Wide-Awake at 3 A.M.? Don’t Just Look at Your Phone

The only thing worse than feeling completely wired at 11 p.m. when you’re ready for sleep is being stark awake at 3 a.m. Blissfully passing out at an appropriate bedtime is cold comfort when the brain wakes up too soon and refuses to take advantage of those eight full hours. I toss and turn and scrunch up my pillow every which way, exasperated and fixated on the impending doom of the alarm clock set to go off at 6 a.m.

About half of all insomnia sufferers experience this middle-of-the-night “sleep-maintenance” insomnia, either by itself or along with the “sleep-onset” sort, trouble falling asleep in the first place, said Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.

If, after 20 minutes, you’re still up, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends stepping out of the bedroom and doing some reading or other quiet activity. But I didn’t realize that it’s actually a last-resort tactic. “Get up only when you’re so upset you can’t fall asleep anyway,” said Dr. Martin, an insomnia specialist. In fact, some of the best first-line strategies are pursued (more or less) lying down. The next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m., try these six things:

Remain in bed

For you to fall asleep, your heart rate needs to slow down, said Michael Breus, Ph.D., a Los Angeles area clinical sleep psychologist. But when you get up, you elevate it. So my impulse to use the bathroom just because I’m awake only makes matters worse. “Do that only if you need to,” said Breus, who is also the author of “The Power of When.”

And skip the middle-of-the-night snack, unless you have diabetes or low blood sugar. To prevent untimely internal wake-up calls, keep hydrated during the day so that you don’t drink and fill your bladder before bed. Don’t eat too little or too much for dinner, and keep it balanced, complete with protein and fiber, both of which help sustain blood sugar levels until morning. Most important, avoid alcohol in the evening — although it may make you fall asleep faster, it also disrupts your sleep later in the night.

Stay in the dark

When you can’t sleep, LED indicator lights on, say, printers and cable boxes can feel intrusive. The same goes for light streaming in through cracks in the curtain.

“They’re point sources of light that your eyes are drawn to, and that can keep you up,” said John Hanifin, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who studies circadian rhythms, the brain’s internal sleep/wake cycle.

Dr. Hanifin covers indicator lights with black electrical tape and wears a sleep mask. (Our top pick has deep eye cups so your eyes can open and shut while you wear it.) Of course, avoid scrolling through your smartphone and turning on the lights. If light outside your window consistently keeps you up, it may be worthwhile to install blackout shades. Here are Wirecutter’s recommendations for the best options.

Block out noise

For you to fall asleep, your soundscape doesn’t have to be completely silent, but it does need to be monotonous, which signals the brain that it’s safe to sleep. That’s why rattling radiators and dripping faucets keep you up even if you hardly notice them during the day.

Some people like to sleep with a fan running. If you have a white noise machine (or an app) for bedtime, turn it on. We recommend the LectroFan or the myNoise white noise app, if you need options.

Adjust the temperature

If the room feels warm, lower the thermostat — around 65 degrees fosters sleep, said Dr. Breus. Another part of the sleep equation is skin temperature. “A cool core and comfortably warm skin is best for sleep,” said Roy Raymann, Ph.D., vice president of sleep science at SleepScore Labs (maker of Wirecutter’s favorite sleep tracker). You cool your core by breathing in the cool bedroom air; you warm your skin with bedding and PJs.

Socks can also help, said Dr. Raymann, who has published research on the phenomenon in the journal Physiology & Behavior. Feet have lots of temperature sensors: When they’re warm, that information gets transmitted to the brain areas involved in both sleep and thermoregulation to help you doze off. In a small study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, subjects with socks took half as long as those without socks to fall asleep. If temperature control is a recurring problem, a smart thermostat, like our favorite, the Nest Thermostat E, lets you dial it up or down from bed via voice command (or smartphone, if you must), or you can preset it to do so at certain times of the night.

Quiet your mind

Ruminating about past events or worrying excessively can cause a surge in stress-related chemicals, which in turn sparks a rise in heart rate and core temperature. It also charges up the regions of the brain responsible for memory and emotion at a time when they should be calm.

Give relaxation techniques (deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness exercises) a try. “What works is personal preference,” said Dr. Raymann, who also suggests doing simple math problems in your head or imagining all the things that come in, say, green. “The point is to keep your brain busy with something that doesn’t require effort or trigger emotional responses.”

Think positive

If your wake-up time is 6:30 a.m. and the clock reads 3 a.m., don’t think, Oh no! I have only three hours left! Negativity only sets off a stress response that keeps you up. Instead, say, Oh great! I have three more hours to sleep!

“It sounds hokey, but it works,” said Dr. Breus. Also remind yourself that even if you’ve slept less than you’d like, plenty of people do just fine with less sleep on any given day, and you will too. But if insomnia strikes more than three times a week for more than three months, and it affects your quality of life, find a sleep specialist who can help identify the root cause and customize a plan for you.

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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.

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