Caveat that I’m just a layman who has struggled with sleep onset insomnia (getting to sleep), sleep maintenance insomnia (staying asleep), and sleep quality (feeling tired after 8+ hours rest) issues for decades. I’ve tried a lot of things, and my goal is just to give back what I’ve found to the world. None of this is going to come with citations from double-blind placebo controlled studies, but I have generally researched my sleep issues using reputable, scientific sources. I fully realize that most/all of these items have been addressed piecemeal elsewhere, but I felt that a consolidated list like this would’ve helped me years ago when I began my journey of addressing this issue.
Sleep is an absolutely critical component of physical and mental health, and I very much hope that some of these points help even one or two struggling Redditors out there. I also hope that it can spark helpful conversations on healthy sleep, and we can all learn from each other.
I have placed my “bunch of things” in my own subjective order of Most Likely to be Relevant -> Least Likely to be Relevant:
1) Are you exercising regularly? Being physically tired at the end of the day is a great way to ensure good sleep. Soldiers on marching exercises don’t really have insomnia issues at the end of their day.
2) Do you have a snoring and/or sleep apnea problem? Do you wake up with a horribly dry mouth? If you snore, especially aggressively and with long held-breath pauses in the middle, this can be a sign that your breathing is impacting your sleep. This is doubly true if your sleep is not refreshing. You may have sleep apnea, and should get a sleep study done; in countries with socialized medicine this shouldn’t be an issue, though I understand in the USA this can be quite expensive. There are apparently home test kits too. Getting a CPAP machine to address your apnea is pretty important to your overall health, as long-term untreated apnea (essentially stopping breathing dozens of times a night) is terrible for your body’s core systems. There are also tons of people (unfortunately I wasn’t one), who after days or weeks of CPAP treatment report absolutely life-changing effects on how restful sleep is for them. For me, I found the combination of a chinstrap and a CPAP to improve my sleep quality quite significantly, totally worth the minor discomfort of getting used to those two accessories.
3) Do you sleep beside someone else? For me at least, the combination of noise, temperature, and movement that sleeping beside someone generates is just too much for me to almost ever achieve restful sleeps. It can be hard, but you have to ask yourselves whether you want a partner who is beside you in bed but dead tired every day, or a partner who is in an alternate sleep spot but feels better every single morning. If separate beds feels too much, I cannot stress enough how vast an improvement a King-size bed is over any alternative. You might think whatever Procrustean accommodation you have is big enough — trust me you’ll be way more comfortable going larger, it’s worth the investment.
4) Are you sure you’re cool enough in bed? Your body needs to drop its temperature for sleep, and is going to be fighting an uphill battle if the external temp or humidity is high. Blast that AC or fan if you can, it’s worth the extra $15/month in power bills or whatever. This also relates to the point about sleeping with a partner.
5) Are you sure it’s dark enough in bed? Do NOT keep the TV on while you sleep. Don’t leave the blinds open. Don’t leave random lights. You want your bedroom to be primally cavelike in its appearance (though maybe not it’s cleanliness), mimicking our ancient, artificial light-free ecosystem. If this isn’t possible, just use a sleep mask, they’re soft and comfortable!
6) Are you sure it’s quiet enough in bed? If not, address this issue by yelling at your annoying roommates, getting foam earplugs, and/or investing in a good white noise machine for your bedside. I had one at a hotel once and was very surprised by how much it drowned out the obnoxious sounds of the other hotel guests and staff around my room.
7) Are you sure you ate enough for dinner and your bedtime snack? This is a tricky one, because neither a massive dinnertime nor an overly light one is going to have a positive impact here. An early dinner followed by a bedtime snack has proven the best bet for me. The important point is to get good, healthy, fairly neutral (i.e. not spicy, acidic, super sugary etc.) food in your belly that will slow burn energy to your body overnight. Think maybe some nuts (walnuts apparently have chemicals with a knock-on benefit for sleep, but I’ve not noticed much) or an avocado smoothie. If your blood sugar drops precipitously because your body has no good, fatty, protein-filled fuel overnight, your brain is going to suggest you wake up and deal with that. This is not helpful for long, restful sleep. I’d love to hear feedback from nutritionists, doctors, and others on this point!
8) Have you ever tried a weighted blanket? Because seriously you can get them at your local late-stage capitalist Mart and they feel super reassuring to have draped over you during sleep. It’s like being tucked into a well-made, snug bed, while being cuddled from every direction. Even if it doesn’t improve your sleep (for me it did, to the extent of making a permanent difference to my number of sleep apnea events experienced each hour), it just feels cozy af.
9) Do you do things other than sex and sleep in bed? Don’t. Especially your laptop, smartphone, etc., as it will totally confuse your brain and body about what bed is for: the goal is for your brain to know that bed is a safe, quiet, dark space for falling quickly into restful sleep.
10) Do you ingest much caffeine or alchohol? I gave myself both worse insomnia issues and a horribly acidic stomach by constantly drinking tons of decaf green tea. Decaf does not mean caffeine-free, whereas most herbal teas (chamomile or whatever) are indeed caffeine-free. Tea may also to release its caffeine in a more steady curve than coffee, which while helpful for avoiding huge spikes or arousal and lethargy, can be problematic for sleep even hours after your cup of tea. Anyway that’s my experience and little bit of research. Certainly my own body seems very sensitive to caffeine and especially alchohol, either of which will completely demolish any hope of a restful sleep. Sorry guys, I know it’s not fun or cool, but nixxing both may have a significant impact on your sleep quality!
11) Do you sleep at irregular hours? Going to sleep at notably different hours every night can make it hard for your brain to adapt to a healthy sleep schedule and figure out when it should be in a restful state. Picking a time and sticking within 30 minutes of it can be a good route, and you can support this by taking melatonin supplements short-term to help your body adjust to that timing.
12) Have you tried medication? And here I mean either melatonin, doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals, or over-the-counters like Benedryl (diphenhydramine). Every herbal or supplement product I’ve tried has either done nothing or produced side effects that were more annoying than my initial sleep problem. By contrast, I have found melatonin and especially diphenhydramine are very helpful to promote both initial sleepiness and a long, restful sleep. There’s some controversy about the former, but the latter seems widely accepted to be okay for long-term use, so long as you don’t take it daily (which would be pointless anyway because your body would habituate and it would stop having its sedative effect).
13) Do you use bright electronics before bed? My understanding is that the research on the actual impact of this is mixed, but it’s probably good to avoid the blue, sun-mimicking light of electronic devices for 30-90 minutes before bed. I think what’s even worse than the light itself is the unsettled mindstate it produces, as we constantly click and “Like” and text for our next hit of feelgood brain chemicals.
14) Do you have children or pets that disturb you? Maybe figure something out about that, even if they are cute or whatever. Perhaps counterintuitively, safe co-sleeping with your children (even just in the same room) can promote better sleep for everyone, as they don’t become wide fucking awake when they slightly rouse from their sleep, then crying for you from down the hallway, and they’re able to self-soothe much better in the warm, safe, reassuring presence of their parents. And no they will not be 16 and still sleeping in your bedroom, they will naturally gravitate towards their own space as their brains mature and their desire for privacy grows. I admit this one is controversial and will work differently for everyone, but it’s definitely an option that no one should feel is wrong or taboo: exactly no one (especially your mother-in-law) has a right to judge your decisions to protect your mental health, of which sleep is a major component. Literature about the “dangers” of cosleeping generally revolves around unsafe practices such as cosleeping on couches, cosleeping while alchohol/drugs are in play, and so on.
15) Are you waking up to pee frequently? This can be a symptom of other health issues (e.g. prostate), or just you’re drinking too much liquid late in the day. While one pee a night is totally normal for adults, if it’s more than that you may want to investigate this issue. Look up “nocturia”, the medical term for excessive nighttime urination, for more information.
16) Do you need new bedding? Even old, rickety mattresses can be seriously shored-up by a thick foam mattress topper you can get for like $50. Better still if you can afford it, invest in a good quality mattress that you find super comfortable — it might be expensive but it is literally an investment in your long-term health! Also find pillows that you like, and try sleeping with an additional pillow (maybe even a large body-pillow) between your knees: this is supportive for your spine and I’ve found it useful.
17) Do you have sex (with yourself or others) shortly before bed? While orgasms produce chemicals, especially in women, that promote sleepiness in the short-term, my experience is that sex is overall an activity that promotes wakefulness in the mid-term afterward. Your mileage may vary, and since a healthy sex life is an important pillar of mental health, it’s probably worth the tradeoff if the only sexytimes you can get are in the evening!
18) Have you tried meditation? There are hundreds of free YouTube videos and apps that offer mindfulness or yoga nidra meditations, both of which I’ve found invaluable for settling down for sleep. Especially if the day has been unpleasant or hectic, these meditations can help your brain switch gears from a state of reactive hyperarousal into a settled state of observing the quiet, comfortable space of your bedroom. Progressive relaxation techniques are especially helpful, such as meditations where they successively call out individual parts of your body for you to relax: “now relax your jaw” can be a surprisingly helpful thing to hear.
19) Do you clean your bedroom much? This might be a bit of a stretch, but I’ve subjectively noticed that an orderly, uncluttered space around my bed seems to coincide with a bit better sleep. This is low down the list because it seems unlikely to make any quantitative difference, but I do find it helps.