Person applying essential oils

Hitting the hay should be a respite after a long day. But for many, it’s quite the opposite. If your head hits the pillow braced for battle with anxious thoughts, or you simply can’t relax, you may be one of the millions of people who struggle with sleep latency—the time it takes to fall asleep.

According to a recent SleepMoment survey, 8.2 percent of respondents who reported regularly feeling very stressed said they routinely took three or more hours to fall asleep at night. Nearly half said it usually takes more than 20 minutes to drift off.

Does this sound all too familiar? The good news is there are strategies and tools you can try to quell your anxious mind and get to sleep faster.

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to reduce sleep latency or any 100-percent effective, one-size-fits-all method.

Keep in mind, people have different physiology and face unique obstacles such as stressors and underlying conditions. So what improves insomnia for one person might not work for another.

Moreover, there are a lot of false claims and misleading advertisements for simple-fix sleep solutions. That’s why we’re delving into the science behind common sleep strategies. With the facts, data, and practical instructions in hand, you can decide for yourself which tools and techniques are worth giving a try.

Meditation and Mindfulness

People have used meditation to attain inner peace and mental clarity for thousands of years. Recently, research has found meditation can be helpful for a range of practical health purposes, from reducing depression and anxiety to lowering blood pressure and easing insomnia.

Meditation comes in various forms, but all share the common objective to relax the body and brain. Studies have found the practice works by reducing cortisol, the “stress hormone” that promotes wakefulness, and increasing melatonin, the primary sleep hormone.

For more detailed evidence of meditation and mindfulness’s positive effect on sleep, check out this study that found improvement among adults with sleep disturbances after implementing mindful awareness practices.

You may find meditation helpful regardless of the causes of your insomnia. But it can be particularly effective for people with stress-related insomnia or mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, with insomnia as a symptom.

Consider using a meditation app, such as Headspace, which provides a series of guided meditations to promote overall wellbeing and address specific ailments, such as insomnia. You can also find guided meditation videos or music on YouTube.

Before meditating, take care to set up your space. Ensure you are in a comfortable, quiet environment without distractions and assume a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Some people find incorporating a white noise machine or aromatherapy can enhance the meditative experience as well.

Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing is a component of most meditation techniques and is part of what makes the practice effective. If you’ve ever been told to “take a deep breath” before doing something anxiety-inducing, it’s because doing so can provide more oxygen to the brain and body and pump the brakes on the fight-or-flight response.

Various breathing techniques are integral to mental health treatment, often to help individuals overcome anxiety or panic attacks. Because insomnia and other sleep disturbances are often tied to stress and anxiety, breathing exercises for sleep can also be effective.

One popular breathing exercise to try is the 4-7-8 technique. As Healthline explains, Dr. Andrew Weil developed this method based on an ancient yogic practice, pranayama, which helps yogis better control breathing.

This method, which involves holding the breath for an extended period to replenish the body’s oxygen supply, is advantageous if stress and anxiety are part of what is keeping you awake at night. As Healthline reports, Dr. Weil called it a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” While there isn’t hard evidence proving this specific technique’s effectiveness, the science of using breathing exercises for stress release and better sleep is sound.

Here’s how to do it, per Healthline:

  • 1) Relax the jaw and mouth, allowing your lips to gently part. Exhale completely, making a whoosh sound as you do.
  • 2) Press your lips together and inhale through the nose for a count of four seconds.
  • 3) Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • 4) Exhale for a count of eight seconds, making a whooshing sound as you do so.
  • 5) Repeat four times on your first go. Work your way up to eight repetitions.

White Noise and Tranquil Sounds

Some people prefer a completely silent sleep environment, but others enjoy the soothing sounds of nature or entrancing white noise.

White noise or tranquil soundscapes, such as rain, ocean, or forest noises, can also help blanket the chaotic sounds of traffic that often keep city-dwellers counting sheep.

Machines and apps can produce a range of sounds, from choruses of nature to a humming ceiling fan. Especially considering the wide range of options, studies of the concept’s effectiveness have produced varied results.

Essentially, like many sleep techniques, it works for some people and not for others.

A study published in Sleep Medicine found sleepers who used a white noise machine could even sleep soundly amidst hospital ICU noises. In contrast, those without the device experienced a restless night.

However, a few more recent studies suggest otherwise.

Mathias Basner, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, and colleagues reviewed several studies on the efficacy of white noise apps and machines.

As reported in The Guardian, the researchers found minimal evidence that the noises work. Some data even suggested that white noise apps and machines do more harm than good.

Similarly, a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports found no significant difference in sleep quality between subjects who listened to music to fall asleep and those who didn’t.

The jury’s still out on the statistical effectiveness of using white noise, tranquil sounds, or music to fall asleep—but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Everyone’s different, and you may be one of the people who can benefit from this practice.

Sleep Podcasts (And Podcasts in General)

The human voice does not technically fall into the definition of white noise, which, per Merriam Webster is “a heterogeneous mixture of sound waves extending over a wide frequency range.” But it can be pretty close. And for some, it has the same effect when it comes to lulling one to sleep.

An alternative to white noise machines and tranquil soundscapes, sleep podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular option for insomniacs who need something to quell less-than-comforting background noise or their thoughts.

There are also ambient noise podcasts closely resembling white noise, ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) shows, and bedtime stories for adults. As Vice writer Hannah Smothers reports, podcasts don’t even have to be sleep-specific to provide a peaceful sendoff to dreamland.

As podcasts are a relatively recent media form, there isn’t much data to confirm or contradict the usefulness of podcasts for falling asleep—but there’s no harm in experimenting.

As discussed in an article from Bustle, you may want to avoid engaging podcasts that may activate parts of your brain. Keep your brain activity and emotional responses in mind before tuning in to your favorite true-crime podcast or psychological thriller.

Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

Essential oils have been popping up everywhere, from spas to doctor’s offices, with users claiming their

effectiveness for a range of uses, from stress reduction to a better complexion.

But do essential oils work for sleep?

Aromatherapy, like meditation, has been used for thousands of years for its purported healing potential. Traditionally, practitioners use essential oils, which are plant extracts that encapsulate certain plant compounds, known as terpenes.

Terpenes give many plants and some insects their distinct scent. When ingested, inhaled, or applied topically, certain terpenes may provide the same protective, preventative, or otherwise wellness-enhancing benefits to humans.

There are tens of thousands of terpenes found in nature, each with distinct properties. The most common essential oil used for sleep is lavender, with its predominant terpene being linalool.

Research indicates putting lavender into an essential oils diffuser, or putting a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow, may help you relax and sleep deeper.

Besides lavender, other oils recommended by the American Sleep Association include using at night include bergamot, chamomile, valerian, clary sage, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, jasmine, frankincense, peppermint, and eucalyptus.

You can ingest some of these plants, including valerian, peppermint, jasmine, and chamomile, in the form of teas, tinctures, or capsules. Or, as with lavender, put them in an aromatherapy diffuser or on your pillow before bed.

But before you get your hopes up about aromatherapy as a simple solution for sleep troubles, consider the lack of definitive data. While numerous studies demonstrate the positive effect of lavender on sleep, there’s less evidence supporting the use of other various essential oil types.

Lavender with a cup of coffee

Light Therapy

Since darkness is imperative for most people to have a restful night’s sleep, the concept of light therapy for insomnia may seem counterintuitive.

However, the amount of light you are exposed to during the day is essential to your sleep health, thanks to circadian rhythms. These natural cycles set about a series of processes throughout a 24-hour cycle to help you stay alert during daylight hours and fall asleep at night. And they are strongly influenced by light cues.

Light therapy involves using tools, such as a light therapy lamp, to ensure you get an adequate amount of light each day. You sit in front of the light therapy box or visor for a period of 20 minutes to two hours. The brain perceives this light as daylight and, in turn, may be able to get your circadian rhythms back on track.

Research has found light therapy, or phototherapy, can be effective for treating insomnia as well as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Weighted Blankets

Weighted blankets are covers filled with plastic or glass beads which make them heavy, similar to the vests you’d wear to receive a CT scan or X-ray.

Weighted blanket benefits come from the sense of security they can provide, which can ease anxiety. Research shows they can be helpful for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attack disorder, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as insomnia. If anxiety is what’s keeping you up at night, these may help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

There is a wide variety of products to choose from, of varying sizes and weights. There are even some with temperature-regulating properties to prevent overheating. Finding the best weighted blanket is mostly a matter of personal preference, but some top picks include the Gravity Blanket and Tranquility Weighted Blanket.

Improve Sleep Latency, Improve Your Life

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for living your best life. But it’s hard to feel rested in the morning if you’re wasting precious hours lying awake when your head hits the pillow.

Fortunately, there are techniques and tools for falling asleep fast that are backed by science. Hopefully, with this overview of options, you can make an informed choice of which strategies to try.