Lying awake at night, staring at the clock well into the wee hours, and dreading the impending dawn can make you feel helpless. Understanding the sleep process may help you regain control.
Falling asleep is not like flipping a light switch. It’s a gradual, complex process. As Scott Campbell of the Cornell Medical School Laboratory of Human Chronobiology told Science Line, it is more “a reflection of your brain switching from one way of thinking to another way of thinking.”
The body undergoes several changes during sleep. Throughout the night, you’ll go through four or five sleep cycles, each of which has four stages.
These stages fall into one of two categories: non-REM (rapid-eye movement), which comprises about 75 percent of sleep, and REM sleep. REM and non-REM (or NREM) sleep are both critical and vastly different.
Non-REM is comprised of four stages, beginning with dozing off. At this point, the brain and body slow down. Most people do not recognize they’re asleep at this stage. At stage two, brain waves slow further, as do breathing and heart rate. Eyes stop moving, and your temperature drops. The third and fourth stages are deep sleep, in which it’s more challenging to awaken.
During deep non-REM sleep, the brain processes and stores information and memories. The body also performs essential functions. Cells filter out waste and initiate restorative processes to promote healing, immune defense, and bone and muscle development.
During REM sleep, brain activity increases, as do breathing and heart rate. Dreaming occurs at this stage, though muscle paralysis usually prevents the body from moving, even during intense, active dreams.
Circadian rhythms and sleep drive control when you fall asleep and how deeply you sleep. Circadian rhythms act as a biological clock, regulating hormone production based on light and other cues.
In the evening, the body increases melatonin production, a hormone that promotes relaxation and sleep. In the morning, the body releases cortisol to help you wake and be alert.
Sleep drive is similar to hunger, with your desire to sleep building the longer you’re awake. You can temporarily fend off the urge to nap with caffeine or food, but, eventually, your body will force you to rest. When you’re exhausted, you may even engage in microsleep sessions of one or two seconds with your eyes open.
The time it takes to fall asleep or “sleep latency” can vary significantly. But according to a group of independent researchers from the University of Cambridge, the average person needs about five to 20 minutes to fall asleep.
Independent research sponsored by SleepMoment found about 23.3 percent of respondents said they need between five and 10 minutes to fall asleep. In comparison, 21 percent said they require 11 to 20 minutes, and 18 percent take 21 to 30 minutes. Only 10 percent of respondents took less than five minutes on average, and 13.3 percent waited 31 minutes to an hour.
One of the most significant insights from SleepMoment’s survey is the impact of stress on sleep. About 15 percent of respondents described themselves as “very stressed,” and just 38 percent of these participants said they regularly get seven or more hours of sleep per night, the minimum amount the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for adults.
Moreover, about 8.2 percent of very stressed respondents said they needed an average of 3+ hours to fall asleep each night. By comparison, just 1 percent of people with low stress levels said it takes them longer than three hours to drift off.
Research shows taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep may decrease overall sleep quality, meaning not only are you more likely to lie awake frustrated, but you may also wake up feeling groggy and tired.
Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can also impact mood and exacerbate stress, depression, anxiety, and pain. The good news is you may have more control over your sleep than you realize.
Now that you understand the mechanics of sleep, you can answer the critical question, “why can’t I fall asleep?” Many factors affect sleep latency and quality, including lifestyle, bedtime routines, and health conditions, including chronic stress, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea. The good news is there are several ways to fall asleep faster.
Remember how light influences circadian rhythms? Getting more natural light during the day and dimming the lights in the evening can help your body maintain healthy circadian rhythms. Following a consistent sleep/wake schedule helps, too. Avoid napping for more than 30 minutes a day as well because longer naps can disrupt your natural cycle.
Diet can influence multiple aspects of your health and wellness, including sleep. Studies show regular moderate or intense exercise can improve sleep latency and quality. Just be sure not to exercise within an hour of bedtime, as this may keep you up.
Likewise, eating too late or too much may make falling asleep difficult. Try to finish dinner at least three hours before bedtime, and avoid high-sugar or high-fat meals later in the day. You can also try these diet tips from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Stress and sleep are closely entwined. Studies indicate people under significant pressure tend to have a hard time getting adequate shuteye. Simultaneously, lack of sleep can exacerbate stress and make you more prone to its side effects, including severe ailments such as high blood pressure and depression.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but you may need to act if stress becomes chronic. Consider first addressing stress’s roots, perhaps by setting work-life balance boundaries, getting help with your finances, or seeking support from a mental health counselor.
Meditation (including guided sleep meditation), yoga or other forms of exercise, and supplements like CBD oil may also help.
Blue light, which radiates from most electronic devices, can help during daylight hours. But at night, it’s quite the opposite. Blue light can throw off circadian rhythms and reduce melatonin production, affecting both sleep latency and quality. While any light can impair sleep, Harvard researchers say blue light is particularly disruptive.
Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol or smoking late at night, as these substances can interfere with sleep. Some people use alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts the sleep cycle and inhibits deep sleep. Research shows that while caffeine is often blamed for poor sleep, alcohol and nicotine may be even more problematic.
There’s much about the modern world for which to be grateful. But increased stress, high-paced lifestyles, and round-the-clock reliance on technology complicate matters. Fortunately, you can regain control over your nights by understanding your body’s sleep/wake cycle.