Help! I Can’t Sleep

You toss, you turn. You wake up in the middle of the night. You’ve tried going to bed early. You’ve tried staying up late hoping you’ll eventually crash. But seriously, why can’t you just fall asleep? Dr. James Maas, the best-selling author of PowerSleep and acclaimed former Cornell professor (he also coined the term “power nap”) knows why. “Americans don’t value sleep,” says Maas. “70% are sleep deprived, but most don’t realize it and are working zombies.” Here’s a cheat sheet on how you can get the ideal amount of sleep—and the very real consequences if you don’t.

What Happens When You Don’t Sleep

"Adults need between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep while teens through 25-year-olds need 9.25 hours,” says Maas. “Only about 5% of the population can perform well with less than 7.” Failure to meet your personal sleep requirements will have immediate effects. “You’ll have cognitive deficits like slow processing, remembering, and reaction time as well as creativity and critical thinking drops, and you’ll be drowsy at inopportune or potentially dangerous times, like when driving a car." Over the long term you may experience really serious health issues like hypertension and type two diabetes. Thankfully, there are many things you can do to get back on track.

How to Fix It

Maintain a sleep schedule. “It’s important to go to bed at the same time every night, including the weekends, so your body knows when to shut down,” says Maas. That might not be the most realistic plan, but try to pay attention, at least during the week. “Can you pig out all week and diet on the weekend? Or be a couch potato all week and work out on the weekend? It doesn’t work that way. If you are consistent, you’ll feel tired when you need to sleep.”

Skip your afternoon caffeine fix. “Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, which means that 6 hours after your last sip, half the caffeine is still in your body,” says Maas. He cautions that the “decaf” coffee at many chains actually contains up to nine times the amount it’s supposed to (3 mg per 8 oz. of water). The six-hour rule goes for soda, energy drinks, and chocolate, too.

Related: How Your Diet is Making You Look and Feel Tired

Photo: Yasu & Junko/Trunk Archive

Exercise regularly. Late afternoon workouts are best since you’ll feel tuckered out by bedtime and sleep more soundly.

Stop drinking three hours before bed. “Alcohol in large amounts is a stimulant, not a sedative,” says Maas.

Log out. Forget the fact that reading stressful emails or watching Game of Thrones before bed will make your mind race—the blue spectrum light emitted by cell phones, tablets, and computers blocks the release of melatonin, the hormone that enables sleep. Maas says you should stop using them an hour before bed or wear a pair of blue spectrum-blocking glasses can help if you can’t give up your devices.

Create quick de-stress habits. After a particularly rough day, it’s nice to have a go-to routine to unwind. “Listen to some soothing music, try meditation, or just write your worries on a piece of paper to get them out of your head,” says Maas.

Scrub up before bed. “A hot shower or bath will raise your body temperature,” says Maas. “When you get into bed it will plummet and put you into a deep sleep.” Light stretches can also help you relax.

Sip some non-caffeinated tea. Unlike black or even green tea, chamomile has no risk of keeping you awake and has a calming effect on the body. Consuming a hot drink before bed will help raise your body temperature and help you sleep the same way as taking a warm shower.

Related: Is it Worth Wearing A Facemask Overnight?

Create the ideal atmosphere. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark (cover any digital displays) and cool—Mass says 65-67 degrees is the magic temperature. Keep your bedroom tidy so piles of clothing or paperwork won’t catch your eye.

Be mindful of REM cycles. Ever wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep right away?  Maas says it’s a guarantee that you’ll be up for 90 minutes until you complete the REM cycle. “There’s no way to short circuit that, so get out of bed, do a little non-work related reading or some light housework. You’ll be tired in 90 minutes.” In fact, at night you’ll feel tired every 90 minutes and get a second wind. So on nights when you need to get up extra early the next morning, try going to bed 90 minutes before your normal sleep time to ensure you’ll nod off.

Use the right pillow. “There are pillows made to match every sleeping style, so choose the one that is commensurate with where you start your night,” says Maas.This will keep you in a position that keeps your head, neck, and spinal cord in a straight line, as if you were standing up.”

Take sleep aids with care. When you’re feeling desperate it’s easy to rely on meds to make you drowsy. “The best sleep aid is called Power Off,” says Maas. “It’s non-prescriptive, non-habit forming, and really works.” Melatonin can help you sleep, but as it’s not regulated by the FDA Maas says you should be mindful of side effects. Some people swear by things like calcium, magnesium, and valerian, and there’s no real harm in taking them. “All those have never been proven to directly cause sleep, but they do make you think they work, thereby reducing stress and improving sleep onset time.”

If all else fails, take a “power nap.” Maas himself actually coined the term, and he insists that a 10-15 minute nap around 1-3pm works wonders if you can’t get to sleep early. But you may want to set an alarm. More than 20 minutes will make you wake up groggy, and over 90 minutes will give you insomnia.

Related: Help! I Have Dark Circles