Having difficulty falling asleep every now and then is pretty common. At some point, everyone’s experienced tossing and turning for what seems like hours before finally drifting off. There are just some nights in which sleep doesn’t come so easily.
Experts say the average amount of time it takes an adult to fall asleep after the lights have been turned off — a period of time they call sleep latency — is about 10 to 20 minutes. This usually varies from one individual to another, affected by many factors such as age or number of naps during the day. But taking an exceptionally long time to fall asleep at night may result in a shorter sleep duration, which can eventually cause daytime fatigue, slower reaction time and impaired focus.
We know it’s hard to turn the brain off sometimes. If it takes you forever to fall asleep at night, here are some science-backed strategies you can try to get that well-deserved shuteye.
Practice Breathing Techniques
Doing these breathing techniques before bed tends to help people wind down at the end of the day. It may initiate sleep at night by relaxing the body and distracting the mind from the worries and stress of the previous day or the day ahead, says Raman K. Malhotra, a professor of neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Our sympathetic nervous system — a division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that activates the body’s fight-or-flight response — often becomes overactive due to the stress of our fast-paced modern lifestyles, which affects sleep. Deep breathing alleviates this by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure, thereby regulating the ANS and the fight-or-flight response, says Phyllis Zee, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine.
Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Those of us who have difficulty falling asleep can also try progressive muscle relaxation, a technique that involves gradually tensing and releasing each muscle group throughout the body. This allows people to focus on the tension in their muscles and the sensation of the muscles relaxing.
“[It] is a technique to help relax your body and reduce your stress or anxiety before bedtime,” Malhotra says. “Reducing stress and relaxing your body can be an important step as you try and fall asleep at night.” Aside from helping people fall asleep faster, progressive muscle relaxation may also promote better sleep. Some studies have found that it can improve the sleep quality of mothers of premature infants during their postpartum period and burn patients.
Stay Away From Electronics
Plenty of us are guilty of scrolling through social media until tiredness takes over; however, this can actually prolong the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. It’s true that using electronics engages the mind and makes it more active (not exactly a good thing when you’re trying to turn that brain off), but there’s another reason why it can hinder people from growing sleepy.
Melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycles of the body and starts the sleep process, is secreted by the pineal gland in response to darkness. However, most devices emit blue wavelength light, suppressing melatonin and telling the body to stay awake.
“Our body uses light or the absence of light to help regulate our sleep and wake cycles,” Malhotra says. “By having the artificial light from your device entering your eyes before bed, this can delay the normal processes that are supposed to occur before bed that prepare the body to go to sleep.” Reducing your exposure to blue light (and even room light) at night may help you not only fall asleep easier, but also have better sleep.
Exercise During the Day
Studies have found that exercise provides positive benefits on sleep latency. For instance, a 2012 systematic review published in the Journal of Physiotherapy reported that participants who underwent an exercise training program for 10 to 16 weeks experienced significantly reduced sleep latency than a control group. A more recent 2017 review also reported a similar benefit.
Regular daytime exercise can increase melatonin secretion as well, which we know helps with falling asleep. However, don’t break a sweat too late in the evening — it’s best to stop exercising at least 90 minutes before bedtime, as vigorous exercise may temporarily impair sleep latency.
Adjust the Temperature
Temperature regulation is important because we tend to fall asleep when the temperature goes down, says Zee. The core body temperature has a circadian rhythm of its own; it’s usually at its lowest around 4 a.m. and peaks at about 6 p.m. As the body prepares to sleep, the core body temperature decreases to produce sleep onset, which makes us sleepy.
Likewise, extreme heat during the summer can raise our body temperature, making it more difficult to fall (and remain) asleep. In these cases, adjusting the room temperature by turning on a fan or an air conditioner may be beneficial.
For some people, taking a warm bath before bedtime and wearing socks in bed helps to fall asleep, says Zee. A hot bath might increase sleepiness at bedtime because it temporarily raises the core body temperature, which then drops abruptly after leaving the bath. Wearing socks in bed can also be effective because warm feet actually increase heat loss and promote the rapid onset of sleep.
Overall, practicing these good sleep habits and keeping to a consistent sleeping schedule will help you fall asleep at night, says Malhotra: “It is best to have a regular bedtime routine that incorporates a ‘winding down’ period and gives your body and mind time to relax.”