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Sleep Library

Tossing and Turning - When Sleep Won’t Come

For many people, going to bed is one thing and actually falling asleep is quite another. If it takes you a while to fall asleep after you’ve turned in for the night, you’re not alone. Difficulty with sleep onset—the period of transition between wakefulness and sleep—is one of the most common sleep problems.

What’s the right fall-asleep time?

A healthy sleep onset is generally considered to be in the range of 10-20 minutes. Falling asleep in this amount of time suggests a readiness for sleep without being too tired. There are several factors that can affect your ability to fall asleep. An irregular sleep schedule, one where bedtimes and wake times change frequently or by significant degree, can make it harder to fall asleep. Your body’s internal system for regulating sleep is finely calibrated and sensitive, and can disrupted by irregular sleep routines. Implementing a regular schedule of sleep and wake times will help strengthen your internal sleep “clock.”

Light disruptions

Exposure to light at night can also interfere with the body’s natural preparations for sleep. Light at night also interferes with circadian rhythms, and delays release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Environmental light often plays a role in extending sleep onset. Bright streetlights shining through windows can delay sleep, as can surrounding yourself with too much artificial light indoors. In today’s world, electronic devices pose a significant obstacle to falling asleep. Television, phones, tablets, and computers give off light that interferes with sleep onset. In particular, these devices emit high concentrations of blue light, a short wavelength light that studies have shown is especially detrimental to sleep.

To avoid the sleep-disrupting effects of artificial light in your environment, dim the lights in your room an hour before bed. This sends a signal to your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep. Exposure to bright light early in the day also will help you strengthen sleep-wake cycles and fall asleep more quickly at night.

Sleep-stealing technology

It’s not only the light from electronic and digital devices that can make falling asleep more difficult. Texting, checking e-mail, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter at night—engaging in these activities directly before bed can bring the cares of the waking day into your bedroom and keep you lying awake for longer at night. Playing video games, surfing the web, and watching television can stimulate the mind and promote alertness—just the opposite of what’s conducive to sleep. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep, spend some time detaching, relaxing away from social media and from the issues of the day. A social media blackout or a full electronic curfew one hour before bed will help you avoid both mental stimulation and light disruption, and help your mind and body prepare for sleep.

Stress keeping you up?

Worry and stress also interfere with sleep onset. Studies show worry is a common cause of sleeplessness, particularly during middle age. Difficulty quieting your mind of the day’s concerns can extend the time it takes to fall asleep. Meditation and other mindfulness exercises, including visualization and breathing, can ease nighttime worries and help you fall asleep more quickly. Coping with stress is an important part of a strong and healthy sleep routine.

Get up to fall asleep

Though it may sound illogical, getting out of bed can actually bring you closer to sleep. If you aren’t feeling tired, you are better served by leaving bed rather than struggling with sleep that won’t come. Trying to force sleep can increase anxiety, which only makes sleep more difficult to achieve. If you aren’t able to fall asleep within 25 minutes, get up. Listen to quiet, soothing music or read a book using low light. Return to bed only when you feel ready. It might take you a few nights, but your sleep cycle will adjust—and with it, your ability to fall asleep. A few nights of short sleep may lead you to feel tired, but it’s important to continue to rise at your regular wake time, rather than oversleeping. Sleeping later than usual will only push your need to sleep later into the night, delaying sleep onset once again.

Eat and drink lightly at night

Caffeine and heavy meals consumed too close to bedtime may contribute to extended wakefulness, and prevent you from falling asleep easily. The stimulating effects of caffeine can linger in the body for several hours. Limit caffeine to the morning and early afternoon. As night approaches, the body’s internal temperature naturally declines in preparation for sleep. Eating a big meal near bedtime can interfere with this sleep-inducing drop in body temperature. Stick to light snacks to stave off any late-night hunger, and you’ll fall asleep more easily.

Creating a peaceful period of relaxation before bedtime will enhance your ability to fall asleep quickly. Dim the lights, unplug from the world at large, and allow your body to deliver you to a restful night.

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