Anyone who’s ever Googled “how to fall asleep” knows about the endless supply of sleep hygiene advice: tips, like “take a shower before bed” or “don’t eat after 6 p.m.”, that are meant to help clean up your bedtime routine and enhance sleep quality. Though some might be helpful, people who truly can’t fall asleep.
“Sleep hygiene is like being told to wash your hands: it can prevent an infection, but it can’t treat one,” says Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine—Tucson. “If you cross the line to a sleep disorder, you need some help.”
Below are some of the strange-sounding, sleeping pill-free therapies a doctor may prescribe for people who can’t sleep.
Stimulus control: People tend to do stimulating things in bed that have nothing to do with sleep, like reading and watching TV. Try adopting a “bed = sleep” mantra. “When you’re in bed, you’re asleep,” says Grandner. “If you’re in bed and you’re not asleep, you get out of bed.”
The goal is to strengthen your body’s association with the bed as a place you only sleep. In some cases, people may feel a bit sleep deprived in the first few weeks of practicing stimulus control, since they may have to get out of bed a few times. But it’s a core part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which targets a person’s thoughts and behaviors for better sleep, and Grandner says the therapy is simple and powerful.
Sleep restriction: Ironic, right? “This is the worst name for an insomnia treatment, but it’s shockingly effective,” says Grandner. In sleep restriction, another CBT-I practice, a person limits the amount of time they spend in bed not sleeping.
Imagine trying to sleep eight hours a night, but only succeeding for five of them, spending three hours lying in bed awake. Using this technique, a doctor may tell you to only spend five hours in bed and then get up. Reducing the amount of time spent in bed causes some sleep deprivation, which can help a person feel more tired the next night. As sleep improves, more time in bed is added. Don’t try it without a doctor’s oversight, Grandner warns, given the potential for side effects.