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Counting Sheep to Fall Asleep? Better Ways to Fight Insomnia

Sleep is elusive during these periods of very high stress.

Falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night ought to be something we do without any thought, like yawning or even scratching a mosquito bite. As teenagers most of us fought to be able to sleep longer, and have memories of dragging ourselves out of bed hours before we were ready to get up because of school and/or work. But as we age, the ability to sink into a profound sleep and stay asleep seems sometimes as elusive as remembering an interesting dream. We, of course, make it difficult for ourselves to fall and stay asleep when we travel across time zones, rely on alarm clocks to wake us up (always too early) and insist on keeping our brains occupied with work way past our bedtime. Caffeine, alcohol, late meals, noisy neighbors or traffic, restless pet bed companions and crying children also impede our ability to fall asleep, and can be relied upon to make us wake up in what is so charmingly called “The Dead of the Night.”

Women tend to experience additional interference with a good night’s sleep. The premenstrual week of the menstrual cycle often causes restless sleep, and when women transition into menopause, hot flushes prod a woman out a sleep into a bubble of heat and sweat.

Men and women experience a decrease in the blood levels of the sleep hormone melatonin as they age. In younger individuals levels of this hormone are high enough in the blood to maintain a full night’s sleep but aging causes the melatonin levels to decline so not enough may be around by 4 or 5am to keep from an early awakening.

Tiny amounts of melatonin, enough to replace that which is missing in the older individual, usually is sufficient to allow someone over forty, the age when melatonin begins to decline, to sleep through the night. (Doses over 03-0.5 mg of melatonin may suppress the body’s own synthesis of this hormone, or cause grogginess upon awakening.)

Other equal opportunity causes of insomnia can be an overactive brain at bedtime, and an anxious emotional state when awakening at 3am. A young first-year law associate I know was frequently emailed at 11pm or later with requests to do work on an urgent legal matter, and deliver the results before the next morning. Her position at the bottom of the law firm work heap made it impossible to refuse these requests, and more impossible to fall asleep after spending several hours working on the assignment. Her eyes may have been closed, but her brain could not shut itself off from its work mode to allow her to fall asleep.

Awakening in the early morning hours invokes in many of us feelings of agitation, worry, anxiety, and even panic. Problems that seemed manageable the previous day take on gigantic proportions. The husband of a friend who had a cataract removed a few days ago told me that he would wake up and lie in bed wondering how he would manage when he became blind from the operation. (The procedure was a success.) A neighbor who looked very sleepy when I saw her on the street told me that she woke at 2:45am and could not get back to sleep because she was so worried about a speech she was giving that afternoon. “I wasn’t worried at all about the speech before I went to bed, but in the middle of the night I was sure I would make a mess of it,” she told me.

Self-soothing techniques are suggested to quiet the brain and diminish anxiety. They include meditation, muscle relaxation, getting out of bed to do something distracting and/or boring such as reading a book that makes you yawn, or listening to audio of waves or wind. Watching infomercials on television may also help (unless buying plastic vegetable slicers is exciting.)

Eating is also helpful, if the foods are chosen for their calming properties and consumed in the correct amount. Foods that soothe are those that promote the synthesis of the calming brain chemical serotonin. Sweet or starchy carbohydrates are the only foods that do this. Yet they must be non Fructose, as well as low in fat and protein. Protein prevents serotonin from being made, and high-fat foods such as pie crust or ice cream are so slow to digest that even if they contain carbohydrate, their ability to sooth you back to sleep won’t be felt for a couple of hours. The more effective choices include graham crackers, low-fat granola bars, sweet breakfast cereal, English muffins with jam, and instant oatmeal for good, middle-of-the-night snack foods. (Of course, if you are snacking within hearing distance of someone who is sleeping, it is better to avoid anything that crunches too loudly.)

Caution is required when engaging in nighttime snacking, however because there is a tendency to continue eating until you feel sleepy. This is comparable to continuing to take sleeping pills until suddenly you fall asleep; obviously, not a good idea. Only about 25 to 30 grams of carbohydrate need be eaten for the brain to make new serotonin. This translates into somewhat less than a cup of plain Cheerios. However, standing in the kitchen, looking for reading glasses and peering at a tiny label on a box of bran cereal to measure out the correct quantity is sure to wake you up even more. If you routinely have trouble falling asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep, then prepare a pre-measured snack for yourself before you go to bed. (Leave out something to drink as well so you won’t have to open the refrigerator and have the bright light shine in your eyes.)

It will take about 20 minutes for the snack to be digested and for you to feel calm enough to go back to sleep. You could count sheep in the meanwhile, but a dull book, the one you meant to finish reading in college, will work just as well.