How to fall asleep easily? Tips & tricks based on scientific research

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Joanna Sosnowska 11 minutes read

Falling asleep takes a healthy person around 10-20 minutes. But what to do if you’re not tired or your mind is racing? There are ways of calming your mind and falling asleep without sleeping pills.

Falling asleep is a complex chemical and mental process. That’s why, without a careful bedtime routine, it’s all too easy to disturb it. It’s impossible to pinpoint one element responsible for falling asleep, since the circadian rhythm, suprachiasmatic nucleus, and adenosine all take some part in it.

Why can’t you fall asleep?

Unfortunately, falling asleep is an act of chemistry, not an act of will. You can’t “make yourself” fall asleep. What you can do is prepare a favorable environment for inviting sleep.

The most common cause of falling-asleep problems is stress. You think about your work, problems, relationship, money – you name it. By doing so, you activate a defense mechanism. The sympathetic nervous system evolved to protect us in stressful situations. It’s responsible for the fight or flight response and manifests itself in increased heart rate, blood flow, metabolic rate, cortisol (stress hormone) level, and brain activity – if you know what stress is, you’re familiar with these symptoms. Such mobilization of your body is necessary to escape from or prevail against threats. But today, we’re overloaded with information and stress, so more too often, this defense mechanism is always left “on,” causing trouble sleeping.

Other possible reasons include:

– Depression and/or anxiety

– Pain

– Environmental factors (too hot, too much light, too loud)

– Some medication

– Emotional discomfort

– Blue light

– Delayed sleep phase disorder

What to do to avoid having problems with falling asleep?

You can start caring about your sleep hours before actually going to bed:

Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. Caffeine is an enemy of one of sleep’s great components – adenosine (or the pressure to go to sleep). Caffeine binds to the same receptors as adenosine, blocking them from adenosine. In effect, you don’t feel sleepy (although the sleep pressure is still in your system).

Go for a walk or do some light physical exercise. Gently stretch out. Sport reduces cortisol – the hormone of stress.

Try not looking at LCD screens an hour before bedtime – you probably heard about this one. LCD screens emit blue light which delays melatonin secretion. Melatonin is necessary in the falling-asleep process by announcing to the brain that it’s dark, and only then, the other processes can begin.

Take a hot bath – hot water dilates blood vessels, so you start losing temperature more quickly. Lowering body temperature is crucial in the process of falling asleep.

Avoid fatty and spicy foods before bedtime. Bowel movements stop around 10.30 pm – if you eat late and it’s hard to digest, you may have issues with falling or staying asleep.

Get a snack like bananas, dairy, avocados, lean proteins like poultry or fish, or nuts – they all aid in falling asleep.

Falling asleep: easy to say, hard to do

What is really important – and at the same time difficult to achieve – don’t stress about falling asleep. It’s best to give yourself some time in bed besides the time sleeping. Falling asleep is a process which can easily be disrupted by obsessive thoughts or anxiety. How can you calm yourself down and fall asleep easily? Try these tips, because with our lifestyle, falling asleep basically equals stress management:

– When going to bed, assume you won’t fall asleep immediately. That’s normal – a healthy person falls asleep within 10-20 minutes.

-If you have enough time (7-9 hours would be optimal), you won’t stress as much as if you had 5-6 hours of sleep.

Lavender oil has calming properties – you can add some to your linen or light a lavender candle.

Use a breathing technique – the 4-7-8 method is supposed to make you sleepy in under 60 seconds.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique for falling asleep

It was developed by a Harvard-educated Dr. Andrew Weil, who based it on the Hindu tradition of pranayama (different breathing techniques that accompany meditation). It works like this:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose. Count to four.
  • Hold your breath and count to seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth while counting to eight.
  • Repeat the cycle.

Some people claim it puts them to sleep in under 60 seconds, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case with you. The exercise works on the following assumption: when you focus on your breath, your mind should calm down and stop restlessly spinning out of control.

How to fall asleep when you can’t?

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Open the windows. Make your bedroom cooler and provide enough oxygen. The temperature has to be comfortable for you.

-Listen to relaxing music or white noise.

Use Nightly, a mobile app created to help people with sleeping disorders. It’s effective and easy to use. It starts with a brief video followed by a specially designed soothing soundtrack. Music has known calming properties and played repeatedly rocks you to sleep.  Then the app monitors your sleep, and whenever it detects you may be having a bad dream, or there’s a possibility of a wake-up, it repeats the music once again to make sure your night is uninterrupted.

-Try some natural sleep supplements: chamomile tea or valerian

Lavender oil – add it to your bath, or sprinkle a few drops on your pillow or your clothes. It has many healing properties and can be used to reduce anxiety.

-Repeat breathing techniques.

-If your mind is racing, try the box method – get a piece of paper, something to write with and a box. Write down whatever is bothering you on a piece of paper, and lock your worries inside the box. By doing so, you’re taking the burden off your brain, so it can unwind and stop ruminating.

-Try to avoid checking the time. Don’t magnify your stress.

How to fall asleep when you’re not tired?

We mentioned this before – make yourself tired. Exercise, go to the gym, or if you’re reluctant to sports – just take a longer walk home. Physical effort is one element. The second is your chronotype, or your personal preference of when to go to sleep and get up. You probably already know whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark, but if you don’t, the easiest way of telling is with this question: how do you feel about mornings? Larks thrive early in the day; owls despise it.

If you’re not tired, but feel it’s time you should be asleep, maybe it’s your chronotype that’s at fault. Unfortunately, the system is constructed to support mostly the larks and not the owls. Most responsible adults have to get up early and go to work. Students have to wake up early and go to school. If you know you’re a night owl and have a possibility of rescheduling morning meetings; you should probably do it. If not – the only thing left to do is try adjusting your circadian rhythm to the new circumstances.

Can you become a morning person?

Short answer – unfortunately, no. No amount of sleeping pills or meditation will transform you from a night person into a morning one. That goes both ways – a lark cannot become an owl. It’s innate, so no amount of socialization and no amount of practice will change your attitude towards mornings.

But – don’t lose hope. What you can do is adjust your circadian rhythm. It will require some willpower and a lot of practice, but it’s doable. You can train your body to become sleepy at a certain time by regularly going to bed at that time and not oversleeping in the morning to develop a new rhythm. And yes, that also includes the weekends. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t like changes. Every time you oversleep, it throws your circadian rhythm off by pushing the time you’ll get sleepy later into the night. The only way to train it to be sleepy at the time you want it to be sleepy is to be persistent. I know it sounds like a truism, but you know what? Sometimes, it’s just true.

Why can’t you stay asleep?

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It’s completely normal to wake up a few times during the night. As long as you fall back asleep within minutes, you have nothing to worry about. If on the other hand, you find yourself tossing and turning in bed in the middle of the night, there is some room for improvement.

What’s keeping you up? It may be:

  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Heartburn
  • Bladder
  • Pain
  • Diseases
  • Medication

Let’s deal with the most popular causes of unwanted wake-ups one at a time.

  • Stress – the greatest sleep thief. Not only is it able to mess with your falling asleep process, but it can also wake you up at night. And again – it’s the sympathetic nervous system that’s at fault. If in the middle of the night, you find yourself thinking about work or another stressful area of your life, try one of the above-mentioned remedies. Breathing techniques or “the box” method can work miracles.
  • Alcohol – you may think it’s a great companion in falling asleep, but in fact, alcohol is one of the greatest enemies of REM sleep. You’ll quickly fall asleep after a couple of drinks, but your sleep architecture will be disturbed. And there’s a high chance you’ll wake up in the middle of the night since REM prevails in the second part of the night. In the morning, you won’t wake up well-rested and will miss all the benefits of REM sleep.
  • Bladder – you want to stay hydrated, so you drink a lot of water. But then, you have to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. To avoid that, add a pinch of salt to your water. Just be careful – it’s better to use sea salt, not your average table salt. The latter is heavily processed by our bodies, while sea salt has over 84 minerals and nutrients.

3 things to help you fall asleep

We all know, how hard it is sometimes to catch some ZZZ’s. But there are certain assisting devices and services that can ease this process.

  • music to fall asleep to. You can choose from 16 different themes designed and created by our two talented audio-visual artists. Soothing music helps to unwind and relax
  • Videos to fall asleep to. On YouTube you can find calming videos that last for hours
  • A sleep mask can be helpful – by blocking the light, it limits potential disturbances.

Falling-asleep hygiene – are you sure you’ve got it covered?

We’ve mentioned previously how a proper environment influences healthy sleep. What we didn’t mention was how your own bed can sometimes disturb the falling-asleep process. Most of us recognize how important our linen is to the overall comfort of falling asleep. But equally, so are the parts hidden by the linen – the mattress and the pillows. Not everyone knows, how often they should be replaced. The rule of thumb is: every 10 years, it’s good to invest in a new mattress, and every 1 or 2 years, in new pillows. Your comforter should be replaced every 15-25 years; it doesn’t have to support our weight, so it lasts longer than pillows.

And how often should you wash your linen? Every week would be great. This way, you’ll get rid of all the pesky germs, dust mites, and other undesirables, and you’ll always have a fresh bed to go to at night. How often should you wash your pajamas? Every week will be fine too. A bit longer, if you shower before going to bed, a bit shorter, if you sweat a lot at night.

Don’t fall for these falling asleep myths

TV will help you fall asleep quickly

Science is not definitive on this topic. Most scientists agree that blue light emitted by all electronic screens decreases sleep quality and delays the secretion of melatonin. One study connects sitting while watching TV with low sleep quality and sleep apnea, another mentions how binge viewing can increase cognitive arousal and delay falling asleep.

But what if you just play some random YouTube video or a re-run of a favorite show on Netflix, dim the screen or turn away the computer so you’re no longer exposed to the blue light? Here’s a great gap in scientific knowledge – how does listening to TV or other shows influence your sleep? That depends greatly on the content you listen to. If it’s emotionally or cognitively engaging, instead of falling asleep easily, you may get involved in the story. The bottom line is – falling asleep with a TV is not recommended by doctors.

Hot milk before bed will make you sleepy

Grandma’s solutions are most often correct. But not in this case. Scientifically speaking, milk contains tryptophan – the amino acid that produces serotonin, which in turn, can be converted into melatonin. But the truth is, there’s not enough tryptophan in a glass of milk to make a difference in your melatonin levels. In some cases, a glass of hot milk can help you unwind simply by helping reminisce of childhood, grandma and safety.

The most important factor in falling asleep is the one aspect most difficult to achieve – mental hygiene. Remember – it’s all about stress management. If you can hack your attention, the body will follow.

Reclaim your night and start your day full of energy. Sleep with Nightly tonight