https://www.self.com-By Patia Braithwaite
Anyone who has wearily dragged themselves to bed, gotten under the covers, and discovered that they can’t sleep knows that figuring out how to fall asleep faster is an elaborate affair. As you toss, turn, scroll through Instagram, and keep calculating how many hours of sleep you’ll have if you crash right now, the desire to fall asleep faster becomes another stressor keeping you awake. You might be wondering if there’s a better way to drift off. Well, you’ve come to the right place. Below, you’ll see an exploration of why good sleep is so important, plus a list of expert-approved techniques to help accelerate your journey into dreamland.
It’s reasonable to want to fall asleep faster—sleep is really important.
If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that no one needs to sell you on the virtues of a good night’s sleep. But since sleep is vital to our survival and well-being, just like food and water, let’s go through a quick recap anyway.
The average adult between the ages of 18 and 64 needs between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, according to National Sleep Foundation guidelines published in 2015. There’s research to suggest that getting enough quality sleep can remove toxins in your brain that build up from, you know, being awake all day, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains. Getting quality sleep also helps you consolidate memories, restores your brain’s ability to concentrate, and rebuilds your muscles, among plenty of other benefits. There’s also significant evidence that a consistent lack of sleep can wreak all kinds of havoc on your health, including increased risk of high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes, the NINDS explains.
Your body has a natural 24-hour cycle, called a circadian rhythm, that dictates when you start to feel tired. Your circadian rhythm actually governs a bunch of processes in your body, including your metabolism and various hormone fluctuations. Still, it’s best known as the internal mechanism that clues you into sleepiness and wakefulness. A host of external and internal factors influence your circadian rhythm, including light and temperature, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).
As it gets dark, your internal clock sends a message to your brain, where your pineal gland releases melatonin, a significant player in your ongoing rest quest, the NINDS says. “Melatonin is a hormone that is in charge of signaling for sleep,” Dianne Augelli, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an assistant professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, tells SELF. “Basically, it’s sending a signal to the brain: ‘Hey, it’s time for sleep,’” she explains.
The good news is that, by tweaking your environment, you might be able to help your body realize what your brain already knows: that you want to fall asleep faster.
Better sleep hygiene can help you fall asleep faster (and stay asleep longer).
You might imagine sleep hygiene as the rest-related equivalent of regular showers or brushing your teeth. And, in truth, it sort of is. Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors and practices that facilitate healthy and productive sleep, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. Naturally, people tend to start really caring about sleep hygiene when they start having sleep issues, Donald Greenblatt, M.D., director of the University of Rochester Medicine Sleep Center, tells SELF. Once you start assessing your habits, you might discover why you’re having trouble sleeping each night.
Here are 12 sleep hygiene best practices you can adopt to fall asleep faster:
- Commit to a consistent bedtime and wake time.
It might be tempting to stuff your sleep into any gaps of time you have, which can include sleeping later and longer whenever possible, but that’s counterproductive. Instead, aim for a sleep schedule, the Mayo Clinic says. That helps get you in the routine of getting enough sleep. And here’s a biggie: Your weekend routine shouldn’t deviate from your weekday schedule very much, the CDC explains. It might be tough to pull off, but it’s worth a try.
- Limit the time you spend napping.
Naps are so delicious—they’re an afternoon treat that can help you get through the rest of the day. But if you’re finding that you’re more awake at night than you’d like, it might be time to let them go. Or, if you’re committed to naps, make sure that they don’t exceed 30 minutes each day, and consider moving them so they don’t happen too late in the afternoon, the Mayo Clinic suggests.
- Do something soothing if you can’t fall asleep.
When sleep doesn’t come quickly, it’s natural to move around in bed to bide your time, but does this really help? Nope. More often than not, tossing and turning leads to frustration that works against falling asleep faster. Instead of huffing and puffing, try getting out of bed and leaving your bedroom for about 20 minutes to do something relaxing, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Read, listen to soothing music, or engage in another calming habit until you’re feeling more tired, then climb back into bed and give it another try.
- Don’t fall asleep with the TV on.
Remember, as the sun goes down, your pineal gland begins to pump melatonin into your bloodstream. When you keep lights on, even from your favorite TV show, it can interfere with this melatonin signaling and make it a little more challenging to fall asleep quickly, SELF previously reported. And even if you do knock out, there’s also some evidence that the variances in TV light throughout the night can keep you from getting quality sleep.
- Eliminate other sources of light too.
Since you’re turning off the television before you get into bed, it might be worth it to look around your space and see where you can eliminate other sources of light. Perhaps you can get curtains that block street light, or put your phone in another room if you tend to scroll through Instagram in bed, the Mayo Clinic suggests. “If we have [too much] light at the wrong time, it can tell your body to wake up and stay awake,” Dr. Augelli explains. “So we have to be careful about the timing of our light consumption.” If you can’t control the amount of light in your room, think about getting an eye mask to block out light.
- Consider the sound quality in your room.
Much like light can keep you awake, sounds—like from your TV or your loud neighbors—can keep you up longer than you’d like. If ambient sounds are an issue, consider trying to use a fan or white noise machine to help alleviate that. The consistent whir of a sound machine can help soften the impact of other erratic noise that could keep you awake, the CDC suggests.
- Regulate the temperature in your room.
Light gets a lot of credit for encouraging your circadian rhythm to do its job, but temperature also plays a role. As SELF previously reported, a room that’s between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit tends to be most people’s sleepy-time sweet spot. If you can’t regulate the temperature in your room (hello, old New York City apartment), consider switching up your bedding, sleeping with lighter (or heavier) pajamas, or a host of other things to get your ideal sleep temperature.
- Exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime).
Engaging in a little more exercise during the day could help you ease into sleep, the CDC says. Experts aren’t exactly sure about the physiological mechanism, but according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, exercising during the day does increase deep sleep. Be mindful, however, that doing a physical activity too close to bedtime might keep you awake. This is because aerobic exercise can cause you to release endorphins (which make your brain more active) and raise your core body temperature, Johns Hopkins Medicine says.
- Incorporate some bedtime stretching.
Yes, vigorous exercise before bed might keep you up, but consider grabbing your yoga mat and doing some gentle exercises to help you relax before bed. Why? Static stretching encourages deep breathing, which encourages your relaxation response, SELF previously reported. Looking for a few ideas? We have a 5-minute bedtime stretching routine you can try tonight.
- Limit nighttime cocktails and caffeine.
If the pandemic has brought a new fondness of nightcaps and quarantine cocktails into your life, they might be working against you. Yes, alcohol does relax you, but it can diminish the quality of sleep, and keep you from staying asleep, the CDC says. And, depending on your system, you might want to make sure you time your afternoon coffee so that it doesn’t keep you awake at night. As SELF previously reported, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it takes four to six hours for half the caffeine you’ve consumed to leave your body. This means that after about five hours, you still have another half of your ingested caffeine to metabolize, which can definitely keep you up.
- Don’t use your phone to “doom scroll” (or do anything else).
We’ve already discussed how light from your phone can interfere with melatonin production, but we haven’t addressed how scrolling through your phone, reading new coronavirus updates, checking email, or chatting with your friend in Hong Kong can keep your mind active. If you find that racing thoughts or mindless phone use is to blame, consider keeping your phone out of arm’s reach and switching it out for a good book before bed.
- Come up with a nightly routine that eases you into bedtime.
Depending on what keeps you up at night, this might be an excellent opportunity to intentionally relax before bed. You can try meditation, journaling, or reading, the Mayo Clinic says. But the important thing is to find a mindful and relaxing activity that works for you. Overall, a bedtime routine helps “signal to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep,” Carl Bazil, MD, Ph.D., director of the Division of Epilepsy and Sleep at Columbia University, previously told SELF.
When should you see a doctor about your sleep routine?
There’s a difference between wanting to learn how to fall asleep faster and dealing with sleeping patterns that involve truly being unable to fall asleep (or waking up for 20 to 30 minutes regularly during the night). And, let’s be completely honest, there are so many stressors and factors that could be keeping you up right now. In fact, the Mayo Clinic says, at some point, most adults will experience a short-term bout of insomnia. But if you are having trouble falling or staying asleep and it lasts more than a month, it might be time to work with your doctor to see if there are underlying factors, like medication or health conditions at play, the Mayo Clinic says. If it’s been less time than that but your sleeping pattern is severely impacting your quality of life—making it hard for you to carry out normal functions—it could also be time to see your doctor.
Your provider might conduct a physical exam (to identify possible underlying conditions), according to the Mayo Clinic. They might also have you keep a sleep journal, fill out a questionnaire to assess your sleepiness and wakefulness, and potentially connect you with a specialist or sleep center for further evaluation, the Mayo Clinic explains. Whether or not you’re dealing with insomnia, it’s important to pay attention to your sleep quality. Restful sleep makes it a little easier to deal with the challenges and curveballs that come with being alive and staying healthy right now.
Patia Braithwaite is a writer and editor who joined SELF in May 2019. She was previously the wellness editor at Refinery29, and her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post and VICE.