Notes on sleep

For many years, I had various forms of insomnia, and I still occasionally have trouble falling asleep and/or wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep. This page covers some of the things that have and haven’t helped me with that.

This page is not about telling you how you can get better sleep. It’s specifically about me, and my personal experiences; my approaches may not work for you at all. But I’m hoping that some of this page will be useful to some people.

Sleep hygiene

The standard advice that I see for people who have sleep issues is to practice good “sleep hygiene,” which means never using your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex. The general idea seems to be to strongly associate bed and sleep, so that when you’re in bed, sleeping seems to be the right/only thing to do.

Sadly, this approach has never made sense to me. I very much enjoy doing things like reading in bed. Bed is comfortable and warm, and reading in bed often helps me get sleepy. I think that if I had to keep making decisions about whether a given use of bed was or wasn’t appropriate for sleep hygiene, I would start to associate bed with anxiety rather than with sleep.

I also feel like the exception for sex kind of undermines the idea of associating bed entirely with sleep.

But that said, this is by far the most common advice that I see, from professionals who seem to know what they’re talking about, so I’m guessing it must work well for a lot of people.

Sleep-aid drugs

The thing that most reliably helps me sleep is NyQuil LiquiCaps, regardless of whether I’m sick or not.

I know that many many people think that NyQuil makes people sleepy using alcohol, but there is no alcohol in the LiquiCaps. Instead, the relevant ingredient seems to be doxylamine succinate, an antihistamine.

For me, a single LiquiCap tends to give me at least four hours of really solid deep restful sleep, and usually more than four hours.

But when I take NyQuil more than three or four nights in a row, it gets less effective. At that point, I sometimes switch to Benadryl allergy pills, which contain diphenhydramine HCl, another antihistamine. For me, Benadryl doesn’t result in as thoroughly restful sleep as NyQuil does, but it does help me sleep.

In theory, other brands with the same ingredients ought to do the same thing. In particular, Unisom SleepTabs contain doxylamine succinate (like NyQuil), and Unisom SleepGels contain diphenhydramine HCl (like Benadryl). (Yeah, different products under the same brand name sometimes contain totally different ingredients.) In my limited experience with Unisom, though, it doesn’t work quite as well for me as either NyQuil or Benadryl; not sure why. (I can imagine that NyQuil’s other ingredients might make it easier for me to breathe, but that’s pure speculation. Another possibility: It could just be that I associate NyQuil so strongly with good sleep that taking NyQuil puts me in a better frame of mind for sleeping.)

Another drug approach that has helped me in the past is valerian. For a while, I used a liquid preparation of valerian (in alcohol, I think) that came with an eyedropper; I think I took a few drops each night. That seemed to work pretty well for me for a while, though the scientific evidence for valerian helping with sleep is mixed. But I think after a while, it stopped working as well for me, and I haven’t tried it in a long time.

The most common ingested-substance approach that I see recommended is melatonin pills. It seems to work well for a lot of people, but in my limited experience, it hasn’t noticeably helped me.

Another drug that I’ve tried is Ambien. On the plus side, it got me to sleep quickly and for a long time. On the minus side, the resulting sleep was not particularly restful for me. And as with Sonata (another sedative), it can result in weird and dangerous behaviors, including sleep driving. I kept one Ambien tablet around for a long time, just in case I really needed it, but I don’t really want to try it again.

Another drug approach: I hear that a smallish amount of alcohol can help with relaxation and sleepiness. I don’t drink alcohol under normal circumstances, but I have a few times tried a little bit of wine before bed as an attempted sleep aid. For me, it didn’t have clear/obvious effects.

One more drug approach: Sometimes I’ve found Sleepytime camomile tea (with honey) helpful in relaxing me for sleep. That may partly be because of comforting associations with childhood—we used to drink that when I was a kid.


One of the most effective approaches to sleep for me is so idiosyncratic that I doubt it would work for most people: Listening to one specific piece of music. The music in question is one side of Suzanne Doucet’s New Age album Reflecting Light, Vol. II, specifically side 2, titled “...and Here.” I bought this album on cassette tape in high school, and listened to it while going to sleep for years. There was a while, a few years ago, when I could start it playing and I would be asleep within about thirty seconds.

(I worried briefly that that effect might happen if the music accidentally came on at other times, like while I was driving. To be on the safe side, I don’t listen to it except when I want to sleep. But I have accidentally heard the beginning of it once or twice while awake during the day (not driving), and it hasn’t instantly put me to sleep.)

Partly it helps me sleep because it’s soothing, relaxing music; but I suspect that mostly it’s a strong association between that music and sleep, unintentionally built up over a period of years. It’s gotten to the point that sometimes I can just “play” the music in my head to help me get to sleep.

I mention all that not so much to recommend this specific piece of music as sleep music, but rather to say that I think that building a connection between something specific and sleep can help. (Which ties back to the sleep hygiene thing. I suppose I’m using a similar approach here; it’s just that the thing I’m associating with sleep isn’t bed per se.)

Of course, there are a lot of other sound-related things around sleep. I have a hard time sleeping when my surroundings aren’t quiet. So for many years, I habitually slept wearing earplugs.

I found that foam earplugs (a) didn’t block enough sound, and (b) made my ears itch. And silicone earplugs always felt too big and unwieldy to me. The earplugs that I love are Flents brand wax-cotton “stopples”, which used to be widely available in drugstores but I rarely see them any more. They too make my ears itch a bit, but not nearly as much as foam earplugs do. And when I mold them to fully block my ears, they’re quite good at reducing sound.

Another approach to dealing with environmental sound is to mask it with other sound. For a while, I used a device that combined a clock with a white-noise generator; more recently, I’ve used an iPhone app called White Noise that can generate a bunch of different kinds of sound/noise. My favorite for sleeping, by far, is brown noise. Other apps that can produce useful sound-masking background noise include Ambiance, and Apple’s built-in Background Sounds feature.

In a hotel room, I’ve often generated white noise by setting the air-conditioning unit to keep its fan running even when it’s not cooling the room. (That also helps me by keeping the noise levels relatively consistent; a fan turning on and off over the course of the night can wake me up.)

A plug for a specific device: I’ve recently acquired the new Ozlo Sleepbuds (a revised and improved version of Bose’s former Sleepbuds product), and I like them so far. They work as earplugs, and they also let you stream noise-masking sounds and/or your own music. And they’re specifically designed for sleeping with them in, unlike earphone earbuds.

One more thought: sometimes the noise in question is someone else snoring loudly in the same room. Sometimes it’s possible to get a snoring person to shift position (sometimes without waking them up) in a way that will cause them to temporarily stop snoring.


It used to be that I usually couldn’t sleep in a room that had light in it.

That led me to acquire blackout curtains for my room at home, and to try to get hotel rooms with as opaque curtains as possible.

I tried various kinds of eye-coverings, like sleep masks, but they had to be attached somehow, and the attachment methods were always too uncomfortable for me.

But eventually, more or less by accident, I discovered that a dark-colored pillowcase laid over my eyes made an excellent light-blocker. And putting a small pillow (say, 14" square) inside such a pillowcase more or less anchors it in place.

So that’s what I use now. I sleep on my side, so the small pillow usually goes behind my head, with the pillowcase draped over my head and tucked in around the top of my head to cover my eyes (but leaving my nose and mouth uncovered). And that makes it possible for me to sleep in all sorts of lighting conditions.

Speaking of light, I should mention the blue-light thing. Blue light can make it harder to fall asleep, and a lot of screens emit blue light. For me personally, this doesn’t seem to be an issue; as far as I can tell, there’s no particular correlation for me between blue light and my ability to fall asleep on a given night. But I figure it can’t hurt to reduce my blue-light exposure at night anyway, so I use Apple’s Night Shift feature to shift to warmer colors on my devices at night.

I’ve also been replacing most of the lightbulbs in my house with LED bulbs over time, and I’ve been getting those in warmer colors rather than the cooler “daylight” colors (because I like the warmer colors better in general). So I’m probably exposed to less blue light in general than I used to be. (But I haven’t noticed a particular effect on my sleep from this. And this change in my home lighting may result in my not getting enough blue light in the mornings, I’m not sure.)


I’ve seen various sources that say that the best temperature for sleeping for most people is 65°F. I’m surprised by that; I would expect that it would vary hugely by local temperatures and by individual.

I can usually sleep in a range of temperatures, but I do have trouble sleeping if I’m too hot or too cold. So adjusting the temperature of the room can help, as can using more or fewer blankets and such.

The temperature issue that affects my sleep most often is that I can’t sleep when my feet are too cold, and my feet are often too cold at night. I don’t tend to consciously notice that until I’m in bed, at which point I can’t stop noticing.

A couple of techniques for warming up cold feet:

  • Wear warm socks and/or slippers for a while before bed, so my feet are already warm enough when I go to bed. (Requires a fair bit of advance planning.)
  • Heat up a microwavable heating pad/wrap (or a hot water bottle, though I’ve never used one of those) and bring it to bed with me. (Requires a little bit of advance planning, or getting up again to heat the item after going to bed.)
  • Soak my feet in hot water. (Also requires a little advance planning, or getting up again.)
  • Pile several blankets on top of my feet, and tuck them in around my feet. (This is what I’ve been doing lately; it doesn’t require any advance planning, and it doesn’t require getting out of bed, and it almost always works within a couple of minutes.)

Anxiety reduction

I think that a lot of my insomnia is connected to anxiety. So I think that reducing anxiety has probably been the biggest thing that’s helped me have less insomnia in the long run.

Some of that anxiety reduction has involved long-term projects, like talk therapy. But some of it is more specific and immediate.

For example: Long ago, I read part of a book called No More Sleepless Nights. Most of what I read didn’t help me much, but there was one paradigm (at least I think it was from that book) that was life-changing for me: the idea that missing a night of sleep wasn’t usually a big deal.

If I remember right, the anecdote in the book was about one of the researchers having not slept for a night, and then giving a presentation the next day. They felt that the presentation had gone poorly due to their lack of sleep, but colleagues didn’t notice anything wrong.

I don’t mean to say that sleep deprivation isn’t a problem at all. It can be a huge problem, especially if it continues over time.

But having one sleepless night every now and then, for most people in most contexts, isn’t the enormous problem that it may seem to be while you’re lying awake and fretting.

Having that paradigm in mind had been really useful to me on nights when I just can’t get to sleep. I can reassure myself that it’s okay if I don’t sleep—and that reassurance has often helped me relax enough that I do fall asleep, because part of what was keeping me awake was fretting about not sleeping.

Relatedly, I often find that distracting my anxious mind can give me a chance to get sleepy. I do that in any of a bunch of different ways:

  • Lately, I’ve been using an iPad puzzle app called Nonograms. Doing a “Hard”-level nonogram (15x15) turns out to be the perfect level of mind engagement for me—it apparently requires enough of my attention to distract me from stressed thoughts, while not requiring so much of my attention that it keeps me awake. (The “Easy” and “Medium” difficulty levels in that app don’t engage me enough, and the “Expert” level requires too much thought.)
  • Sometimes, reading puts me to sleep. This, too, only works within a particular range; if I try to read something really engaging, it’s likely to keep me awake. But reading something that I find dull can be very helpful.
  • Writing things down. Sometimes, what’s keeping me awake is trying to keep a bunch of things in mind that I need to remember, such as tasks for me to do the next day. Writing a to-do list seems to let me let go of having to hold all those things in my head.
  • Something that I call “fast free-associating.” I think of a word, then I think of whatever word the first word leads me to, no matter how tenuous the connection, and I keep going with that, going as fast as I can, and not pausing to think about anything else. The speed and focus helps prevent other kinds of thoughts from happening. On the minus side, the self-imposed need to go fast can raise anxiety/tension/awakeness a bit; but usually the distraction has made up for that. (Added later: Other people have developed similar techniques, such as Luc Beaudoin’s cognitive shuffle. I’ve never tried using an external source of more or less random words/images, like Beaudoin’s app MySleepButton, but I find the idea intriguing.)

Physical relaxation/comfort

Sometimes what’s keeping me awake is physical rather than (or in addition to) mental, such as physical discomfort or tension. I covered some physical factors above, but here are a couple more things that can help me relax:

  • A warm bath. This requires what feels like a lot of work (getting out of bed, filling the bathtub), and it’s not recommended during a drought, but I feel like it can sometimes help.
  • Sex (partnered or solo).
  • Find a more comfortable sleeping position. If there’s an extra pillow poking the back of my head, move it. If there’s a lump in the bed, avoid it. Etc.
  • Get up and use the bathroom, if needed.

One other physical issue: sleep apnea. Stopping breathing while sleeping can lead to a variety of negative effects. I had a period a few years ago when I was getting plenty of hours of sleep, but felt exhausted all the time, as if I hadn’t slept at all. Eventually I had a home sleep study done (I had to wait months for the relevant doctor to have time in their schedule). I think the results were inconclusive. But around that time, I adjusted my pillows on my bed, and I went back to getting more restful sleep at night and not being so sleepy during the day. So I never went to do a full apnea test, because the problem seemed to have gone away. But friends of mine have benefited greatly from having apnea tests and acquiring CPAP machines to help them breathe.

Give up

If all else fails, and I just can’t get to sleep no matter what I try, then I give up on trying to get to sleep. I read a book in bed, or I get up and do work, or I otherwise just acknowledge that I’m not going to get back to sleep and I may as well do stuff.

Sometimes when I take that approach, I do end up getting sleepy after a little while, and I go to sleep. Sometimes, though, I just stay awake and get things done. The former may be preferable, but the latter is usually okay too, for me, as long as the sleeplessness doesn’t persist for more than one or two nights.


One of the things that helps me fall asleep is having a list of things to do when I can’t sleep. I made that list a few years ago, and now when I can’t sleep, I open the list and look at it. Sometimes, despite not being sleepy, I’m so tired and muzzyheaded that I don’t remember some of the easy obvious things that help me, like taking NyQuil. So the list is great.

One last general meta-approach that helps me: Experimenting. There are dozens of things that people do to try to deal with insomnia. For me, thinking of various approaches as experiments to try, and to learn from, can help me not invest too much emotional energy and anxiety in any one approach working.

Some further resources

A week after I first posted this page, Sumana linked to it from MetaFilter. (Hi, visitors from MetaFilter!) That MeFi post also included a link to a 2024 sleep masterpost by Azure Jane Lunatic (Azz), which includes a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve never tried but that sounds like great ideas. And other folks have provided further notes about what does and doesn’t help them sleep, in comments on both the MeFi post and the sleep masterpost.