Can't Sleep? Try Behavioral Changes Before Sleeping Pills

The health blog at the New York Times points out that there are all sorts of behavioral changes you can adopt to fight insomnia that have been proven to work—they just sound so ordinary and common that people either don’t think they’re effective or assume pills will work better.

Some suggestions: turn your clock around so you can’t watch time pass; don’t eat, read or watch TV in bed; avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime; light-proof your windows; get up at the same time every morning; and if you can’t fall asleep after 15 minutes, get up and find something boring to do. (We guess you just estimate the amount of time that’s elapsed, since your clock is facing the other way.)

Some of these suggestions are meant to train your brain to equate “bed” with “sleep time,” while others are meant to prevent your central nervous system from becoming “hyper-aroused.” Funny, we thought that stopped after puberty. (Rimshot!)

“Curing Insomnia Without the Pills” [New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. mantari says:

    A “sleepy vitamin” works so much better than trying to get your five year old to go to sleep on her own.

  2. JAYEONE says:

    That picture is making me yawn-n-n-n!

    hee hee, nice combo of posts, first Red Bull = bad and now ‘why you can’t sleep.’

  3. TVarmy says:

    @JAY1937: Up next: Avoid Thieves While You Sleep: How To Naturally Sleep Less and Lighter

  4. JAYEONE says:

    @TVarmy: now THAT one I already have figured out!

  5. loudguitars says:

    Exercise. I’ve been dragging my ass out of bed at quarter to six for the last few months to go to the gym. I’m really not a morning person, so it’s pretty painful, but I’ve never slept more soundly in my life.

  6. loueloui says:

    Right. Or try not having a sleep disorder.

  7. EtherealStrife says:

    – I hit the gym in the midnight-1am bracket. It’s easy to burn off any remaining energy I have from the day when I have immediate access to any machine.
    Or I just go for a jog.
    – The 15 minute rule (20 in my case) is a pretty useful one. You might as well do something if you’re just going to be staring at the wall.
    – Having a light snack before hitting the sack can help. No stomach grumbles in the middle of the night.
    – Listening to music helps clear my mind. If I’m having trouble sleeping I just pop on the headphones and set my mp3 player to 15 minute sleep. I’ve been doing it for 4 years and no strangulations (yet)!
    – No booze before bedtime is a big one. It’s worse than caffeine if you’re after a restful night (at least in my case).

  8. PinnyCohen says:

    I covered some essential tips to managing your quality of sleep here, a while back:


  9. BigNutty says:

    Give me my Ambien. I finally gave up with different types of non-medication and gave in to medication. It sure works good so far.

  10. gruffydd says:

    Tylenol PM or Benedryl works every time.

  11. lukobe says:

    Or get a sleep study. Or a light box. Your circadian rhythm may be off…

  12. nardo218 says:

    Benedryl makes it harder to get up in the morning. I was using melatonin, but it damages your liver if you use it extensively. So far, valerian root has been a yucky tasting yet effective treatment. Don’t take it if you’re an untreated depressive, tho, or you’ll be up all night planning your suicide. (BTW, I’m bipolar with a sleep disorder. This non medicine sleep hygiene stuff helps but doesn’t cure.)

  13. darkclawsofchaos says:

    Lift some weights then read some textbook that bores the hell out of you, you’ll be so sleepy you can’t make it to bed

    Or for those laz eaters, eat a slice of turkey for tryptosipan(forgive the spelling), or a bannana or warm mik for serotonin

  14. mattbrown says:

    Been doing these things for months, and they work. My favorite is turning the clock so you can’t see it; because it’s such a stupid sounding thing, but actually has a huge effect.

    They don’t seem to mention that people usually sleep better in cooler temps than warmer; or the idea to avoid caffeine any time past noon (even decaffeinated coffee, since it does contain small amounts of caffeine).

  15. Zipway says:

    Well I’ve taken an interesting approach to this… I set a goal. I’m a high school student, and I have to leave for school at about 7:00, so I usually go to sleep at 10:30 up at 6:00.

    I decided that I would completely shift my sleep cycle so school wouldn’t be the first thing in my day.

    Now, I go to sleep at 9:00 and wake up at 5:00 and I have motivation to go to sleep because I know I’ll have 2 hours in the morning before I have to go to school, and if I don’t go to sleep right then I’ll screw up the whole cycle.

    My body listened to me, apparently, as it’s 5:20 AM right now as I’m writing this.

  16. MaliBoo Radley says:

    My husband and I take Benadryl. Over the last 8 years, we’ve tried all the ideas in the article … none of them helped. The problem for us that our minds just wouldn’t stop. We both would lay in bed, thinking about conversations of the past day, what we would do tomorrow, and 50 thousand other random things. A routine doesn’t make you stop thinking. A good sleepy med does .. or at least reduces the thoughts .. or just makes you so tired you don’t care what you’re thinking about.

    The point is, we can now get to bed by 11 every night. I’m up at 6, he’s up at 7. It works!

  17. AlexDitto says:

    When I was younger, I would wake up all the time in the middle of the night, or have trouble getting to sleep. Now that I’m on my own, I keep my apartment significantly colder than my parents kept their house, and I have no trouble sleeping at all.

    To insomniacs: may I suggest watching a few episodes of The Joy of Painting before bed? Nothing gets me yawning like the soothing sound of Bob Ross.

  18. lemur says:

    Count me among those who’ve tried those tricks and given up. My problem was not that I could not fall asleep but that I would wake up after maybe 4 hours of sleep and and *then* would have a hard time getting back to sleep.

    It would have been great if that was caused by a metabolic change that would have allowed me to stay up longer (some people *can* really get by with 4 hours a night) but that was not the case. I’d just end up being sleepy in the middle of the day.

  19. protest says:

    I have had anxiety related sleep problems since high school, but the exercise thing works better than any pill i ever took. i also read in bed which usually sends me right off. the ‘don’t look at your clock’ thing is also something i use, if i obsess about how late it is and oh my gosh why am i still awake…then i stay awake. also use earplugs and an eye cover thing to block out sunlight. set the thermostat to 70F or below at night.

  20. protest says:

    according to my old shrink, that is an indicator of anxiety related sleep disorder, that you can fall asleep but not stay asleep. perscribed me some anxiety meds and i immediately started sleeping through the night. not for everyone but maybe check into it.

  21. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @darkclawsofchaos: “Turkey sleepiness” due to tryptophan is a myth. People feel sleepy because they just ate a big meal, that’s all. Nobody eats a sliced turkey sandwich and then gets drowsy.

  22. Myron says:

    Yeah, try the behavioral stuff. But if that doesn’t work don’t be shy about asking for Ambien. It’s a miracle drug, despite that fact it doesn’t work well for some people.

  23. If I can lie there calmly and kinda chill when I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll stay in bed awake. But if I’m anxious about not being able to get back to sleep, or just WIDE awake, I get up and pay bills. At least that way when I’m exhausted by 3 p.m., I’ve already done 10+ hours of work.

  24. wezelboy says:

    @nardo218: Another supplement that is good for sleep is 5-HTP. You have to get the dosage figured out though, otherwise it will have an opposite effect.

  25. Bye says:

    I am a big fan of Valerian root when I’m having problems sleeping or just need to be M-E-L-L-O-W at home after a week of craziness at work.

  26. Sidecutter says:

    I will most definitely chime in regarding cooler temperatures. It’s actually an issue for me to where I have a fan at the head of my bed to keep the air circulating. I simply can’t sleep if it;s too warm or stuffy/still around me.

  27. jeff303 says:

    I highly recommended reading “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival” for an exhaustive treatment of sleep (and getting better sleep), melatonin production, circadian rhythm, etc. It’s a bit sensationalist so take it with a grain of salt but overall well worth reading.

  28. bunnymen says:

    @radleyas: Ugh. I’d rather be plain ol’ tired all day than have a Benadryl hangover. That’s just me, though.

  29. PracticalMagic says:

    In regard to taking meds to help you sleep. If you need it only occasionally, then that’s fine. But to take them every single day, is a big time no-no. Any kind of meds are most consistently hard on either your liver, or your kidneys. I do everything I can to avoid taking meds for sleeping, simply because I know that at some time in my life I will be taking meds as a geriatric. I want to keep my organs as healthy as possible for the future.

    I generally tend to read a very boring book, magazine article, etc. I have also used warm milk. It actually tastes sweeter when it’s warmed up, which is a plus. And last but not least, if all else fails I watch CNN. It’s interesting for the first 1/2 hour to 1 hour, then after that they’re repeating, so I fall asleep.

    Have you ever noticed all the side effects to the drugs they advertise on TV? Including Ambien. My 17 yr. old son commented the other day, about how the side effects were worse than the actual problem. If a teenager can see that, well……..

  30. Crim Law Geek says:

    Personally, I found that getting rid of my evil clown bed helped my sleep tremendously! Before I did that, I spent all night rocking back and forward praying the clown wouldn’t eat me.

  31. Myron says:

    @PracticalMagic: Not everyone suffers the side effects.

  32. nancypants says:

    When I exercise late at night, it makes me stay up later. I need several hours in between the exercise and sleep for it to wear me out.

    I’ve been having a problem staying up too late, because I work 4:30 to 12:30 or 4:00 to 12:30, depending on the day. Yesterday, I woke up an hour earlier than I usually do and did some exercise before work. An hour after work I was dragging.

    Nothing like pure physical exhaustion to put you down.

  33. PracticalMagic says:

    @MYRON: How right you are. But you don’t know if the side effects will occur w/out taking the meds. The gist of my post was about the OVERALL cumulative affect of such mild meds as acetominophen/ibuprofen. Acetominphen is extremely hard on the liver. Ibuprofen is extremely hard on the kidney. I suppose because I’ve always been a person to not take aspirin for a small annoying headache, and I can get by till it gets better, then the prospect of taking something to sleep every night as a convenience seems strange to me.

    I recently went through 4 surgeries on my ankle w/in a 5 mo. period. I was on oxicodone for all of those months. When all was said and done, I had a horrible time sleeping. Because I was so used to being medicated. When the drugs stopped, I started taking up to 8 ibuprofen just to sleep. I was yelled at by several Drs. about the damage I was doing to my body. I read up on these 2 drugs (ibuprofen/acetominiphen) and found how dangerous they are on your body, taken on a regular basis.

    I’m just saying, if you don’t really, really need it. Then don’t take it to make life easier. There’s got to be a better way.

  34. Mary says:

    *sigh* I’m so tired of all these tips. I’ve been to so many doctors that just assume, over and over again, that my fatigue and insomnia MUST be because I haven’t heard of these WONDERFUL pieces of advice that will fix ANYTHING.

    Sometimes, people have some vague sleep issues that can be fixed with a few changes to their habits will fix. But if it’s to the point where you’re visiting a doctor, you’ve probably tried all these things and they’re not working. You first visit to a doctor about these problems should be him talking about these things and you saying if you do them or not. But people should then leave it be and stop trying to find that magic solution.

    When you have insomnia, nothing bugs you more than people saying, “You should just go to bed earlier!” or “Turn your clock around!”

    That said, I don’t even suggest taking OTC sleep medications without a doctor’s supervision. Problem sleeping are an indicator of several other conditions that could be a real problem. It’s not something that should just be ignored.

  35. ChristineS says:

    Not in all cases, but sometimes sleeping pills really can be avoided. Progressive muscle relaxation and sleep restriction therapy are effective techniques for insomnia and may be practiced at home. More simple things that everyone could try are:
    – Trying to stay awake. It is one of the scientifically proven tips. Trying to stay awake as long as possible can have the opposite effect and help you fall asleep.
    – Not worrying about how much sleep you get. Excess worry and anxiety are the main triggers of so-called learned insomnia.
    – Avoiding alcohol. Many people believe alcohol helps to sleep. But in reality, alcohol may initially act as sedative, but will cause awakening later in the night.

    Some other helpful tips: []