06/09/2013 10:39 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

Tired But Can't Fall Asleep? Good Sleep Hygiene Helps

People juggle many demands in their life that can cut into their sleep; work, family, and even leisure are often the culprits. As a result, people often experience the accumulation of lost sleep known as sleep debt. Yet many people experience a paradox: They carry a huge sleep debt, but when they finally get a chance to go to bed they have a hard time falling asleep. They lay in bed for an hour or more trying to fall asleep, and experience this on a nightly basis.

There are many reasons for difficulties falling asleep, some of which are medical, some of which are stress-based, and some of which are still unknown. But even for people who do not have these reasons for having difficulty falling and staying asleep, many still fight a nightly battle to get the sleep they so desperately need. A growing body of research literature indicates that such people may be unintentionally sabotaging themselves through poor sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene is not what it sounds like. It has nothing to do with how clean you are. Sleep hygiene refers to the pattern of behaviors associated with sleep. Research indicates that there are certain patterns of behavior that are conducive to sleep, and other patterns that make it much more difficult. With some relatively simple steps, you can improve your own sleep hygiene, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.

1. Consistent bedtimes. Your body has a circadian system that functions as a 24-hour clock, regulating processes such as body temperature and heart rate. An important part of that circadian system is the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical that your body uses internally to promote the process of falling asleep. But changing your bedtimes is disruptive to this process. You should enable your circadian system to work smoothly by going to bed at the same time every night (preferably an early enough bedtime to get a sufficient amount of sleep).

2. No television, laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bed. You may think that watching television in bed is a good way to relax. You may like to do a final email check, or check the news online, or play Angry Birds in bed as you wind down for the day. But the research literature indicates that this is problematic for sleep. Physiologically, the light exposure associated with these activities inhibits melatonin production. This is true for any light, but especially blue wavelength light that is common in these devices, and especially when the source of light is so close to you. Using phones in bed, in particular, has been associated with sleep disturbances. It's good policy to stop using any of these devices a few hours before bedtime. But at the very least, do not use them in bed, in part because of the next point.

3. No activity in bed other than sleep and sex. Think of Pavlov's dogs. By pairing one stimulus (meat powder) with another stimulus (bell) over and over again, he created an association between meat powder and the bell that was so strong that the dogs began to salivate when they heard a bell even if meat powder was not present. You want to take a similar approach to your bed and sleep. Strengthen that association as much as you can by pairing your bed with sleep, but not with other activities. Engaging in non-sleep activities in bed weakens that association. If you turn your bed into an office, library, and dining room, you are weakening that association.

4. No stimulants within a few hours of bedtime. Physiological arousal and sympathetic nervous system activation oppose the process of falling asleep. Any substance that has stimulant properties should be avoided before bedtime. Nicotine and caffeine are two common such substances. Everyone knows that caffeine makes it difficult to fall asleep. But not everyone knows that caffeine has a metabolic half-life of several hours (typically at least five hours, and sometimes more). So if you plan to go to bed at 10:30, coffee with or after dinner is generally a bad idea.

People are more ambivalent about nicotine. Many people feel more psychologically relaxed after using nicotine, and may use cigarettes to gain this relaxation. But nicotine is physiologically arousing, which opposes the process of falling asleep. Nicotine persists in the body for a shorter period of time than caffeine, but still has a half-life of a few hours. So consuming nicotine within a few hours of bedtime will make it more difficult to fall asleep.

5. Exercise, but not within a few hours of bedtime. Exercise has many beneficial effects on human health. Regular exercise can be helpful in regulating sleep. However, research indicates that it depends on the amount of time between exercise and sleep. One study in particular shows that because exercise is physiologically arousing, it makes you less likely to fall asleep in the very near term, but more likely to fall asleep later. So develop a pattern of exercising, but not late at night.

By following these five steps, you can improve your sleep hygiene. This will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, cutting down the number of hours you lay in bed frustrated about sleep difficulties. Good sleep hygiene is not a fix-all panacea, but the research data indicates that is will certainly help. So rather than sabotage your sleep, create a set of patterns that promotes good sleep.

For more by Christopher M. Barnes, click here.

For more on sleep, click here.


Barnes, C. M. & Wagner, D. T. (2009). Changing to daylight saving time cuts into sleep and increases workplace injuries. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1305-1317.

Barnes, C. M., Wagner, D. T., & Ghumman, S. (2012). Borrowing from sleep to pay work and family: Expanding time-based conflict to the broader non-work domain. Personnel Psychology, 65, 789-819.

Gooley, J. J., Chamberlain, K., Smith, K. A., Khalsa, S. B. S., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., Reen, E. V., Zeitzer, J. M., Czeisler, C. A., & Lockley, S. W. (2011). Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin in humans. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 96, E463-E472.

Lavie, P. (1997). Melatonin: Role in gating nocturnal rise in sleep propensity. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 12, 657-6656.

LeDuc, P. A., Caldwell, J.A., & Ruyak, P. S. (2000). The effects of exercise as a countermeasure
for fatigue in sleep-deprived aviators. Military Psychology, 12, 249-266.

Munezawa, T., Kaneita, Y., Osaki, Y., Kanda, H., Minowa, M., Suzuki, K., Higuchi, S., Mori, J., Yamamoto, R., & Ohida, T. (2011). The association between use of mobile phones after lights out and sleep disturbances among Janapese adolescents: A nationwide cross-sectional survey. Sleep, 34, 1013-1020.

Reid, K. J., Baron, K. G., Lu, B., Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., & Zee, P. C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 11, 934-940.

Reppert, S. M., & Weaver, D. R. (2002). Coordination of circadian timing in mammals. Nature, 418(29 Aug 2002), 935-941.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.