How to Combat Short-Term Insomnia for a Better Night's Sleep
Crisp sheets, comfy pajamas, a quiet room: If you have all of these going for you and still can't get enough sleep, we feel you. But there are other steps you can take to wake up well-rested—and they don't require a prescription. Follow our expert advice, and call it a night.
When you hit the sack only to find yourself awake again just a few hours later, pondering the meaning of it all, you may feel alone in the universe. But the truth is you have plenty of company. Occasional, short-term insomnia was estimated to affect an eye-opening 30 to 50 percent of the world before 2020, otherwise known as the Year That Stole Everyone's Sleep. By July, according to a report in Neurology Today, experts around the country were talking about "COVID-somnia," a dramatic increase in sleep disorders spurred by the upheaval of the pandemic. Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce that deficit and get some shut-eye.
Warm Up, Cool Down
Those lucky people who nod off effortlessly have something in common: "Their body temperature naturally drops a tiny bit just before bedtime," says White Plains, New York-based clinical psychologist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia ($18.95, barnesandnoble.com). This dip cues the brain to make melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. To mimic it, take a warm bath or shower about an hour and a half before bed. The water will raise your body temperature; once you towel off, it'll dive back down. Keeping your room around a chill 65 degrees at nighttime also helps. Working out can have a similar effect, but you need to do it earlier in the day to begin the cycle. "Exercising too close to bedtime warms up the body too much," says Dr. Harris. Four to six hours before you turn in is ideal.
Eat Early—and Wisely
"A diet high in fiber-rich foods—including whole fruits and grains, veggies, pulses (aka lentils, chickpeas, and split peas and beans), nuts, and seeds—is tied to better sleep patterns," says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, co-author of Sugar Shock ($19.99, barnesandnoble.com). "First, you're flooding your system with nutrients, like magnesium, that are tied to your internal sleep mechanisms. Second, you're likely reducing your consumption of red meat, refined grains, and foods with high amounts of added sugars, all of which, when eaten routinely, can interfere with sleep." What's the deal with magnesium, you say? Women need 310 to 320 milligrams a day; if you don't get enough in your diet, ask your doctor about taking a supplement with magnesium glycinate, which isn't associated with stomach upset the way other forms of the mineral are. In addition to its sleep benefits, a healthy diet helps keep your heart and blood vessels in shape and can lower your body's inflammation (elevated levels are at the root of many chronic diseases). Dr. Cassetty also advises not eating within a couple of hours of bedtime. "But if you're really hungry and won't be able to sleep without a snack, have something light and easy to digest," she says. Her recommendations: two kiwifruits, which are packed with serotonin, a neurotransmitter your body uses to synthesize melatonin; or a banana and a handful of magnesium-rich pumpkin seeds.
Feel the Love
Ongoing research indicates that loneliness and sleeplessness go hand in hand, so embrace together time with your family, like dinners and movie nights, and keep the FaceTime and Zoom catch-ups coming. Focus on uplifting topics, advises David Neubauer, MD, associate professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins Disorders Center, in Baltimore. He also suggests shunning "doom-scrolling," the aimless intake of headlines and social posts that gobble time by the half hour. Even if your feed doesn't rile you up, staring at the blue glow from your phone without blinking can leave you with dry, irritated eyes, or worse: "Some studies show that the light from electronic devices can inhibit melatonin secretion, making it more difficult to fall asleep," says Bhanu Kolla, MD, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the Mayo Clinic's Center for Sleep Medicine, in Rochester, Minnesota. "However, I think the content is much more detrimental than the light." The bottom line: Shut off news an hour before bed, or put your tech to a good use and listen to a lulling "sleep story" read by a notable name on the Calm app, such as actors Jennifer Garner or Idris Elba.
Roll Out Tension
A quick, hurts-so-good session with a foam roller can help erase the aches that keep you up by increasing the suppleness of your fascia, the layers of connective tissue that run under your skin, says Jessa Zinn, a fascia expert at the Yinova Center, in New York City. Too much sitting, repetitive motions, and old injuries can cause your fascia to stiffen up; the foam roller helps stretch things back out. Grab one that's soft (i.e., made of squishy EVA foam, not the rigid stuff; avoid descriptions like "high density"), about 6 inches in diameter, and 36 inches long. Then add this stretch to your nightly ritual: Lie back on the roller so that it runs the length of your head, spine, and hips, and rest your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent. Place your arms at your sides, and slowly inhale as you sweep them out and above your head, palms facing up, as if making a snow angel. Exhale slowly as you sweep your arms back out and down. Repeat 10 times to open your diaphragm and shoulders and release tension in your lower back and neck. Then target other knotty spots, like your lats, iliotibial bands, and quads, breathing slowly and letting your body "melt" over the roller.
Pop Something Safe
Melatonin supplements work like "a weak sleeping pill," says Dr. Kolla. They signal the brain that night has fallen, biologically speaking, and it's time to shut down. "The main advantage is that they're quite safe, with minimal to no side effects for doses up to 10 milligrams," Dr. Kolla says. Start by taking 3 milligrams about 30 minutes before bed. If that doesn't help, up the dosage to 5 milligrams; then, if needed, 10. As for the format, pills, drops, or gummies are all fine—just check the label for an immediate-release preparation, which means it hits your bloodstream instantly rather than slowly dissolving. Since supplements aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, look for the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) or Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) certification to confirm your choice is high-quality.
Weighted blankets are emerging as heavy hitters in the sleep world. The five-to-30-pound throws create what occupational therapists call "deep-pressure stimulation," and are thought to help reduce stress by putting our focus on physical sensations instead of the static in our heads. New research, including exciting findings published in Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine this past September, suggests they can relieve insomnia related to depression and anxiety, too. While the studies so far have been small (and the blankets' price tags can be hefty), the anecdotal evidence does sound like a dream come true. So snuggle under, and prepare for drift-off.