Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any advertisers on this site.
As many as 2 in 3 Americans reported getting either too much or too little sleep, in a survey from the American Psychological Association during the pandemic’s second year. And the insomnia of the past two years may be stubbornly hanging on: Many people continue having more trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or have seen unusual shifts in their sleep schedules.
All of this is taking a toll. “These different types of sleep changes seem to be closely related to [problems with] mental health,” says Karianne Dion, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa. Research she co-wrote, published in the Journal of Sleep Research in 2021, found “worse symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression” among those who are sleeping less or going to bed later and waking up later than before.
Researchers have long known that anxiety and depression can lead to sleeplessness, while sleeping poorly can increase the likelihood of anxiety and depression. But a good night’s rest is also critical for a strong immune system, as well as for health overall. Insufficient sleep over time is associated with a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the CDC. It can lead to memory and cognitive issues as well.
So how can we get the sleep we need? Here’s how to solve seven common problems that can interfere with your rest and your health.
Problem: You often wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning and can’t get back to sleep.
Solution: If light coming into your bedroom is the issue, light-blocking products like blackout curtains or a sleep mask may do the trick. You might also want to cut back on — or cut out — caffeine (which can keep you perky long after you’ve consumed it) and alcohol (which can interfere with deep sleep).
Many people, however, sleep lightly because of “hypervigilance,” says Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor at Stanford University’s division of sleep medicine and author of “How to Sleep: The New Science-Based Solutions for Sleeping Through the Night.” That means focusing too much on what might disrupt your slumber — before you doze off and even while you’re sleeping. This leads to an acute awareness of your environment and, paradoxically, can make it harder to sleep.
The best way to address this is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) known as CBT-I — the “I” stands for insomnia, for which it’s often the go-to treatment. CBT-I offers techniques that can help you identify and modify thinking patterns and habits that keep you from sleeping.
Though you can ask a sleep doctor about CBT-I, you can also learn to do it on your own, Pelayo says. Consider using an app, like CBT-i Coach, which Stanford University developed in collaboration with the federal government. (The app’s makers say it’s not a replacement for therapy.) You can also teach yourself strategies to employ when you cannot fall back asleep, such as taking some slow, deep breaths, aiming for about six breaths per minute.
Problem: Nature always calls in the middle of the night — often multiple times.
Solution: “Waking up once during the night to use the bathroom is completely normal,” says Abigail Maller, an assistant clinical professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at UCLA.
But if you find that you awaken two or more times each night for restroom visits, try reducing the salt in your diet, Maller says, and avoiding fluids in the two hours before bed (while making sure you hydrate well earlier in the day).
If these steps have little effect, consult your doctor.
Problem: When you get into bed, your mind races, and it takes you too long to fall asleep.
Solution: While lying in bed with your bedroom dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature, try a short relaxation exercise — such as tensing and then relaxing groups of muscles, starting at your feet and finishing with your neck and face. This may reduce physical tension in your body, according to the National Institutes of Health.
If you’ve been in bed for a while and still can’t nod off, go to another room and do a calming activity, rather than lying there watching the minutes tick by. Wait until you feel sleepy again before returning to your bedroom.
Longer term, have a plan for heading off nighttime fretting: Before getting under the covers, make a habit of writing down the next day’s tasks, rather than holding it all in your head. One small 2018 study found that people who spent five minutes creating a to-do list before bed fell asleep faster than a control group.
It’s also helpful to establish a consistent bedtime and wake time so your body gets used to falling asleep when you need it to. And avoid all screens for at least a half-hour before bed.
Problem: You get at least seven hours of sleep but still wake up exhausted.
Solution: Expert groups like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that most adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. So if you’re getting only seven hours, start by upping that to eight or even nine.
Next, figure out whether you’re sleepy or fatigued. Sleepiness means you feel drowsy and have a hard time staying awake, Maller says. Fatigue, in which you feel tired but don’t find staying awake difficult, is a symptom of many illnesses — including anemia, thyroid disease and depression — that may not be directly related to sleep. Discuss ongoing fatigue with your primary care provider, Maller and Pelayo say.
And if you’re constantly sleepy, ask for a referral to a sleep specialist. It could be a sign of some form of sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, in which breathing stops and starts during sleep. Bruxism, the clenching or grinding of your teeth during sleep, can also get in the way of rest. Headaches and jaw pain in the morning are telltale signs. A dentist can check your teeth for wear and fit you with a mouth guard that may help.
Problem: You always fall asleep after dinner, wake up and then can’t fall asleep at bedtime.
Solution: Brief naps are not necessarily a problem, especially if you take them after lunch and before dinner. But nodding off on the couch in the evening and then feeling wide-awake once you get into bed is “a typical pattern in chronic insomnia,” Pelayo says.
If you cannot resist the lure of a comfy couch, doing something active at that time, like taking a walk, may keep you from dozing off. But you may also need to reset your circadian rhythm. Here’s how: Get up at the same time each day and make sure to get some sunlight each morning.
Problem: Your partner’s loud snoring and tossing and turning keep you awake.
Solution: Allergies, congestion or a deviated septum can cause snoring. But routine snoring can also be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which a physical obstruction in the throat — often the tongue — interferes with breathing during sleep. This can have serious health consequences, such as a higher risk of stroke. Symptoms can also include daytime sleepiness, high blood pressure and night sweats.
Helping your partner get to the root of their snoring will enable you to sleep — and, Pelayo says, “you may save their life.” So urge them to see a doctor. The most common treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
If your partner moves around a lot and it’s ruining your sleep, consider whether it’s time for a new mattress. In CR’s tests, mattresses are tested for “stabilization,” or bounciness — a measure of the likelihood that movement on one side of the bed will disturb someone on the other side.
Problem: You work irregular hours, which makes it hard to sleep when you need to.
Solution: Sleep issues are common among overnight workers and those with inconsistent schedules. If you need to sleep during the day so that you can work at night, keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
“Strategic napping” — timing naps for maximum benefit — can also help, Maller says. For overnight workers, a nap right before a shift may boost alertness and performance. Limit these naps to 60 minutes to reduce the chance you’ll enter deep sleep. And you may want to consult with a sleep specialist to figure out what nap time would help you most, based on your schedule.
Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.