Chronic insomnia impairs your cognitive and mental capacity and overall health. Learn 15 proven ways to improve your ability to fall and stay asleep.
What you’ll learn about chronic insomnia in this article:
- The many ways chronic insomnia impacts your mental health and well-being
- Why insomnia is a 24/7 issue, not just a problem to be overcome at bedtime
- Lifestyle factors that contribute to chronic insomnia
- The best and worst supplements for insomnia
- Why sleeping pills should be avoided at all costs
- When you should talk to your doctor about your insomnia
Insomnia is extremely common and affects roughly 50% of all adults.
But if you’ve experienced sleeplessness for more than a month, your situation is considered chronic insomnia. (1)
If you struggle with insomnia, you know just how critical sleep really is.
It’s almost impossible to be mentally sharp and productive without good sleep.
But knowing this only adds to the pressure you feel every night when your head hits the pillow.
So here are the best strategies and remedies to help you get to sleep, stay asleep, and wake refreshed.
Why You Need Sleep
You may be tempted to disregard your need for sleep, telling yourself that you don’t really need much or that’s just the way you are.
But chronic insomnia is an insidious problem that is linked to a “who’s who” of diseases including depression, anxiety disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, obesity, and an overall increased risk of mortality. (2, 3, 4)
Inadequate sleep even disrupts your genes.
A single week of insufficient sleep can alter the activity of over 700 genes! (5)
Even one bad night can affect your memory, concentration, coordination, mood, judgment, and ability to handle typical stress the following day.
According to Dr. Alexandros Vgontzas, director of the Penn State Hershey Sleep Research and Treatment Center, losing one night of sleep affects your mental performance as much as being legally drunk. (6)
And when insomnia is chronic or severe, it undermines the long-term health and function of your brain.
It’s also during sleep that your brain consolidates the day’s memories to ensure you remember what you learned the previous day. (10)
15 Ways to Help Stop Chronic Insomnia
Most of us think of insomnia as a nighttime problem, but in fact it’s a 24-hour-a-day problem. (11)
With insomnia, the brain is like a light switch that gets stuck in the on position. (12)
Your ability to get to sleep does not depend just on what you do the last few minutes, or even the final few hours, before you go to bed.
It depends on your entire lifestyle, what you do day in and day out.
If you’re tired of being tired and mentally out of it, here are fifteen things you can do to improve your chronic insomnia and help you stop it for good.
1. Take Control of Stress
If you do only one thing for your insomnia, it should be getting a handle on stress.
Being stressed during the day is the number one reason people can’t sleep at night.
The stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced on an as-needed basis during stressful situations.
When you’re chronically stressed, however, cortisol streams through your system all day long.
A high cortisol level breeds insomnia and is generally dangerous to your health. (13)
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Besides contributing to insomnia, chronically elevated cortisol is a factor in anxiety, mood swings, forgetfulness, brain fog, concentration problems, and weight gain. (14)
Mind-body stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, and tai chi are proven insomnia busters. (15)
Other relaxation techniques suggested in an American Academy of Sleep Medicine report include aromatherapy, autogenic training, biofeedback, emotional freedom technique (EFT), guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and self-hypnosis. (16)
12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain
2. Curtail Caffeine Consumption
America literally runs on caffeine and in most towns you can’t throw a rock without hitting a coffee shop.
But just because caffeine is the world’s most popular and readily available mind-altering substance doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Caffeine significantly contributes to insomnia, stress, anxiety, and even full-blown panic attacks. (17)
Caffeine is responsible for four official psychiatric disorders including caffeine-induced sleep disorder. (18)
You know that there’s lots of caffeine in coffee, energy drinks, and sodas, but unfortunately it’s also hidden in places you might not consider — prescription drugs, over-the-counter painkillers, non-cola drinks, vitamin waters, brain tonics, and even in vitamins and herbal supplements. (19)
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So if you drink caffeine, drink it early and experiment with your cutoff time.
It might be surprisingly early.
(My personal cutoff time is 2 pm.)
If you aren’t ready to completely give up caffeine, consider switching to green tea.
It contains about one-fourth the caffeine of coffee as well as the relaxing compounds l-theanine and EGCG that offset caffeine’s stimulating effects.
15 Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety
3. Skip that Nightcap
There is substantial evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is good for your overall health, including brain health and function.
But you need to put at least three hours between your last drink and bedtime.
An alcoholic nightcap might make you feel relaxed, but it won’t help you sleep.
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Alcohol causes nighttime brain arousals, up to 25 per night. (24)
You might not remember them since they are short, but these mini-awakenings will prevent you from getting the restorative sleep you need.
Another unhealthy habit that causes similar nighttime awakenings is smoking.
Smokers spend more time in light sleep and significantly less time in restorative deep sleep than non-smokers. (25)
Most smokers will tell you that they find smoking relaxing, but nicotine is actually a stimulant.
4. Snack Wisely
The usual advice is to not eat a few hours before going to bed, but some people (including moi) can’t sleep if they are hungry.
If you must snack, try to do it at least 2-3 hours before you go to bed.
The best evening snacks should include some healthy carbs and a little protein.
Conversely, going to bed when you’re too full can lead to heartburn and indigestion which are not conducive to a good night’s sleep either.
5. Reduce Liquid Consumption in the Evening
Having to get up in the night to go to the bathroom is a common problem.
Nearly two-thirds of adults over 55 report this disturbance, called nocturia, at least a few nights per week. (26)
Minimize your fluid intake after dinner, especially avoiding alcohol and caffeine which exacerbate the urge to urinate.
6. Exercise — But Not in the Evening
Physical exercise is important for health and sleep, but don’t do it too close to bedtime.
One of the metabolic triggers that helps prepare the body for sleep is a slight lowering of body temperature.
But exercise elevates body temperature for a few hours, so exercise in the evening contributes to insomnia.
Try to exercise 20-30 minutes a day, but do it 5-6 hours before going to bed. (27)
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7. Keep Regular Hours
Go to sleep and awaken the same time every day as much as possible.
An erratic schedule leads to disrupted sleeping patterns.
Some people, such as shift workers or travelers who change time zones, can’t avoid irregular hours.
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In these cases, melatonin supplements can help regulate their internal clock.
Melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm, but it is not a sleep initiator.
How to Power Nap — For a Better Mental Boost than Caffeine
8. Minimize Screen Time and Blue Light Exposure
The blue light emitted by electronic devices of all kinds reduces the the body’s production of melatonin. (28)
Two hours of computer tablet use before going to bed can reduce melatonin levels by 22%. (29)
Tablets are even worse than big screen TVs or computer monitors because they emit shorter wavelength radiation and are held closer to the eyes. (30)
You can reduce sleep disruption from your electronics by minimizing blue light exposure.
You can try wearing Uvex Skyper orange tint glasses, installing a blue light filter app, or using f.lux, a software program that automatically changes the quality and quantity of light emitted by your computer, tablet, or smartphone screen to sync with the time of day.
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Spend the last few hours of the day engaged in unplugged activities like reading paper books or magazines, knitting, drawing, writing, listening to relaxing music, or journaling before going to bed.
All of these can help you relax and fall asleep faster than using your electronics. (31)
9. Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Cave
As much as possible, make your bedroom like a cave — dark, quiet and cool.
Light disrupts sleep by halting melatonin production so make your bedroom as dark as possible.
Install some light-blocking shades if light from outdoors makes your bedroom too bright.
You may find that even after you turn out the lights, all your electronics light up your bedroom like a Christmas tree.
A cheap and easy fix is to put a piece of black electrical tape over lights that must stay on such as your smoke detector, air filter, or surge protector.
A more elegant solution is to use blackout dots such as LightDims made especially for this purpose.
Then get all the non-essential electronics out of the bedroom, or at least turn them all off.
Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by cell phones delay your ability to reach the deeper stages of sleep.
It’s estimated that 65% of people sleep with their phones very close to them and this figure rises to 90% among 18 to 29-year-olds. (32)
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Dozens of studies have found that even low levels of cell phone radiation disrupt the body’s production of melatonin. (33)
The use of electronic devices at night, including cell phones, is one of the main reasons there is an epidemic of insomnia and sleep disorders.
Researchers have found links between high cell phone usage and insomnia, stress, and depression. (34)
Consider trading your alarm app or digital alarm clock for an old-fashioned one that emits no light.
The last factor in turning your bedroom into a sleep cave is temperature.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the perfect temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees F (18.3 C) since your body temperature dips slightly in preparation for sleep. (35)
It’s not always possible to keep your bedroom this cool.
If you find that being too hot frequently disrupts your sleep, you’ll find loads of both low-tech and high-tech ways to sleep cool in our article below.
It’s not always possible to make your bedroom sufficiently dark and quiet either.
In that case, get a good eye mask and a pair of ear plugs or mask background noise with constant background sound produced by an electric fan, air filter, or white noise machine.
Too Hot to Sleep? Lots of Cooling Tips Here
10. When You Can’t Sleep, Get Up
If you can’t get to sleep, get up and read or listen to some relaxing music until you feel sleepy.
Weather permitting, step outside and gaze at the stars or listen to the sounds of the night.
Make a list of things to be grateful for or get those tasks you’re thinking about written down so you can stop thinking about them.
No good ever comes of tossing and turning in bed with a racing mind.
11. Get Daylight in the Morning
Spend time outside during the day, especially first thing in the morning.
Sun exposure helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself. (36)
An hour of direct exposure to morning sunlight is ideal, but as little as fifteen minutes can help. (37)
12. Try Natural Sleep Remedies
If you’ve struggled with chronic insomnia, you’ve probably already figured out that few natural sleep supplements work as well as you’d hoped.
(We’ll explain more about this shortly …)
On the other hand, relaxing herbal remedies such as valerian, lemon balm, chamomile, kava, and passion flower have a long history of safe and effective use for insomnia and stress reduction. (41, 42, 43, 44)
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It’s no coincidence that these traditional herbal remedies increase brain levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid).
GABA is a neurotransmitter required to shut down brain activity.
Many prescription sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs work by increasing GABA levels or helping the brain utilize GABA more efficiently. (45)
Scientists have discovered that people with insomnia have 30% less GABA in their brains than normal sleepers. (46)
Also consider taking a magnesium supplement.
This mineral is often missing from even healthy modern diets and only 25% of Americans consume the recommended daily amount. (47)
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Magnesium binds to and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain. (48)
If you feel “tired but wired” or often have nocturnal leg cramps, magnesium supplementation might be the answer.
Lastly, you can try using relaxing essential oils.
A full 92% of study participants who inhaled essential oil blends to help them sleep found them helpful and said they would continue to use them. (49)
Their favorite essential oils were bergamot, sandalwood, frankincense, mandarin, and lavender.
If you are new to essential oils, you won’t go wrong with lavender.
It’s the most popular, safe and versatile essential oil of all.
8 Ways Magnesium Relieves Anxiety and Stress
13. Try Brainwave Entrainment
Your brain cells generate electricity to communicate with each other.
This electrical activity forms patterns or waves.
Most of us tend to think of sleep as simply not being awake, but sleep has its own distinct brainwave pattern.
By listening to sounds of a certain frequency, your brain waves will synchronize with that frequency.
There are five main brainwave states — alpha, beta, delta, theta, and gamma.
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The delta state is associated with deep, dreamless, restorative sleep. (50)
Look for brainwave entrainment (a.k.a. binaural beats) audio downloads designed to put you in the delta state, the same brainwave state as deep sleep.
Binaural Beats: A Meditation Shortcut
14. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. (51)
When your sleep is poor more nights than not, you may inadvertently do things that make sleep problems worse like going to bed too early, staying in bed when you can’t sleep, drinking alcohol, and taking naps. (52)
The role of CBT is to help you recognize and change these behaviors. (53)
15. Avoid Medications that Disrupt Sleep
Over-the-counter drugs can cause insomnia especially if they contain alcohol or caffeine.
This includes remedies for cough, colds, and headaches and nicotine replacement products.
If you take any prescription medications you suspect are causing your insomnia, it’s time to have a discussion with your doctor.
The Worst Pills for Severe Insomnia
When sleep won’t come, it’s hard to resist the lure of taking a pill that will get you sleeping faster.
But unfortunately, some of the most popular sleep aids are a long-term disaster for your health and for your insomnia.
If you ever take melatonin supplements or prescription sleeping pills, this is must-know information!
The Problem with Melatonin Supplements
When the sun goes down and it gets dark, the pineal gland starts producing melatonin.
Melatonin doesn’t induce sleep directly, but it controls your circadian rhythm, telling your body when to start winding down for sleep.
In most countries, melatonin is available only by prescription because it is a powerful hormone.
But here in the US (and in Canada), melatonin is sold as a “natural” sleep aid.
Melatonin supplements are distributed by the same companies that sell vitamin and herbal remedies, but that doesn’t make them natural.
Melatonin used to be extracted from the pineal glands of animals (usually cow brains), but now melatonin is synthesized in a laboratory.
Sleep Experts Weigh In on Melatonin Supplements
A surprising number of sleep experts are not in favor of melatonin supplements.
Here’s what a few of them have to say:
Dr. Michael Breus is a clinical psychologist and renowned expert on sleep disorders.
He finds melatonin supplements useful for all things that deal with the timing of your need to sleep, such as circadian rhythm disorders and shift work sleep disorders, but not for insomnia since it is a sleep and body clock regulator, not a sleep initiator.
He also expresses concern that the ideal effective dosage of melatonin is 0.3 to 1.0 mg, yet supplements generally contain many times this amount. (57)
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Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, warns that melatonin is not intended for long-term use and should not be taken continuously for longer than two months. (58)
He points out that melatonin supplements are not without side effects.
He lists the most common side effects as daytime drowsiness, headaches, and dizziness.
Less common side effects are mild anxiety, irritability, mental confusion and temporary feelings of depression.
Dr. Datis Kharrazian, world-renowned functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, finds that taking supplemental melatonin can throw off the body’s sensitive circadian rhythm.
He prefers to address root causes of insomnia such as high cortisol level, insulin sensitivity, and eating excessive carbohydrates.
The bottom line on melatonin is that it is important for sleep, but increasing your body’s own melatonin by optimizing light exposure is a more effective long-term strategy than taking supplements.
The Serious Hazards of Prescription Sleeping Pills
If you talk to your doctor about your chronic insomnia, it’s very likely she’ll write you a prescription for sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata.
But these drugs can actually destroy restorative sleep and your memory, and should be avoided at all costs.
Prescription Sleeping Pills Destroy Sleep
Dr. Kirk Parsley is a physician, former Navy SEAL and sleep expert for the US Navy.
He made a startling discovery when studying people under the influence of popular sleep drugs like Ambien and Lunesta.
These drugs destroy normal sleep architecture, meaning that you don’t cycle through the typical four stages of sleep.
Instead, they render you unconscious just as if you were in a coma or passed out from alcohol.
These drugs reduce REM (rapid eye movement) sleep by about 80%.
It’s during REM sleep when all the neuroprotective benefits of sleep occur. (59)
Dr. Parsley reveals more of his favorite sleep hacks in a podcast interview A Navy SEAL Physician Reveals How Hard-Charging, High-Achievers Can Fall Asleep Fast.
You can listen to the podcast here. (Fast forward to the 5-minute mark for the beginning of the interview.)
Sleep Drugs Cause Memory Loss
Prescription sleeping pills are also notorious for causing memory loss.
Some users report sleepwalking, sleep eating, and even sleep driving while asleep. (60)
Others experience night terrors and hallucinations.
Alarmingly, even occasional sleeping pill use increases overall risk of death from all causes by almost fourfold. (61)
Sticking with over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids is no guarantee of safety either.
Most non-prescription sleep medications contain antihistamines which reduce the quality of your sleep, and can cause side effects including memory loss, daytime sleepiness, and mental confusion. (62)
Disturbingly, long-term use is not required to experience these effects.
Memory loss from OTC remedies is noticeable in as little as 60 days. (63)
When You Should Talk to Your Doctor About Insomnia
If your insomnia is severe, you may want to visit your doctor for a check-up.
One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is an underlying health condition.
Insomnia is an unfortunate side effect of many physical and mental health ailments including diabetes, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and neurological disorders. (66)
Or you may have a genuine sleep disorder that warrants further investigation such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy.
This discussion with your doctor should cover lifestyle adjustments that can help your condition such as change of diet, nutritional support, stress management, and physical exercise.
This would be a good time to talk to her about any prescription medications you take as well.
Make sure you are taking the right dosage and consider any possible interactions.
See if a change in medication is in order.
But whatever you do, don’t walk out of your appointment with a prescription for sleeping pills!
Chronic Insomnia: The Bottom Line
Chronic insomnia is not just annoying, it’s detrimental to your mental health and overall well-being.
Insomnia is not a result of just what you do in the last hours before bed, it’s a result of your daily lifestyle.
Too much stress, stimulation, and the wrong kind of light at the wrong times are major contributors to severe insomnia.
The typical medical solution is prescription sleeping pills, but they are a health disaster.
They don’t really put you to sleep but actually render you unconscious, bypassing all the restorative benefits of sleep.
Instead, make the appropriate adjustments to your daily habits.
Doing these things will help make a big improvement in your ability to fall and stay asleep.