Tips to Live By

How to Fall Asleep Fast

Dec. 14, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Sleep can be elusive for a number of reasons. Sometimes you actively avoid it, like when you sacrifice an hour or two to watch a few more episodes of the TV show you're bingeing.

Other times, you want to sleep but ... can't. Tossing, turning, readjusting your pillows for the umpteenth time, frustration mounts with each passing minute until you're screaming to yourself: Why can't I fall asleep?!

What to do when you can't fall asleep

"Sleep is a product of two systems — our homeostatic drive to balance being awake with being asleep and our circadian rhythm, which uses light cues to time important processes in the body, including sleep," explains Dr. Randall Wright, a neurologist who specializes in sleep medicine at Houston Methodist. "Both systems can be affected by a number of external factors, some of which actively prevent us from sleeping."

If you struggle to doze off, here are Dr. Wright's recommendations that can help you fall asleep fast.

Stick to a sleep schedule

"Schedule, schedule, schedule," says Dr. Wright. "The brain needs routine, and one of the best ways to help your body fall asleep is to stick to a regular sleep schedule."

That trains your brain what to do when your head hits the pillow each night.

Adults typically need from seven to nine hours of sleep per night. To develop a sleep schedule, consider the time you need to wake up in the morning and work backward from there to find the bedtime that works for you. And keep in mind that you'll want to stick to this schedule as often as possible. Yes, even on weekends. (Related: Why Hitting Snooze Is More Problematic Than You Might Realize)

Be careful not to hinder melatonin production

"Our environment can really interfere with our ability to fall asleep," says Dr. Wright. "A great example of this is how artificial light affects melatonin production."

Melatonin is a molecule your body naturally produces to help prepare itself for sleep. The higher the level, the sleepier you become. Melatonin production is blocked by sunlight, which is why we're naturally inclined to stay awake during the daytime. As day turns to night and our environment becomes darker, melatonin levels increase until you're eventually lulled to sleep.

That is, unless your environment isn't actually dark. Anything that emits white light — from light bulbs to smartphones and TVs — can work against the natural melatonin production that helps you feel sleepy at night.

"We see this with device screens, in particular," says Dr. Wright. "People think watching TV or scrolling their phone helps them relax and fall asleep, but that's not exactly true. If you're staring at a screen before bed, you're giving your brain mixed signals. Yes, the act of watching TV may be relaxing, but the light waves are telling your brain to wake up!"

(Related: Screen Time Before Bed: How Bad Is It?)

He says it's why your mind might not be ready to fall asleep, even if it's your usual bedtime.

Avoid the things that rev your body up

It's not just our environment that can make it hard to fall asleep. Certain habits and behaviors can have an impact, too.

Avoid the following before bedtime:

  • Exercising
  • Eating a big meal
  • Drinking caffeine, even in small amounts

"These are things that excite your brain and body, which makes it harder to fall asleep," adds Dr. Wright. "We want to be doing things that relax us before bedtime, not things that wake us up."

Caffeine should be avoided well before bedtime, in fact. Tolerance to this stimulant varies from person to person — some people are more sensitive than others — but the general recommendation is to stop caffeine intake about six hours before you plan to go to bed.

Rethink your drink

"Alcohol is the most common non-prescribed sleep aid, meaning that people often perceive it to be something that makes them feel sleepy," says Dr. Wright. "Yes, a glass of wine before bed will likely make you sleepy, but about two to three hours later, as it is metabolized in your liver, it becomes a powerful stimulant, destined to disrupt any blissful sleep you were hoping to get."

If that timing interferes with your bedtime, expect to have trouble maintaining sleep. And keep in mind that alcohol can also make it harder to fall back to sleep if you wake up later — to relieve yourself of the glass of wine you drank before bed, for instance.

Have a wind-down routine

We often move straight from the couch to the bed in the evenings, save for a few minutes spent brushing our teeth and other routine bedtime tasks. But Dr. Wright says we should actually be building in time to wind down first.

"Creating a wind-down routine helps prepare your brain for sleep," says Dr. Wright. "About an hour before bed, do something relaxing."

Examples of relaxing activities to add to your wind-down routine include:

  • Taking a warm shower
  • Listening to soft music
  • Stretching
  • Reading a book (not on your phone or tablet)
  • Meditating
  • Journaling

"My recommendation is to take a warm shower and then move into a cool, dimly lit room and do something you find relaxing," says Dr. Wright. "When you're sleepy, move to the bedroom."

If you're prone to "running your list" as you try to fall asleep, Dr. Wright recommends working through your to-do items well before bedtime.

"Get everything you need to do or are worried about written out on a sheet of paper ahead of time," adds Dr. Wright. "If you find yourself working through your list as you try to fall asleep, remind yourself you already thought about this, so it's OK to dismiss it for now."

Create the right sleep environment

It's important for your bedroom to be conducive to falling and staying asleep. You can help create an ideal sleep environment by keeping your bedroom:

  • Cool: Dr. Wright recommends setting your thermostat around 65°-66° F
  • Dark: This may mean installing black-out curtains if you work a night shift and sleep during the day
  • Quiet: If you prefer soft background noise, make sure the sound is relaxing
  • Free of distraction: Avoid watching TV, using your smartphone and consider keeping pets off the bed

"Enter the bedroom only when it's time to go to sleep," says Dr. Wright.

When to see a doctor about your sleep

If you've tried the advice above and still can't seem to fall asleep, it's time to talk to your primary care doctor. He or she can recommend adjustments you might need to make to your routine or sleep schedule. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a sleep medicine specialist.

"Sleep problems aren't one size fits all, so it's important to get to the bottom of what's driving yours," says Dr. Wright. "Being unable to fall or stay asleep often comes down to correcting sleep hygiene issues, but not always."

From anxiety to back pain to sleep apnea, many different things can lead to poor sleep. A sleep medicine specialist can help review the details of your specific sleep issue, the steps you've already tried to help correct it and ask other questions that might provide insight into the underlying cause of your sleep problem. (Related: PODCAST: Snoring Isn't the Only Sleep Apnea Symptom)

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Categories: Tips to Live By