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Here's What To Do When You Can't Sleep, According To Science

by sarah kester - August 11, 2021

Nighttime issues affect 50 to 70 million Americans each night. Whether you're overthinking tomorrow's meeting, scrolling through TikTok or too wired from that third cup of coffee, the struggle to fall asleep is real.

You may even be up late searching, "what to do when you can't sleep." If so, you've come to the right place! There’s no sheep to count here — just science- and expert-approved tips that help you get some quality shut-eye.

Vital Note: This article has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Your licensed healthcare professional can best provide you with the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and assist you as well in deciding whether a dietary supplement will be a helpful addition to your regimen.

What to do if you can't fall asleep?

Staring at the ceiling gets old real fast. So the next time you can't fall asleep, try these tried-and-true sleep hacks.

1. Focus on breathing and muscle relaxation

If you've ever fallen asleep during a meditation or savasana, you know this works.

"Slow, controlled breathing is an effective way to relax, which is a crucial step towards falling asleep," explains Alex Savy, a Certified Sleep Science Coach and Founder of SleepingOcean.

"It can also help users distract from any unwanted, often anxious thoughts that might be keeping them awake." The muscle relaxation technique is easy — simply tense groups of muscles and release them, one by one.

"Most users prefer starting with their face and moving down through the shoulders, arms, back, stomach, thighs and so on," says Savy.

2. Get out of bed

"The tossing and turning might increase your anxiety and frustration, making it even harder to fall asleep," explains Dr. Chris Airey, M.D., Medical Director at Optimale.

No staying in your bedroom, either. Dr. Airey recommends doing relaxing activities beyond those four walls, such as reading a book or organizing your things — basically anything to avoid spending time on your phone or laptop screens. These devices emit blue light, which is a sleep buzzkill that disrupts your natural sleep rhythm. When you feel sleepy again, Dr. Airey says you can return to bed.

3. Take a warm shower

Taking a warm shower washes stress down the drain and prepares the body for rest. "Warm water has a relaxing, often calming effect," says Savy. "Therefore, taking a shower right before bed can prepare users for sleep." It doesn't have to be a long shower; just a few minutes will do. If you have extra time, treat yourself to a bubble bath.

4. Take Sleep Gummies

Slip into better sleep and wake up feeling rested with Vital Proteins® Sleep Gummies.** Containing dreamy ingredients like melatonin, L-theanine and vitamin B6, each bite is here to shield your nighttime wellness routine. Just take 1-2 melatonin gummies before bedtime to join the slumber party. 

Vital Fact: It's a favorite of our in-house functional nutritionist, Olivia Peláez. "Sleep Gummies have become a staple in my wellness routine," she tells Lively. "I love the combination of melatonin and L-theanine that helps me to relax and get a good night's sleep.**"

Why can't I sleep even though I'm tired?

From the moment you wake up to the moment you lay your head on the pillow at night, a lot can disrupt your sleep. Your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake cycle) is a sensitive one.

According to Savy, this can be disrupted by several factors, such as going to bed and waking up at inconsistent hours, using devices before sleep and drinking too much caffeine (in general and too close to bedtime). "Any of these scenarios can disrupt the body's natural hormonal regulation responsible for stable sleep patterns, which often leads to an inability to fall asleep even when feeling tired," he says.

Stress and anxiety are another culprit. If you haven't noticed already, anxiety and poor sleep go hand in hand. "Chronic stress often leads to increased production of cortisol, the notorious stress hormone," shares Savy. "In its turn, cortisol can suppress the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, causing difficulty falling asleep and other issues."

How long can you go without sleep?

It's no secret that you need your sleep (just try and make conversation with someone who slept poorly). But how long can you go without sleep, exactly?
Dr. Airey says that people can go 48 hours without sleep before they start to experience what's called "microsleeps." This is when your "brain goes into a state similar to sleep involuntarily." No surprise here: After 72 hours you may experience a strong urge to sleep, he says.

What are the 3 types of insomnia?

If sleep is a nightly struggle, you might have insomnia. There are three types of the common sleep disorder: acute, transient and chronic insomnia.

Acute insomnia: Savy calls this the most common type. It lasts for a few days or up to a few weeks. This type typically occurs in response to external factors such as stress, life changes, certain medications, pain, changes in the sleeping environment or excessive use of caffeine," he says.

Transient insomnia: This is the shortest type of insomnia, typically lasting for less than a week, says Dr. Airey. Jetlag is a huge cause, as is occasional stress and interrupted sleep cycles due to unusual events (such as holidays), adds Savy. So the next time you get horrible sleep while sleeping at your aunt's house during the holidays, blame transient insomnia.

Chronic insomnia: This is the big one, characterized by long-term recurring sleep issues. "It can be associated with mental health issues, poor sleep hygiene, or underlying physical problems," explains Dr. Airey. It's most common in the older population, women, and people suffering from psychiatric illnesses, adds Savy.

What to do if you can't sleep because of anxiety?

By now, you know that anxiety keeps you from your precious zzz's. So, what to do if you can't sleep because of anxiety? Instead of turning to your Instagram feed, Savy says the key is relaxation (both mental and physical).

"The most popular (and effective) anti-anxiety tools are meditation, breathing exercises, massages, visualization exercises, yoga (or light stretching if it's a pre-bedtime routine), journaling, listening to nature sounds or sleep music," he says.
The relief doesn’t stop there — Dr. Airey recommends a diffuser to clock in some aromatherapy time (lavender is a relaxing oil). Herbal teas like chamomile can also help those eyelids get heavy.

So, Is 2 hours of sleep better than no sleep?

Here's the scene: It's 4 a.m., you're still awake and you must be up at 6 a.m. Is 2 hours of sleep better than no sleep? According to Savy, the answer is yes.
He explains that the two-hour window of shut-eye allows your body to go through one sleep cycle (this usually lasts for around 90 minutes). "This should give the body a chance to restore to at least some extent and get a little energy boost," he explains.

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