When you’re busy and on the go, you’ll naturally start getting tired as the day wears on. That’s perfectly normal — in fact, that’s how our bodies work.
“We have a sleep drive that builds up the longer we’re awake,” says sleep medicine expert Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM. “By the end of the day, that sleep drive — or pressure for sleep — is high.”
However, each of us has what’s called an “internal sleep rhythm,” or circadian rhythm. This rhythm varies from person to person, and represents the time when our body and mind start relaxing and winding down for the day.
“This internal rhythm influences when we start to feel sleepy,” says Dr. Drerup. “Some people might identify more as night owls, meaning they don’t get sleepy until much later. Other people are more early birds.”
You won’t typically fall asleep right away, even a couple of minutes after your head hits the pillow. And if you do conk out quickly, that’s a sign you’re probably sleep-deprived and not snoozing enough at night.
“If they don’t have any sleep difficulties, most people probably fall asleep within 10 to 20 minutes,” says Dr. Drerup, while acknowledging that this time can vary. “If it takes you 45 minutes to fall asleep, and that’s normal for you, it’s not necessarily a problem.”
If we don’t get enough sleep one night, our natural inclination is to try and make up that deficit the next day. That’s not always the best move, says Dr. Drerup — and it won’t make us fall asleep any faster. “We might say, ‘If I had a bad night, I’m going to take a nap. I’m going to have more caffeine.’ These things we do to compensate oftentimes exacerbate and make sleep worse again the following night.”
This might seem counterintuitive, but if you want to fall asleep fast, stop thinking about falling asleep fast. “If you think about someone who sleeps well, they probably don’t think about sleep at all,” says Dr. Drerup. “They listen to their body, and when they feel sleepy, that’s when they go to bed. They don’t have rules about sleeping, or any real thoughts about sleep. To them, it’s just what they do.”
If you’re having difficulty sleeping, you might feel anxious. That’s not an optimal state of being for good ZZZs. “You might start to dread going to bed,” notes Dr. Drerup. “The harder you try to sleep, the least successful you’re going to be. In a sense, letting go and trying to get back to what naturally your body wants to do — sleep — is best.”
Keeping a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends when you might not have to wake up early, is a good way to make sure you start snoozing in a timely fashion. “Change in routine and lack of schedule actually can exacerbate sleep issues,” says Dr. Drerup. “We saw a definite increase in sleep issues with the pandemic, not only because of increased stress but changing schedules.”
The lack of commuting especially had an impact, she adds. “People would say, ‘Well, now my schedule’s changed completely. I’m not as active as I was. I’m staying home more, and I’m literally just walking to the bathroom and to my desk. I can stay in bed and sleep later because I don’t have to drive to the office.’”
Laptops, tablets, TVs, mobile phones — all of these are screens, and spending time on them can affect your sleep. But for adults, what you’re watching (or doing) on those screens can affect your ZZZs.
“The content has an impact,” says Dr. Drerup. “It’s really about what you’re doing on those devices. Anything that is activating our brain as we’re trying to wind down can keep us going.”
Putting your devices away an hour or two before bed can help you start to ease into rest. However, if you are immersed in late-night scrolling, be mindful of what you’re doing.
“We can use our devices to actually promote sleep by listening to something that’s relaxing or doing something that takes our mind off other things,” says Dr. Drerup.
Stress is a major cause of delayed sleep. After all, how many times have you snuggled up into bed, only to lay awake for hours with your brain racing?
Using relaxation techniques is a good solution to help you wind down. For example, studies have shown mindfulness meditation can improve sleep quality and decrease daytime disturbance in people with chronic insomnia.
“Different types of relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery, bring about a relaxed state of mind that is more conducive to falling to sleep,” explains Dr. Drerup. “We’re trying to bring on the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response.”
For some people, playing a steady soundtrack of noise can help them relax. This can be as simple as an air conditioner or a fan, or an app or machine that offers noise options. White noise (or another color, like pink noise) is common, as are nature sounds.
“I once had a patient that liked techno music, that that beat helped them fall asleep,” says Dr. Drerup. “Most people would probably find that to be odd, but the consistency of the beat was something they focused on. It helped them relax.”
You are what you eat — and what you eat can affect how you sleep. “What we eat might impact our sleep quality and sleep duration,” says Dr. Drerup. For example, spicy foods are known to make acid reflux worse and cause heartburn when you lie down.
Caffeine, which is found in coffee and chocolate, is notorious for keeping you awake. “The half-life of caffeine is about five to seven hours, so for most people, avoiding it in the early afternoon is best,” suggests Dr. Drerup.
Foods that are crucial to a healthy diet also help our sleep health. “Eating a diet that’s high in sugar, saturated fat and processed carbohydrates can disrupt your sleep,” notes Dr. Drerup. “Eating more plants, fiber and foods rich in unsaturated fats seems to have the opposite effect.”
And while you might associate alcohol with falling asleep more quickly — chalk it up to the idea that a few drinks are relaxing — its overall impact can actually harm sleep.
“When alcohol wears off, it can wake people up in more of the restorative stages of sleep,” says Dr. Drerup. “It can worsen sleep apnea symptoms. It can increase your risk for sleep-walking, sleep-talking and more nightmares. It can have a lot of detrimental effects.”
Melatonin is a light-sensitive hormone produced by your brain’s pineal gland. Darkness signals this gland to start producing melatonin, while light causes production to cease. The result is melatonin partially controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
“Studies have really shown support for light’s impact on sleep onset and melatonin production,” Dr. Drerup explains.
Although melatonin occurs naturally in your body, it’s also available as a supplement. For some people who are having trouble falling asleep fast, it may be a good option. “Melatonin works best for people who have a delayed circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Drerup. “So, someone who’s a night owl. They prefer going to bed later and waking up later, but maybe they have to wake up early for work or for school or other commitments.”
Excessive, persistent sleepiness during the day is a major sign that you might need help. “When we’re speaking specifically of chronic insomnia, it’s where you’re having this difficulty at least three times a week,” says Dr. Drerup. “And it’s causing daytime impairment.”
That could be daytime sleepiness, or something else. “It might be feeling like, ‘I don’t have any energy. I feel like I’m not able to focus.’ When you’re realizing how you’re feeling during the daytime is because you didn’t sleep well last night, those are definite signs that someone should seek assistance.”
In cases like this, your doctor can recommend the best treatment. The American College of Family Physicians and The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend first trying strategies to change your behavior before taking medication.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) is the “gold standard treatment,” says Dr. Drerup. It’s focused on behaviors and thoughts that are disruptive and perpetuating your insomnia — and it’s effective.
“First-line treatment for insomnia tends to have much better outcomes long term when we compare it to using a sleep aid or a sleep medication,” says Dr. Drerup. “And it’s not a long-term treatment. It’s typically brief. On average, we might follow someone four to six sessions — and then they see progress pretty quickly.”