditation article, neuroscience researcher Catherine Kerr explains a simple way of unwinding through breathing. You simply note the rising and falling of your breath, and focus on the parts of your body where you feel these slow inhales and exhales, whether it's in the lungs, abdomen, tip of your nose or elsewhere.
We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. Exactly how this happens and why our bodies are programmed for such a long period of slumber is still somewhat of a mystery. But scientists do understand some of sleep's critical functions, and the reasons we need it for optimal health and wellbeing.
One of the key strategies that sleep specialists employ to help patients overcome behaviors that contribute to chronic insomnia is stimulus control therapy. This approach includes tactics such as removing yourself from the bedroom if you can’t fall asleep and not watching television or surfing the internet while you’re in bed. Instead of staring at the clock, get up and do a boring. Only return to bed when you’re sleepy.
Achieving the ideal temperature in the UK can feel like a challenge – especially during those extreme summer and winter months. But according to Senior Clinical Physiologist Ana Noia from the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, it's crucial. 'The temperature tends to drop at night, giving your brain a signal that it's time to sleep. That's why when we're on holiday somewhere hot, nodding off can be trickier. Equally, sleeping somewhere too cold isn't great – if your hands and feet are uncomfortably chilly, you might struggle to sleep at all.'
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
“By far the most common thing I recommend to patients is to take melatonin,” says Barone. The hormone, which is produced by the brain in preparation for sleep, is also available in pill and liquid form, which you can get at any health food store or pharmacy—good news because some modern behaviors can interfere with its natural production. “When we’re exposed to TVs, computers and phones with backlit displays, that tricks the brain into thinking it’s light out and it doesn’t make as much melatonin as it should.”
And a comfortable mattress. If your mattress is more than seven years old, it could be worn out—and costing you a better night’s sleep. If your bed shows signs of wear (like deep impressions) or you consistently wake up sore in the morning, it might be time to think about investing in a new sleep surface. Shameless plug: take a look at our selection of mattresses if you’re in the market!
Another common cause of difficulty falling asleep is the activities that precede your bedtime. If you eat or drink too late, you may suffer from heartburn or frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom. There are general guidelines to improve sleep. Many of these are meant to reinforce positive sleep habits. You should go to bed and get up the same time every day. Irregular sleep schedules may set you up for sleep disruption. You should follow a bedtime routine, including quiet, relaxing activities to help transition to sleep. If you fail to unwind prior to bed, you may find yourself struggling to drift off to sleep.
Get out of bed. When you lie awake in bed, you send yourself the wrong message. "You're basically training your body not to sleep in bed, but to lie there and not sleep," Walia says. "And your mind can get conditioned to that." Olson puts it another way: "The longer we lie there and get frustrated in that environment, the more we come to anticipate it next time we're there," he says. "We come to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well."
There are diagnostic tests that can be helpful for assessing your sleep problems, with special tests for insomnia. It may be helpful to keep a sleep log or use an actigraph (like a fitness tracker) to track your sleep patterns. Further testing with an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram can also be helpful to identify sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome as potential contributors to insomnia.
Unless you’re in pain, your sleep aid doesn’t need to include painkillers. Products like Advil PM, which combine antihistamines with painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, have name recognition. But Dr. Gary Zammit, the executive director of the Sleep Disorders Institute, suggested following this rule when it comes to medications: Treat the problem that you have.
Adjustable beds also allow you to change the angle of your upper body and legs. This can be particularly helpful for people who experience conditions like lower back pain or swelling, since these adjustments can reduce back tension and promote circulation to improve comfort. Acid reflux keeps many people up as well, and elevating the upper body can make a significant difference.