Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/12/2020
Sleep is essential for optimal health, contributing to everything from your day-to-day cognitive function to your immune system and physical health.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t get enough of it. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 35 percent of American adults have a short sleep duration, meaning they sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night.
Part of this is the result of busy schedules and demanding lives, with many people working long hours and falling asleep later than they should. But another part is due to the fact that, for many people, falling asleep just isn’t as easy as it should be.
If you’re a difficult sleeper, you’ve probably had countless nights where you spent hours in bed before finally falling asleep.
A variety of factors can make it difficult to fall asleep, from your caffeine intake to your daytime napping habits. Below, we’ve listed 11 science-backed techniques that can help you fall asleep faster and benefit from a more refreshing, energizing night’s sleep.
Your body has its own internal clock, known as a circadian clock. This is what helps you to feel energized early in the day and tired late at night. The average person’s circadian clock runs for about 24 hours per cycle, which is why you tend to feel sleepy at the same time every day.
Your circadian clock plays a key role in regulating your sleep. Most circadian rhythms related to sleep occur in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which triggers the production of certain hormones to make you feel energized or drowsy.
When you go to sleep at a different time every night, it’s easy for your body’s circadian clock to fall out of sync with your lifestyle. This can make it harder for you to fall asleep and affect your mental and physical performance.
In a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports, researchers tracked the sleeping habits of 61 college students for 30 days. They found that students with irregular sleep patterns spent less time asleep at night and more time asleep in the day than those with regular sleep patterns.
They also found that irregular sleepers had longer sleep onset latency (the amount of time required to fall asleep) than the regular sleepers.
For optimal sleep, set yourself a sleep schedule and stick to it. Although there’s no need to get into bed at precisely the same time every day, sticking to a regular sleep schedule appears to make it easier to fall asleep quickly, all while resulting in longer nighttime sleep duration.
Caffeine’s benefits are well known — it can make you feel more energetic, keeps you alert and can provide some extra oomph when you need it throughout the day. There’s even some research to indicate that caffeine may help protect against diseases like type 2 diabetes,
In short, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a cup or two of coffee over the course of the day.
Unfortunately, caffeine’s effects on your sleep aren’t always so positive. If you consume coffee, energy drinks or other caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening, there’s a real risk that it could interfere with your sleep schedule.
Caffeine’s negative effects on sleep are well known and backed up by a multitude of studies. In a 2002 study published in Sleep Medicine, researchers found that consuming caffeine “caused a decrease in the total amount of sleep and quality of sleep” in volunteers.
Now, this probably isn’t breaking news to you. Caffeine has long been associated with difficulty falling asleep — something most people are aware of without needing to read a study.
However, far fewer people are aware of how long caffeine can stick around in your system and affect your sleep after you drink a cup of coffee.
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers gave people a 400mg dose of caffeine (equivalent to two large McDonald’s iced coffees) in pill form either six, three or zero hours prior to their bedtime.
They study found that all of the people given caffeine had disrupted sleep quality compared to those that received a placebo, even when the caffeine was consumed six hours before sleep. For all groups given caffeine, the amount of time required to fall asleep roughly doubled.
The people given caffeine also had significantly reduced levels of sleep efficiency, even those that consumed the caffeine six hours before sleeping.
Most of this is attributable to caffeine’s approximately five-hour half-life. This means that if you drink a large coffee with 200mg of caffeine at 5pm, around 100mg of caffeine will still be in your body when you’re preparing to sleep at 10pm.
If you’re a coffee, energy drink or soda drinker and you find it hard to fall asleep, try changing your caffeine consumption habits. Use caffeine in moderation and try to avoid consuming any drinks that contain caffeine after the early afternoon.
Light plays a key role in regulating your body’s circadian clock, helping you to feel energetic in the daytime and tired late at night.
In a 2014 review, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology noted that environments with irregular light can cause problems in circadian rhythms and sleep that have the potential to lead to mood and learning deficits.
Put simply, exposing your body to light outside the normal solar day could make it harder to fall asleep at night.
This is particularly troubling when it comes to blue light — a type of light that’s emitted by phone, tablet and computer screens. Information from Harvard University shows that exposure to blue light is linked to suppression of melatonin — a hormone that regulates your natural sleep cycle.
This means that using your phone, tablet, computer or any other device that emits blue light late at night could make it harder for you to fall asleep.
To fall asleep faster, it’s best to avoid looking at bright screens for at least two hours before you go to sleep. If you need to use a device with a screen late at night, look into other ways to limit your blue light exposure, which include everything from special apps and special lens filters, to simply putting your phone down and unplugging for the night.
Regular exercise not only helps you stay fit and healthy — it can also have significant benefits when it comes to sleep.
Many sleep-related disorders, particularly those that occur with aging, are believed to be linked to reductions in central serotonin activity. Serotonin, a precursor for melatonin, helps to regulate the body’s circadian clock, allowing you to fall asleep more easily.
Exercise is closely linked to increased levels of serotonin, meaning it could help you to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Interestingly, the morning appears to be the best time to exercise for deep, refreshing sleep. In a 2014 study published in Vascular Health and Risk Management, people exercised on a treadmill for 30 minutes at either 7am, 1pm or 7pm, then wore a sleep-monitoring headband at night.
The researchers found that the people who exercised at 7am spent the longest amount of time in deep sleep, indicating that even a modest amount of exercise can have a significant impact on your sleep quality.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced in your pineal gland. One of its main roles in the body is to promote sleep. When it starts to get dark, your body boosts its melatonin production to signal that it’s time for you to start feeling tired and sleepy.
Supplements containing melatonin are closely linked to faster sleep onset, meaning they could be able to help you fall asleep faster.
In a 2016 study from the Indian Journal of Palliative Care, 50 people with insomnia were either given a 3mg dose of melatonin or a non-therapeutic placebo, with instructions to take it at 7pm every day for 14 days.
Over the course of the study, the people given the melatonin supplement showed improvements in insomnia symptoms, as well as an increase in sleep quality.
In a 2004 review published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the researchers found that melatonin might be effective for treating delayed sleep phase syndrome (a disorder that can cause delays in falling asleep).
It’s worth noting that the same review found that evidence does not suggest that melatonin is an effective treatment for primary sleep disorders, such as primary insomnia.
Melatonin is available as an oral supplement, including in our sleep gummy vitamins. Taken 30 minutes before bedtime, it may help you relax, unwind and drift off to sleep faster and easier than usual.
While melatonin is one of the most well known supplements for sleep, it’s not the only one that’s available. Several other natural compounds are linked to improvements in sleep and relaxation, although the science isn’t equally convincing for all of them:
L-theanine is an amino acid that’s found in green and black tea leaves. Research shows that it may have mild relaxation and anti-stress effects — within reason. Like melatonin, L-theanine is one of several ingredients in our sleep gummy vitamins.
5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is an amino acid that causes increased production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that the body converts into melatonin. It’s used to help treat depression and as an appetite suppressant, but also as a sleep aid.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is an amino acid that decreases central nervous system activity. Although research into GABA is limited, a small 2018 study on 40 people who were experiencing symptoms of insomnia found that that 300mg of GABA daily improved overall sleep quality without significant adverse events after four weeks of treatment.t
Magnesium might also help to promote healthy sleep. Although data into magnesium’s effects on sleep is also limited, one 2012 study observed 46 elderly patients who were experiencing insomnia. After eight weeks of treatment with 500mg of magnesium daily, researchers noted that the elderly subjects has significantly improved insomnia severity index (ISI) scores, as well as improved sleep onset latency, increased sleep time and overall sleep efficiency.
Taking a short nap during the day can have countless benefits, from potentially reducing your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke to improving cognitive performance and learning ability in young students.
However, if you nap too late or for too long, it’s possible for even an hour or two of sleep in the daytime to keep you awake at night, depending on your age and other risk factors.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers surveyed 440 college students on their sleep habits. They found that students who reported having long naps, or naps between 6pm and 9pm, were the most likely to have poor nighttime sleep quality.
“Long,” in this case, refers to a nap of two hours or longer. These students were also the most likely to suffer from severe sleep deprivation.
Another study, this time of adults aged 65 and older, produced similar findings. The people who napped frequently during the daytime were more likely to report nighttime sleep complaints than those who napped infrequently.
If you like to take a nap during the day, there’s no need to stop. However, if you find it difficult to fall asleep quickly at night, try limiting your naps to 20 minutes to 30 minutes and avoid taking a nap late in the afternoon or in the evening.
Believe it or not, there’s real scientific evidence to back up the old idea that chamomile tea can help you fall asleep.
Chamomile contains an ingredient called apigenin. Apigenin is a natural flavonoid that binds to the body’s benzodiazepine receptors — the same central nervous system receptors targeted by anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax® (alprazolam) and Valium® (diazepam).
This may reduce anxiety and help you to feel relaxed and sleepy before bedtime, lowering your risk of lying awake in bed.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that people who consumed chamomile tea before bed had a reduced sleep latency of approximately 15 minutes. In a study from 2017, researchers found that chamomile led to a significant improvement in sleep quality in elderly patients.
Finally, a 2016 study of new mothers found that chamomile tea has some benefits for treating certain sleep quality problems, including sleep inefficiency.
In short, while chamomile tea won’t knock you out, it could have mild benefits for helping you fall asleep faster.
When you fall asleep, your body temperature drops slightly. Interestingly, there’s some evidence to suggest that the temperature of your bedroom could also affect your sleep quality.
There’s a sizable amount of evidence out there that supports the idea that thermoregulation is strongly linked to sleep quality, in that excessive high or low ambient temperatures in a room may impact your sleep — even if you’re an otherwise healthy person.
In simple terms, setting your bedroom to the correct temperature could make it easier to fall and stay asleep.
If you prefer a cooler or warmer nighttime temperature, you adjust your thermostat to match your needs. The key here is comfort. Pick a temperature that you find works well for you.
Even if you dim the brightness on your smartphone or install a blue light filter app, using it late at night can still make it harder for you to fall asleep.
In a 2014 study published in Sleep Medicine, researchers studied the effects of smartphones, video games, TV and other common devices on sleep. They found an association between the use of almost all of these devices and prolonged sleep onset (time required to fall asleep).
Interestingly, the researchers found that difficulty falling asleep was significantly associated with frequent phone use, as well as the use of social networks.
Another study found that more than 12 percent of young adults use their phone after getting into bed, with 41 percent experiencing interrupted sleep because of their smartphone.
In short, it’s best to limit your smartphone usage before bed. If you don’t expect to receive any urgent calls or emails, try switching off your phone. If you prefer to keep it on, switch it to silent mode so that you aren’t distracted by incoming messages and other notifications.
Finally, if you’re a habitual post-bedtime phone user, keep your phone out of arm’s reach after you go to bed to avoid temptation.
It’s quite common to occasionally spend longer than you’d like awake after getting into bed. This is called sleep-onset insomnia, and it’s often treatable using techniques and natural treatments like the ones listed above.
It’s far less common — and far more serious — to frequently spend hours or most of the night in bed unable to sleep. If you often find it difficult to fall asleep, or frequently find yourself waking up during the night, you could suffer from chronic insomnia or maintenance insomnia.
If you’re worried that your sleep troubles are caused by more than just a slightly-too-late cup of coffee or a stressful day, or if you find that the techniques listed above aren’t effective at helping you get to sleep, the best approach is to talk to a healthcare provider.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your healthcare provider may suggest treating your insomnia with things like cognitive behavioral therapy or with the use of medication. Some medications used to treat insomnia can be habit-forming — something you’ll want to discuss with your healthcare provider before use.
If you’re a difficult sleeper, changing your pre-sleep habits, adjusting your caffeine consumption and using sleep-promoting supplements could help you to fall asleep faster and benefit from a deeper night’s sleep.
When you’re feeling tired but still find it difficult to fall and stay asleep, try implementing one or several of the tactics above. Over the long term, they can have a noticeable impact on the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Interested in learning more about improving your sleep habits? Our guide to sleep deprivation lists the most common causes and symptoms of not getting sufficient sleep, while our guide to using melatonin explains how this popular sleep-promoting supplement works.
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