Nearly two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to meet the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organization.
According to Matthew Walker, sleep expert, neuroscientist, and Berkeley professor, driving while drowsy is more dangerous than drunk driving.
Sleep deprivation may also affect male and female fertility. Walker notes that men who sleep for just five hours a night tend to have levels of testosterone similar to a man ten years their senior.
Sleep deprivation also increases the risk of cancer, memory loss, depression, anxiety, obesity, cancer, heart failure, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In his New York Times bestselling book, Why We Sleep, Walker notes that:
“After being awake for 19 hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After 16 hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours.”
Here are five scientific tricks to help you fall asleep fast and regain those lost hours of sleep.
1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
Walker notes that one of the best ways to train your body to fall asleep quicker is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even if you don’t have a good night of sleep. He recommends that you set a bedtime reminder on your phone an hour before you plan to fall asleep.
Another effective trick is to develop a pre-sleep routine that will help you build the habit of falling asleep quicker. For example, during my pre-sleep routine, I spend five minutes stretching and practicing breathing exercises. Then I read a book in bed and usually fall asleep within ten minutes of reading.
Experiment with different pre-sleep routines to find what works best for you.
2. Create a dark sleep environment
We live in a society that deprives us of complete darkness, but we need it to aid the release of melatonin, a hormone that determines the healthy timing of our sleep.
The blue light from your laptop or smartphone can fool your brain into thinking it’s still day time, even though it’s almost time to go to sleep.
According to Walker:
“Even a hint of dim light—8 to 10 lux—has been shown to delay the release of nighttime melatonin in humans… A subtly lit living room, where most people reside in the hours before bed, will hum at around 200 lux. Despite being just 1-2% of the strength of daylight, this ambient level of incandescent home lighting can have 50% of the melatonin-suppressing influence within the brain.”
Walker’s advice is to dim half the lights in your home and shut down all electronics about an hour before you go to bed.
3. Keep your body cool
According to Walker, our bodies require a drop in temperature—which affects our melatonin levels—to fall asleep quicker.
If you’ve ever woken up, only to find your arms and legs sticking out of your covers, it’s a sign that your body attempted to reduce its core temperature low enough for you to fall asleep.
The ideal bedroom temperature lies between 65-68F, taking into account standard bedding and clothing. Another trick to reduce your core temperature and fall asleep quicker is to take a hot bath before bed.
Walker suggests that:
“When you get out of the bath, those dilated blood vessels on the surface quickly help radiate out inner heat, and your core body temperature plummets. Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10-15% more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults.”
4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol after 2pm
When we wake up in the morning, a chemical, adenosine, builds up in our brain to create sleep pressure and make us feel sleepier the longer we stay awake.
After about 16 hours of staying awake, the sleep pressure created by adenosine causes us to feel tired enough to fall asleep. But, caffeine creates the opposite effect.
Your brain is fooled into thinking that it hasn’t been awake for 16 hours, despite how sleepy and tired you feel. This is because caffeine is blocking the brain signals of adenosine, as well as the sleep pressure instructions to the brain.
The longer caffeine blocks adenosine, the greater the quantity of adenosine build up in your system. When your body rids itself of the caffeine from its system, not only do you revert back to the same level of sleepiness prior to consuming the caffeine, you’re also hit with an additional dose of sleepiness from the adenosine build up. This is the “caffeine crash” you may have experienced before.
And just like any bad habit, you’ll crave another dose of caffeine to boost your energy, reinforcing the vicious cycle.
The average half-life of caffeine is approximately five to seven hours, and that’s why Walker recommends that we avoid caffeine consumption after 2pm.
In Why We Sleep, Walker also suggests that consuming alcohol in the evenings is detrimental for quality sleep:
“…those who had their sleep laced with alcohol on the first night after learning suffered what can conservatively be described as partial amnesia seven days later, forgetting more than 50% of all that original knowledge.”
Alcohol causes multiple sleep interruptions in the middle of the night, most of which we won’t remember. Plus, it blocks our REM and dream sleep, which is critical for mental health.
5. Don’t stay in bed after you wake up
Here’s a common scenario: You suddenly wake up an hour or two before the alarm to wake up rings. The clock is ticking. You know that time is running out and if you don’t fall asleep now, you’d miss out on the extra sleep.
But for some reason, you’re filled with anxiety because you can’t sleep and you’re not sure whether to stay in bed or get up and start your day.
Our brains are extremely adaptive so if we spend enough mornings in bed after we wake up, the brain learns to associate the bed with staying awake, instead of falling asleep.
Walker suggests that the best way to avoid this problem is to go to another dimly lit room and read a book until you’re about to fall asleep, then return to bed.
If you still can’t fall asleep, that’s okay. By restricting time spent in bed, you can build up sleep pressure to fall asleep faster over time:
“One of the more paradoxical CBT-I methods used to help insomniacs sleep is to restrict their time spent in bed, perhaps even to just six hours of sleep or less to begin with. By keeping patients awake for longer, we build up a strong sleep pressure—a greater abundance of adenosine. Under this heavier weight of sleep pressure, patients fall asleep faster, and achieve a more stable, solid form of sleep across the night. In this way, a patient can regain their psychological confidence in being able to self-generate and sustain healthy, rapid, and sound sleep, night after night: something that has eluded them for months if not years. Upon reestablishing a patient’s confidence in this regard, time in bed is gradually increased.”
Walker also suggests meditation as a solution to fall asleep faster, especially after a long flight and build up of jet lag. In particular, breathing exercises quiet the mind and weaken the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system, a key feature of insomnia.
“Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Falling asleep is as much an art as it is a science. While these scientific tricks can help you fall asleep faster, they aren’t rules set in stone.
As with everything, you can always experiment and find what works best for you based on your lifestyle and circumstances.
The main takeaway is that sleep is crucial for a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life. Make sleep a priority in your life today.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical ideas on how to think and live better by exploring the intersection of science, art, and philosophy. You can join his free weekly newsletter here.