Sleep Onset Insomnia: 8 Do’s and Don’ts for Better Sleep

Sleep-onset insomnia—trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night—has been one of the biggest challenges in my life. By now, having gone through insomnia therapy and spent decades observing how changes in behavior and the environment affect my sleep, I know what I need to do—and what not to do—to get the best night’s sleep I can.

If you’ve got sleep-onset insomnia, here are 8 do’s and don’ts that may help to regularize your sleep.

Sleep-Onset Insomnia can be minimized by changing habitsSleep onset insomnia—trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night—has been one of the biggest challenges in my life. By now, having gone through insomnia therapy and spent decades observing how changes in behavior and the environment affect my sleep, I know what I need to do—and what not to do—to get the best night’s sleep I can.

If you’ve got sleep onset insomnia, here are 8 do’s and don’ts that may help to regularize your sleep.

Do These Things to Fall Asleep Faster:

  • Get up at the same time every day, including on weekends. This one of the hardest—but most important—habits to adopt, and frankly it’s one I struggle with to this day. Especially after a late night or two, it’s hard to stay the course and get up at 6 a.m. But if I don’t stick pretty rigidly to what I’ve decided is the best rise time for me, if I allow myself more than a little flexibility, my sleep goes off the rails. Making up lost sleep at the beginning of the night, rather than at the end, is by far the easier course.
  • Sign off all devices with screens at least an hour before you usually go to bed—and that includes eReaders and smartphones. If you’re a news junkie like me, watching out for headlines so you can read new stories the minute they come out, this can feel like major deprivation. Yet the light emitted by these screens has been shown time and again to interfere with melatonin secretion, delaying sleep onset—exactly what none of us wants.
  • Get regular exercise and eat regular meals. Aerobic exercise late in the afternoon works best for me, and adhering to my daily workout routine has become so ingrained that when I miss my exercise fix my body doesn’t feel like winding down at night. Regular exercise and regular meals—in fact, regularity in almost all activities because it helps regularize internal circadian rhythms—will likely help you sleep better.
  • Pay attention to the temperature of your bedroom and make adjustments early if necessary. The ideal temperature for sleep is a few degrees lower than what you’re comfortable with during the daytime. So, particularly as research suggests that people with insomnia may have trouble down-regulating internal body temperature, get the window fan going well before bedtime so that by the time it comes you’re not too hot to sleep.

Don’t Do Things That Perpetuate Trouble Falling Asleep:

  • Don’t watch the clock at night. Nothing triggers my anxiety about sleep as much as glancing at the clock at, say, 1 a.m. and realizing I’m not sleepy yet. This is one association—between the clock registering time late at night and trouble sleeping—that I’ve never gotten rid of despite my improved sleep. Turning my clocks toward the wall after about 10 p.m. solves the problem, and it might help you sleep better, too.
  • Don’t jump in bed the minute you get home even if you get home late. For me, heading to bed right away gives my brain permission to trot out all the unfinished business of the day and chew on it while I toss and turn in bed. If you get home late, put on your pajamas, brush your teeth and so forth. But then take 20 or 30 minutes to unwind—read a book or listen to music—before you hit the sack.
  • Don’t stay in bed if, after 15 or 20 minutes, you find you can’t sleep. For me, remaining in bed almost always results in continuing wakefulness, exactly the opposite of what I want. Instead, get up and do some quiet, low-stimulation activity—page through catalogs, make a travel list, cull your bookshelves—until you feel sleepy. Then head back to bed.
  • Don’t beat yourself up—when you’ve adopted all the sleep-friendly habits you possibly can—if you’re still feeling wakeful when your normal bedtime comes around. There’s a genetic component to insomnia, and there are genetic factors that determine sleep onset latency. One day, it may be possible to alter gene expression and so improve sleep. For now, acceptance of the occasional bad night is something it pays all of us to learn to do.

If sleep onset insomnia is your problem, what behaviors seem to make it worse and which behaviors, if any, seem to help?

Don’t Let Insomnia Spoil the Summer

Do you experience a sudden onset of insomnia at about this time every year? Not much is written on seasonal insomnia that occurs in warm weather. Yet I’m convinced it’s a real phenomenon since my posts on summer insomnia get lots of traffic starting in May.

Here’s updated information—and speculation—on what could be causing the problem and how to get a better night’s sleep.

Waking up too early caused by bright summer sunriseDo you experience a sudden onset of insomnia at about this time every year? Not much is written on seasonal insomnia that occurs in warm weather. Yet I’m convinced it’s a real phenomenon since my posts on summer insomnia get lots of traffic starting in May.

Here’s updated information—and speculation—on what could be causing the problem and how to get a better night’s sleep.

Excessive Heat and Light

Late spring and summer are the hottest, lightest times of the year, and excessive heat and light are not very conducive to sleep.

In humans, core body temperature fluctuates by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Sleep is most likely to occur when core body temperature is falling (at night) and at its low point (some two hours before you typically wake up). Some research suggests that impaired thermoregulation may be a factor in insomnia, that sometimes you may simply be too hot to fall asleep. If so, a bedroom that’s too hot may exacerbate that problem, interfering with your body’s ability to cool down.

Light, too, can interfere with sleep. It does so by blocking secretion of melatonin, a hormone typically secreted at night. Exposure to bright light late in the evening or early in the morning—a phenomenon more likely to occur in months around the summer solstice—may keep you from sleeping as long as you’d like.

Other Possible Challenges to Sleep in the Summer

Swedish researchers have found that people with environmental intolerances to things like noise and pungent chemicals are more prone to insomnia than people without these intolerances. Depending on where you live, sleeping with open windows in the warm weather—if it leads to more noise or bad odors in the bedroom—could interfere with sleep.

Finally, new research conducted at Poznan University of Medical Sciences found that medical students in Poland had higher levels of circulating cortisol—a stress hormone—in the summer than in the winter. This is a preliminary result, and whether it can be confirmed or will hold true for the general population is unknown. Yet if humans do have higher levels of cortisol in the summer than in the winter, this, too, could have a negative effect on sleep.

Sleep Better in the Hot Weather

Climate control is the answer to many environmental triggers of insomnia in the spring and summer. Yet not everyone has air conditioning. If at night you’re too hot to sleep, take care to cool your sleeping quarters down in advance:

  • In the daytime, keep window shades and curtains closed to block out heat from the sun.
  • Later in the evening, use a window fan (facing outward) to draw cool air through the house. Open and close windows strategically so the bedroom is cool by the time you’re ready to sleep.
  • If your bedroom is on an upper floor that simply won’t cool down, sleep on a makeshift bed downstairs.

If keeping windows open at night exposes you to too much outside noise, block it out with silicone ear plugs or high-tech ear plugs, or mask it with white or pink noise using a small fan, a white noise machine, or SleepPhones.

Manage Your Exposure to Sunlight

Daily exposure to bright light helps keep sleep regular—but not if the exposure comes early in the morning or at night. Sunlight that awakens you at 5 a.m. or keeps you up past your normal bedtime may shorten your summer nights, depriving you of the full amount of sleep you need. If you’re sensitive to light,

  • Install light-blocking shades, curtains, and skylight covers on bedroom windows.
  • Purchase a lightweight eye mask for use during sleep.
  • Wear sunglasses if you’re outside in the evening.
  • At home, lower shades and curtains by 8:30 or 9 p.m. even if it’s still light outside, and start your bedtime routine at the same time as you do in other seasons.
  • Avoid devices with a screens in the hour leading up to bedtime.

Reduce Stress

If circulating stress hormones are an issue during the summertime (or if for any reason you’re feeling stress), then kicking back and relaxing, typical in the summer, is not necessarily going to be a dependable path to sound sleep. To reduce stress and sleep better, find a way to make regular aerobic exercise part of your day despite the heat:

  • Do the outdoor sport of your choice—walking, jogging, bicycling—early in the morning or early in the evening. Mall-walking may not be very sexy, but it sure beats walking in 100-degree heat.
  • Buy a seasonal membership in a gym or recreation center, where you can work out in air conditioning.
  • Take up swimming.

A woman recently wrote me wondering if the allergies she normally experiences late in April could trigger seasonal insomnia. I couldn’t find any information on this. But insomnia that routinely occurs at certain times of year is probably triggered by environmental or situational factors. Figuring out what the triggers are is the first step to finding a remedy.

The Rich Sleep Better (They Haven’t Always)

So it’s news that the rich sleep better in Canada (as headlines in various online publications recently proclaimed)? Not exactly shocking. Who wouldn’t sleep better owning a Mercedes than a rickety Ford?

Insomnia is more often the curse of those who struggle to make mortgage payments and pay for healthcare than the well to do.

rich-man2So it’s news that the rich sleep better in Canada (as headlines in various online publications recently proclaimed)? Not exactly shocking. Who wouldn’t sleep better owning a Mercedes than a rickety Ford? Insomnia is more often the curse of those who struggle to make mortgage payments and pay for healthcare than the well to do.

If today this feels like a no-brainer, people saw things differently in the past. “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much,” the Bible says, “but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.”

In Shakespeare’s day, too, insomnia was understood to be an affliction of the wealthy and the powerful rather than the lower classes. “Not all these, laid in bed majestical/Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave/who with a body filled and vacant mind/Gets him to rest,” says King Henry.

What other factors make us susceptible to sleep problems?

Young vs. Old

Being older has always been associated with sleeping poorly, and with good reason. Seniors take longer to fall asleep, experience less deep sleep (the restorative stuff) and less REM sleep (when we dream), and wake up more often during the night. Their sleep cycle shifts to earlier hours. These changes may have to do with altered patterns of neuronal activity in the brain, as well as other health problems that occur more frequently with age.

Male vs. Female

Being female, too, makes people more vulnerable to persistent insomnia. Three women have trouble sleeping for every 2 men. Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, and in perimenopause and menopause, tend to interfere with sleep, as do hormonal and physical changes during pregnancy. The increased risk may also have to do with roles women play and related mental health problems. Women often serve as primary caretakers in the family and are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

But early medical treatises make no mention of insomnia as a female problem. Near the end of the fifteenth century, Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino regarded “long bouts of sleeplessness” as a problem of the intellectual, who by definition was male. Too much study and agitation of the mind was the cause of sleeplessness and melancholia, he said.

White vs. Nonwhite

That race might factor into susceptibility to insomnia was never put to the test until recently. Yet it turns out to be true. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that “perceived discrimination remains a significant predictor of sleep disturbance.” We’re also more vulnerable to insomnia if we’re single or without children.

None of these factors alone or combined determine how well we’ll sleep. But biology and circumstance combine to make it likely that some of us will toss and turn and others, sleep like logs.