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Information from Your Family Doctor

Insomnia: What to Do When You Can't Sleep


Am Fam Physician. 1999 Apr 1;59(7):1918.

  See related article on insomnia.

This handout describes some simple things that you can do to help your insomnia. Follow these tips each night. Don't be worried if it takes a week or two before you can tell a difference.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about your sleep problem. Insomnia can be caused by many medical conditions. Treating the medical condition may be necessary before you can sleep better. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to help you sleep. These medicines can help, but they should only be used for a short time (less than 4 weeks).

Change your lifestyle to promote good sleep

  • Avoid caffeine, especially in the afternoon or evening. Coffee, cola and tea are obvious sources of caffeine. Caffeine may also “hide” chocolate, medicines, diet pills and soft drinks

  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it will make you wake up again later on in the night.

  • Avoid tobacco and any other stimulating drugs at bedtime. Ask your doctor if any of the medicines you take may be causing sleep problems.

  • Exercise regularly. However, avoid exercising within three or four hours before you go to bed.

  • Try eating a light snack before bedtime, such as crackers and milk. But don't eat a heavy meal close to bedtime.

Improve your sleep environment

  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom cool, but not cold. Keep the bedroom dark and quiet. Be sure your mattress is comfortable.

Slow down your mind at bedtime

  • Many people find it hard to “turn off their mind” at bedtime. If this happens to you, gently remind yourself that you can think about these things tomorrow. Then set the thoughts aside. You may have to try this several times before your mind quiets down.

  • Setting up a special time early in the evening to worry and think may keep you from doing it at bedtime.

Follow these rules for healthy sleep

  1. Don't go to bed until you're sleepy. There's no point in going to bed if your body isn't ready to sleep yet. You can't make yourself fall asleep.

  2. Don't use the bed for anything except sleeping. Don't read, worry, eat, watch television or do anything else in bed (sex is okay). The bed is for sleeping.

  3. If you're not asleep after about 20 minutes, leave the bedroom. Do something relaxing and return to bed when you're sleepy.

  4. Repeat step 3 as many times as needed. Soon you will get into bed and fall asleep within 20 minutes.

  5. Get up at the same time every day.

  6. Don't take naps.

Steps 5 and 6 will help make sure you're sleepy at bedtime. If you follow these tips and your insomnia doesn't get better, be sure to tell your doctor.

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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May 2022

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