You’ve felt tired all day long. It was almost impossible to stay awake while sitting at your work desk today. You even needed to crack the windows on your ride home just to feel more alert. But the minute you climb into bed, you can’t fall asleep. Sound familiar?
Lying in bed unable to fall asleep is one of the most commonly reported sleep problems. Experts believe it occurs when your brain remains aroused despite your desperate need for sleep. The more you become conditioned to lying in bed awake, the worse the problem becomes. You can break the habit by using good sleep hygiene tips. Here is how to fall asleep fast.
If you consistently find yourself laying in bed unable to sleep, it might be due to a learned behavior. According to Philip Gehrman, sleep-medicine specialist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, arousals in your sleep environment might be preventing you from falling asleep. After many days of lying there awake, your body becomes conditioned to this behavior and makes a habit out of it (1).
Gehrman says that if you are a good sleeper, you’ll become conditioned to falling asleep shortly after going to bed due to an auto response. But the same auto response occurs if you spend several nights lying awake. He stated that if you spend lots of time tossing and turning, you will associate your bed with sleeplessness.
Many obvious things can keep you awake at night, such as watching TV in bed or using an electronic device. This causes you to associate your bed with work or entertainment and not sleep. Even good sleepers can throw off their cycle with one stressful day. Losing your job or the death of a loved one can bring about anxious thoughts that disrupt your sleep by altering brain waves and other patterns in your circadian rhythm. This type of insomnia is referred to as psychophysiological insomnia. It creates a cycle of worrisome thoughts and sleeplessness.
The foods you eat can keep you awake. Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can cause arousals that make you feel alert while you’re trying to rest. Caffeine may be lurking in unsuspecting foods, such as chocolate, soda, tea, and even some desserts. Eating spicy or acidic food before bed can cause heartburn, which is a condition that is worsened by lying down (2). Having a warm glass of milk might be something your grandma used to get you to fall asleep fast, but many food experts don’t recommend it. Cow’s milk is highly inflammatory and can cause bloating, gas or other digestive problems right before bed.
Anxiety and stress are by far the most commonly reported sleep disruptors. Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress. It occurs when you feel threatened and develop fearful thoughts as a result. Research shows that stress causes a stimulatory effect on the brain that prevents you from falling asleep (3). Stress also affects neurons that interfere with a variety of functions, such as eating, growth, reproduction, and sex.
Stress alters the quality of the sleep you get. One study found that acute (short-term) stress affects REM sleep, which is the most restorative form (4). Another study found that rats who were exposed to chronic long-term stress had a decrease in REM sleep and slow wave sleep. They were also prone to waking up spontaneously even when they weren’t stressed (3).
Studies on humans found that there is a close relationship between brain activity and sleep structure. Research shows that the HPA axis is inhibited during the early stages of nocturnal sleep when slow wave sleep occurs. During later stages of sleep, such as in REM sleep, the HPA axis activity increases. Sympathetic nervous system activity is reduced during slow wave sleep, which suggests that there is a definite link between the amount of REM sleep you get and how active your HPA axis and sympathetic system are (3).
Data shows that the stress hormone cortisol produces either prolonged sleep onset, increased sleep fragmentation, or reduced slow wave sleep. Patients with insomnia tend to have increased daytime arousal as well as increased HPA axis and sympathetic activity (3). In other words, the more aroused you feel during the day, the harder it is to turn off your brain at night. Worrisome or anxious thoughts present at bedtime caused you to feel too stressed to sleep. One way to combat this is to find a healthy and productive way to deal with stress.
Insomnia can be described in many different ways. Generally, you need to meet one of the following qualifications to receive a diagnosis:
- Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
- Waking up several times in the night
- Waking up earlier then you’d like in the morning
- Feeling groggy when you first wake up
- The presence of daytime symptoms to include increased tiredness, decreased concentration, or cognitive problems
Luckily, many sleep problems can be corrected naturally without pharmaceutical intervention. When you maintain good sleep hygiene, you create a positive association between your bed and sleep. These tips can help you fall fast asleep.
Lying in bed for hours unable to sleep creates an auto response between insomnia and your bed. You begin to expect problems with sleep before they start every time you crawl into bed. Give yourself a 15 to a 20-minute grace period. If you haven’t fallen asleep by then, get up and participate in a quiet activity until you feel tired enough to try again. Stay away from electronics as this can further stimulate you and prevent sleep. Try listening to soothing music or taking a warm shower with calming scents. Some people even do some light housework, such as hand washing dishes or folding laundry.
If you can’t fall asleep upon lying down, it might be because the light in your room is signaling your brain to stay awake. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, being exposed to blue light in your room before bed prevents you from falling asleep (5). The study found that 99 percent of individuals who were exposed to blue light in the eight hours before bedtime had reduced melatonin levels.
Additionally, exposure to light during regular hours of sleep decreased melatonin in approximately 85 percent of trials (5). Authors of the study concluded that when melatonin levels are suppressed, it shortens the body’s ability to recognize nocturnal sleep patterns. Exposing yourself to light at night impacts your sleep, body temperature, blood pressure, and glucose metabolism (5).
Sleep experts recommend limiting blue light exposure two hours before bed. This means kicking all electronics out of your bedroom and finding other ways to wind down at night besides watching TV. Looking for a non-electrical way to relax? Try reading a book, soaking in a bath, or taking the dog for a walk. Journaling is another good way to reduce stress and relax. Write out song lyrics or a to-do list for tomorrow. Some people even find coloring to be relaxing.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a preferred non-pharmaceutical treatment among sleep experts. According to Consumers Reports, it’s better than taking a synthetic drug because it has no side effects and may even continue working long after the therapy ends (6). Cognitive behavioral therapy works by teaching you how to improve your sleep habits, including anxious thoughts that prevent you from falling asleep. You will meet with a trained mental health care provider who will walk you through how to change your behavior when presented with difficult sleep situations. Commonly used techniques include sleep restriction and controlled stimulus therapy.
During sleep restriction, you go to bed much later than normal or only go to sleep when you’re exhausted. The idea behind this type of therapy is that you’ll fall asleep faster when you’re slightly sleep deprived. Controlled stimulus therapy asks you to improve your bedroom atmosphere so that you associate it with sleep only. Keeping your room dark and electronic-free is an example of stimulus control therapy. After a few practice sessions in your licensed therapist’s office, you’ll have the knowledge required to help you fall asleep faster for the rest of your life.
You can also use relaxation techniques to quiet your mind and body before sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing every major muscle group in your body for several seconds and then releasing. You can do it while lying in bed. Hold each muscle contraction for up to 30 seconds. Exhale as you let your muscle relax and blow out any tension in the body. You should feel completely relaxed when you’re done.
Similarly, meditation can help you relax and even increase your melatonin levels. Research shows that people who meditate sleep longer and better than those who don’t (7). There is no wrong way to meditate. You can visualize a peaceful scene, count sheep, or just focus on your breath for a few minutes. Do it in bed or a comfortable chair just before turning in for the night.
Breaking a sweat is the best thing you can do when you feel stressed. It helps you sweat out toxins that are caused by prolonged stress. Exercise also helps keep you in control of your weight, which is important since obesity is linked to sleep loss. Additionally, exercise can help put your mind at ease by making you feel tired. A survey from the National Sleep Foundation showed that people who exercise get better sleep than those who don’t (8). Although exercise doesn’t have to be hard to be effective, the report indicated that vigorous exercisers got the best sleep.
Aim for a morning exercise session, and you’ll likely feel energized throughout the day so you can rely on less caffeine. When night hits, you’ll be tired from going all day long on natural energy. If you can’t fit it in all at once, try breaking up one long exercise session into smaller ones throughout the day. Wake up 30 minutes earlier in the morning and go for a walk or hit the gym on the way home from work. Even fitting in a workout on your lunch break can help you sleep and improve your daytime symptoms.
If you’re sleep deprived, coffee is probably your go-to drink. But try to resist. Research shows that caffeine can stay in your system for as long as ten hours. Plus, the more you drink, the more you’ll become jittery (and dehydrated). A dehydrated body is a tired body. If you crave a hot beverage, try herbal tea. It’s caffeine free. Even hot water and lemon is a good replacement for coffee. You’ll even save on some calories and eliminate harmful toxins.
A natural sleep aid may be able to shorten the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. Research shows that many herbs and other natural remedies are just as effective as prescription drugs at treating your insomnia. You’re also less likely to become addicted to them or experience adverse side effects. Take your natural sleep aid an hour or so before bed to allow it time to kick in. For best results, try using a sleep aid as part of a bedtime routine. Spend the hour before you go to bed preparing for sleep. Take your sleep aid and follow it up with a 20-minute soak in the tub. Pack your gym bag for tomorrow or sip some herbal tea and go to bed.
You can condition yourself to fall asleep fast by decreasing arousals that keep you alert. Developing an auto response between sleep and your bed is an important way to get the sleep you need. Getting up when you can’t sleep, practicing progressive muscle relaxation, and taking a natural sleep aid can help. You’ll want to feel relaxed and stress-free when you go to bed, so try exercising in the morning and avoiding caffeine later in the day. Changing your sleep habits can reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep without pharmaceutical assistance.