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ATLANTA — You're catching a 5 a.m. flight tomorrow. Your boss, a true early bird, has set an unbearably early weekly meeting. School is starting, and you have to rise and shine to goose the family into gear. The clock has rolled back, and suddenly you're climbing out of bed in the dark.
Those are the nights you crawl into bed early and beg for sleep — all too often in vain.
"This has happened to me many times unfortunately," said Dr. Phyllis Zee, director of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "If you're unable to fall asleep, don't worry about it. It will not help."
Sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta has similar guidance.
"My general advice is 'don't force it' because that worry about getting those zzz's will begin to ruminate in your mind, making matters worse," said Dasgupta, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
"The reality is that often the harder we try to relax and transition into sleep, the more we worry that we're losing precious sleep time, making the elusive 'good night's sleep' more difficult to obtain, " he said.
If your sleep chronotype — the time your body is naturally programmed to want to sleep — is that of a night owl (late to bed, late to rise), those nights (and subsequent days) can be especially rough, experts say.
Here are some tried-and-true tips from experts on how to ease those "please-let-me-get-to-sleep" worries.
1. Don't try for the impossible
First, unless you're a morning lark, don't try to fall asleep at 9 p.m., which may be much too early for your body clock. It only sets you up to fret.
Instead, "start dimming lights at 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.," Zee advised, and aim for a 10 p.m. bedtime.
You also want to avoid blue light, which tricks your brain into "thinking it's still daytime. This prevents the release of key hormones like melatonin, which help you sleep," Dasgupta said.
"Blue light is emitted by electronic devices like smartphones and computers," he said, so be sure to avoid those as well as bright lights during the two hours before bedtime.
2. Meditation, mindfulness and breathing
Being stressed about sleeping is "a huge barrier from getting refreshing sleep," Dasgupta said, and can "worsen existing sleep issues such as insomnia."
Fight back with mindfulness and meditation to promote calmness, he suggested. "(These practices) can help quiet the mind and body, making the transition into sleep easier and hopefully pleasant," he said.
One of the best ways to help you fall asleep is to focus on breathing, experts say.
"One technique is the '4-7-8 breathing method,' which has been shown to reduce stress," Dasgupta said. "Take a deep breath for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds, then slowly release your breath and exhale while counting from one to eight. Repeat these steps several times and then pause and notice if you feel more relaxed."
3. Introduce daylight
When that all-too-early alarm goes off, immediately turn on bright lights, Zee said. That tells your brain it's daylight and helps shut off melatonin production.
Then get into some sunlight as soon as you can, experts suggest.
"Natural sunlight during the day helps keep your circadian rhythm healthy," Dasgupta said. "This improves daytime energy as well as nighttime sleep quality."
4. Plan a power nap
You might want to plan a 20- to 30-minute power nap in the early afternoon that day and then try your best to go to bed earlier that night as well, Zee said. Your "sleep drive" will be high, she said, due to being "sleep deprived the night before."
It will be "easier to fall asleep around 10 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and get some catch-up sleep," Zee said.
5. Avoid alcohol and sweets
Avoid consuming caffeine after lunch and avoid alcohol near bedtime, "as both can disrupt sleep," Dasgupta said. "If hungry after dinner, keep snacks small, sugar free and easily digestible so as to not disrupt sleep."
That middle-of-the-night call
What if you've done all this and happily dozed off, but you live in California and confused relatives call you at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. ET — which would be 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. PT?
Here are the rules for that scenario, according to Dr. Vsevolod Polotsky, professor of medicine and director of sleep research in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
- Don't turn the light on.
- Try to calm down, finish your conversation promptly and go back to bed.
- If you cannot fall back to sleep in less than 10 minutes, go to another room, turn on a dim light and try to read a boring book. (No electronic devices allowed, Polotsky said. They emit blue light that will wake you up.)
- Do not check your email or text messages. In fact, do not use your smartphone, computer, e-reader or TV (again, due to the blue light stimulation).
- Do not do dishes, go outside or exercise.
- Meditate or relax and think about something pleasant.