By Dr Simon Kyle
Many people find themselves struggling to get to sleep fast, and there are certain populations who may be more likely to experience trouble getting to sleep: the older population and menopausal women. for example.
In milder cases, not being able to get to sleep fast can be a temporary or a one-off occurrence, triggered by a single event or stressor which has no lasting impact on sleep. In other cases, persistent trouble getting to sleep may call for adjustments to your environment, behavior and thinking.
It is important to note however that 'normal sleepers' regularly take between 10 and 15 minutes to get to sleep – perhaps not as fast as you might wish, but certainly within a 'normal' range. In fact, falling asleep within minutes of your head hitting the pillow may be more common in those who have accumulated sleep debt (i.e. they are sleep deprived) than in 'healthy sleepers'.
Trouble getting to sleep can be caused by dissociation between so-called 'sleep stimuli' and sleep. Getting into bed at night may, for example, fail to trigger sleepiness and instead lead to feelings of anxiety or stress. The more desperate someone is to get to sleep quickly, the further their anxiety rises and their mind races. Rather than 'turning off' their thoughts, they spend hours in bed staring at the ceiling or tossing and turning to find a comfortable sleeping position.
As the results of the Great British Sleep Survey show, many people will spend this time worrying about the day ahead and dwelling on how long they have been awake for. Whilst this is far from unusual, it can lead to elevated stress levels and further postpone sleep.
The good news is that there are many techniques that can help you get to sleep faster each night.
Room temperature was found to be one of the top 5 physical factors affecting the sleep of respondents to the Great British Sleep Survey. In fact, 34% of those surveyed reported being frequently affected by room temperature – that's a huge number of people!
Modern, centrally heated homes are often too warm late into the evening. This may promote drowsiness but may not be optimal for sleep. Seemingly small adjustments in temperature really do have the potential to improve your sleep, and you should aim to keep your bedroom around 18 degrees Centigrade.
Making changes to
some of your daily habits can also help encourage the onset of sleep. It may be, for example, that the food you are eating before bed contains stimulants, such as caffeine, that activate the central nervous system.
Caffeine use has been linked to both non-restorative sleep and daytime sleepiness in many studies, and can result in a longer time to fall asleep, reduced deep sleep, and an overall reduction in total sleep time. Nicotine, found in cigarettes, acts in a relatively similar way to caffeine, again making it more difficult to get to sleep fast.
You may also choose to avoid using computers, tablets and smartphones before bed. We know that the light emitted from these devices can inhibit and delay the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. It's advisable, therefore, to keep electronic gadgets out of the bedroom and stop using them at least an hour before you go to bed.
Sleeping pills are often the first line of treatment offered to poor sleepers by their doctors and, although they are not recommended for persistent sleep problems, they may indeed be effective for acute or short-term poor sleep.
Research however, has shown that the majority of people with poor sleep would prefer to solve their poor sleep without medication and, whilst they may help you get to sleep faster, in many cases they will stop being effective with repeated usage over time.
Cognitive behavioral therapy ( CBT ), on the other hand, has been shown to be a highly effective long-term treatment for poor sleep. CBT works by training people to use techniques that address the mental (or cognitive) factors associated with insomnia, such as the 'racing mind', and to overcome the worry and other negative emotions that accompany the experience of being unable to sleep.
Alongside this, CBT helps people with poor sleep establish a healthy sleep pattern and to achieve a strong connection between their bed and successful sleep, meaning that falling asleep and staying asleep in bed becomes more automatic and natural. In fact, the results of the clinical trial of the Sleepio program found an average reduction in time taken to fall asleep of 50%.
Espie, C.A. Kyle, S. Williams, C. Ong, J.C. Douglas, N.J. Hames, P. Brown, J.S.L. (2012). A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of online cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic insomnia disorder delivered via an automated media-rich web application. Sleep. 35(6), 769-781.