All too often, we take falling asleep for granted. For many of us, all we need to do is change into our pajamas, climb under the covers and fall straight to sleep. But it’s not always that easy. Knowing how to fall asleep is a real problem, bringing with it fatigue and frustration in equal measure, and more sleep-based stress.
According to one 2018 study in the Journal of Sleep Resources, stress is one of the leading causes for insomnia. It’s also responsible for almost half of all sleep issues. Indeed, it can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy where you worry so much about not being able to fall asleep that you end up lying there for hours thinking about it, unable to drift off.
Dr Monica Cain, a psychologist and member of Top Doctors, explains: “Sleep is one of those things that the harder we try at it, the more elusive it becomes and the more frustrated we feel.”
Below, she gives her tips for how to fall asleep, including foods you might want to avoid close to bedtime, and ways to help yourself unwind before bed.
How to fall asleep
The process of falling asleep shouldn’t start when you climb into bed. What you do during the day can also impact your chances of nodding off. Try to get a minimum of one hour’s natural light each day and, if you can, combine it with some exercise or activity as it’s good for the brain and the body. Humans are hard-wired to synchronize with the rising and setting of the sun, so if we don’t get enough natural daylight then it’s likely our brains won’t realize when it’s time to sleep.
You can also practice good sleep hygiene by making sure your bedroom is as light and noise-free as it can be, and the temperature isn’t too warm. A study in the journal Sleep revealed that high humidity in the bedroom can actually prevent adequate recuperation, reducing the length of time you spend in REM sleep - this is the phase that helps the body to recover.
Watch your diet
A 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that a diet high in sugar and saturated fats and low in fiber can affect how you get to sleep, as well as the quality of the sleep you get throughout the night. Reducing the amount of processed foods you eat can aid a better night’s sleep. It’s also good to drink less caffeine-based stimulants like coffee and tea, especially later in the day.
Learn to relax
Avoid any unnecessary stimuli before bedtime - be that physical or mental - and ditch the devices. The blue light that emanates from phones, tablets and computers acts to suppress melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep and wake cycle.
“Try to implement a wind down routine where you switch off from tech and TV,” says Cain. “Maybe end your day with some reflection of what went well, what you are grateful for and a couple of minutes focusing on your breathing.”
Relaxation techniques, like meditation or a hot bath, can also help to prepare your mind and body for a better night’s sleep. You might also want to try a ‘sleep script’. This involves recording yourself for a minute or so saying calming and positive messages that focus on reducing stress and tension. You can then play back the recording in the early evening – not at bedtime – so that you’re already beginning to think about sleep.
Read to sleep
Try reading a book to distract yourself from a busy or worried mind. “Keep some mildly interesting, but not too stimulating, reading material by your bed,” says Cain. Alternatively, listen to calming sleep stories featured on mindfulness apps or play some gentle instrumental music with no lyrics.
Manage your expectations
Don’t beat yourself up if you still find yourself unable to get to sleep easily. There are so many factors that can affect how well you manage to get to sleep and how long you stay asleep for, so try to take control of the ones you have some influence over. “If all else fails and you are lying wide awake, bring a gentle acceptance to this and try to remember that your body is resting even though you might not be sleeping, and that is a nice thing to let your body do,” adds Cain.
How long should it take to fall asleep?
The time it takes to fall asleep once you are in bed is called ‘sleep latency’. According to Sleep.org, the average person should fall asleep within 10-20 minutes of lying down and turning the light off. Any more or less than that could indicate an underlying health issue or a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.
Generally, medical professionals regard eight minutes or less as the point to determine whether a person is falling asleep too quickly. If you are falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, it could be that you’re suffering from narcolepsy. You might also have idiopathic hypersomnia, a rare condition that makes you sleepy during the day, even after what appears to have been a good night’s sleep. ‘Sleep debt’ - where failure to get sufficient quality sleep results in a deficit - could also be a root cause. Research has shown that sleep debt can not only lead to chronic fatigue and reduced productivity, but also to mood swings and anxiety.
If you are taking longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, however, then it may be down to stress or anxiety. Alternatively, it could be attributed to something as simple as drinking too much caffeine. While it may be tempting to have a coffee as a quick pick-me-up during the afternoon, it can still have a knock-on effect on your ability to fall asleep in the evening. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of lying there, it’s better to get up and do something else before returning to bed and trying again.
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A journalist, editor and author with over 25 years experience in the sports, health and fitness sectors, Gavin has written for a wide range of titles, including The Guardian, The Observer and The Sun in the UK, as well as international titles such as The New York Post. He also currently writes health features for the Telegraph newspaper in the UK, specializing in midlife issues.