Oh Sunday night, how troublesome you can be. For almost 40 percent of Americans, the last night of the weekend is the one we spend tossing and turning, wondering how to fall asleep.
And when you take a close look at insomnia and other sleep disorder statistics from the American Sleep Association, things don’t exactly look better the rest of the week. Hundreds of thousands of us fall in bed every night and beg our brains to just shut up and let us sleep already.
What’s going on?
When it comes time to go to bed, most of us would love to fall asleep the minute our heads hit the pillow. The faster it happens, the faster we can head into dreamland, right?
The good news is we really can fall asleep fast, according to Steven Woltering, PhD, head of the Human Clinical Research Facility and director and founder of the Neurobiological Lab for Learning and Development at Texas A&M University. Woltering and his colleagues have studied sleep onset latency (SOL), the amount of time that it takes the body to transition from being fully awake to sleeping soundly.
In a survey of 2,000 healthy, typically developing people, Woltering says the average time people self-reported falling asleep was less than 2 minutes. When Woltering’s team added more controls to measure the sleep conditions (aka not going by self reports), the number was higher but still below about 8 minutes. Women tended to have a longer SOL than men, even if they transitioned to sleep quickly.
Yet a third of us struggle to fall asleep at night, putting the number of Americans with insomnia—the diagnosis for trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep—in the millions, and forcing 5 percent of women to turn to sleep medications to help them catch a break at bedtime. So what’s going on?
First, a bit of good news: Doctors don’t consider you to be a “problem sleeper” if you’re not falling asleep within 8 minutes. In fact, trouble falling asleep is not considered a “pathological problem” until it’s happening on a regular basis, according to David White, chief medical officer of Philips Sleep and Respiratory Care. You need to lie in bed for 30 minutes (or more) more than three times a week for a month for a doctor to make an insomnia diagnosis, White says.
An insomnia diagnosis can be short term or chronic, meaning some people will struggle with sleep for just a few weeks or as little as three months, whereas others can face bedtime battles for longer. The reasons this is happening—and the speed with which you can (or can’t) kick insomnia—are as individual as people themselves.
“The more we learn about what goes on in our brain when we fall asleep, the more we realize that sleep does not depend on a single mechanism,” Woltering tells HealthyWay. “There are a number of brain nuclei, biochemicals, and endocrine systems involved, and they all interact. What this tells us is that sleep has evolved as a very important function. I think having such a complex and widespread network is helpful in terms of having some safeguards: If something goes amiss with one system another can take over to compensate so we can still sleep.”
One of the biggest factors in whether we fall asleep quickly is a brain chemical called adenosine. Adenosine builds up when you’re awake, and the longer you’re awake, the more you tend to have.
“The more adenosine you have in your system, the more pressure you will feel to go to sleep! It’s like an internal clock,” Woltering says.
Unfortunately caffeine, certain medications, stress, and other factors can block our adenosine receptors, keeping us awake longer.
So, is it possible to fall asleep faster and actually stay that way? The experts say yes! Here’s how to alter your space, your body, and your mind to make it easier to fall asleep fast—and stay asleep.
If you get the minimum seven hours of sleep a night that adults are supposed to get, each year you’ll spend some 2,500 hours in bed (or wherever you zonk out). But if your bedroom isn’t primed for sleep, you’re probably going to spend a whole lot of that time trying to convince your brain to quiet down so you can catch some ZZZs.
Lighting: The body depends on periods of light and dark to adjust our circadian rhythms, the internal clock that tells us when we should be asleep and when we should be awake. But too much light in your bedroom will throw that out of whack, White says. A bedroom should be as dark as possible, with the addition of room-darkening curtains and other means to block out distracting light that could trigger the brain to stay awake.
One of the biggest offenders is blue light, aka the light that’s emitted by a smartphone or tablet screen, White says. “It’s innately alerting,” he warns. “It makes you wake up!”
Clocks: Most of us depend on an alarm clock to wake us up in the morning, but if your clock has numbers that are visible from your bed, you need to turn it around…or remove it from the room entirely, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of the book From Fatigued to Fantastic!
Clocks in the room can heighten our insomnia anxiety. Our brains are trying to wind down and fall asleep fast, but we’re watching the time slip by, and the stress hormone cortisol is rising in the brain…which keeps us awake. Dump the clock, and you don’t know how long it’s taking you to fall asleep. That in and of itself can make the transition from wide awake to dreaming go faster.
Temperature: Growing up, we learned that the average body temperature is 98.6 degrees, and that’s a sign of health. What you might not have learned is that your body temperature fluctuates during the day, and it tends to drop at night. That’s because body temperature and sleep are directly linked.
As researchers Kazue Okamoto-Mizuno and Koh Mizuno explained in a sleep and thermoregulation study published in 2012 in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, “heat exposure increases wakefulness and decreases slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep.” Meanwhile, the researchers found, the relationship between your sleep–wake rhythm and the circadian rhythm of your body’s core temperature is important for maintaining sleep.
In other words: If your room is too hot, you’re not going to fall asleep quickly (or maybe at all!) The optimal temperature for a room—according to the science—is between about 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re wearing pajamas and using a sheet. If you sleep in the buff and skip out on any sort of covering (no sheet, no blankets), the researchers say you can dial up the temperature to as high as 89 degrees.
Sounds: Some people need strict silence to fall asleep, while others struggle if it’s too quiet. If you’re the former, a white noise machine may help block out distracting street sounds, White says.
If you’re in the latter camp, playing relaxing music (think Johann Sebastian Bach, not Justin Bieber) has scientifically backed benefits. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, listening to classical music can reduce sympathetic nervous system activity and decrease anxiety, blood pressure, heart, and respiratory rate. In turn, those help soothe the body off to dreamland.
Scents: Aromatherapy may not be a fast fix, but it could be the answer to the question of how to fall asleep without medication.
Teitelbaum says there are benefits to relaxing essential oils in the bedroom. Although much is anecdotal, at least one study has shown lavender, in particular, has a soporific effect. It might be worth a spritz of the pillow…at least! And yes, you should stop rolling your eyes at the friend who is always blathering on about their diffuser and essential oils on Facebook now.
Prepping your room will only get you so far when it comes to cutting your sleep onset latency. Your body has to be ready too.
Cut back on caffeine and alcohol: The stimulating effects of caffeine help wake up the more than half of Americans who suck down at least one cup of coffee every day. But caffeine’s effect on the adenosine receptors can make falling asleep fast impossible, especially if you’re drinking coffee or soda after 4 p.m., Woltering says.
Alcohol, on the other hand, may well allow you to fall asleep or even help you to fall asleep. The trouble comes later in the night, when your body tries to transition into REM sleep.
“Alcohol actually suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep,” Woltering explains. “We still have a lot to learn about sleep and alcohol. What is fascinating is that researchers are beginning to link chronic alcohol intake with the development of psychopathology. Our brains crave dream sleep and if they don’t get it, pressure starts to build up in our brains to have more of it. Now, it may be—and this is speculative—that some of the delirium that you see with chronic alcoholism may be explained by the brain starting to dream while we’re still ‘awake.’ REM sleep is bleeding through in our waking lives!”
Unfortunately, the way alcohol affects REM sleep can mean you fall asleep easily at first, but after your body awakens during REM sleep, you can’t fall back to sleep.
Plan your exercise wisely: Remember when you were a kid, and you were absolutely wiped out at the end of a long day of running around with your friends? Most of us spend a whole lot of time sitting on our rear ends and not a lot of time tiring our bodies out. Increasing the amount of exercise you get to at least 150 minutes per week has been linked to improved sleep quality.
But White is quick to advise that patients sneak in their workouts early in the day if possible. Working out before bedtime may tire out your muscles, but stimulating activity that raises your heart rate can actually keep you up.
Get comfy: If you’re a dedicated morning shower person, it might be time for a change. Night showers (or baths) have been shown to help us get to sleep faster, because they lower the body temperature, which works in conjunction with a cooler bedroom to signal to the body that it’s time to dream.
But don’t get too cool! The same scientists who found overheating could keep us up found that being too cool could have the same effect. One quick fix that’s backed by science? Throw on a pair of socks to keep your tootsies from getting too cold. If you sleep with a partner, they’ll appreciate not being woken up by a cold foot to the leg!
Another piece of getting comfy is considering your food choices. Large meals shortly before bedtime can weigh heavy in the gut and keep you awake, White says, so it’s wise to get dinner over with well before you plan to hit the sack. If you’re absolutely starving, stick with something small (and non-caffeinated).
Get help: Even if you’re trying to avoid medication to help you sleep, your doctor can advise you on whether you should try melatonin (a natural supplement that mimics the body’s own sleep hormones), check to see if any medications you’re currently taking could be keeping you awake, and test you for health issues that might make it harder to fall asleep.
The leading cause of insomnia, at least among women, is anxiety. White calls it ruminating—while other people fall off to sleep, the issues they’re facing in their day-to-day life keep them tossing and turning.
Get help: This type of insomnia is what White calls “psychophysiological insomnia.” Once the mental health concern is addressed, the insomnia should go away. Seeking help via a therapist is one means to make a difference.
Meditate: If you don’t feel like your problems have reached the level of speaking to a physician, 15 to 20 minutes per day of meditation has been linked to better sleep. As Light Watkins, meditation teacher and author of the book Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying, tells HealthyWay, “The time you spend meditating will get refunded back to you in time you’re not wishing you were sleeping deeper.”
Set up a routine: Kids aren’t the only ones whose minds wind down when they follow through the same steps each evening.
“Parents have long known that creating a sleep routine, such as a bedtime story, eases children into sleep,” Teitelbaum says. “Adults are no different. Setting up a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading a book, or having a hot Epsom salt bath with a glass of wine, trains us to fall easily into sleep. Don’t expect to go from high stress right into sleep, any more than you would expect a child to do so!”
Trick yourself: If all else fails, a little reverse psychology may be the key to how you fall asleep fast and stay that way. Studies have found that trying to force ourselves to stay awake instead of trying to go to sleep can have a paradoxical effect. Essentially, our sleep onset latency speeds up because we’re telling ourselves not to fall asleep.