Yajun GiaOh Sunday night, how troublesome you can be. For almost 40 percent of Americans, the last night of the weekend is the one we spend tossing and turning, wondering how to fall asleep.
And when you take a close look at insomnia and other sleep disorder statistics from the American Sleep Association, things don’t exactly look better the rest of the week. Hundreds of thousands of us fall in bed every night and beg our brains to just shut up and let us sleep already.
What’s going on?
When it comes time to go to bed, most of us would love to fall asleep the minute our heads hit the pillow. The faster it happens, the faster we can head into dreamland, right?
The good news is we really can fall asleep fast, according to Steven Woltering, PhD, director and founder of the Neurobiological Lab for Learning and Development at Texas A&M University. Woltering and his colleagues have studied sleep onset latency (SOL), the amount of time that it takes the body to transition from being fully awake to sleeping soundly.
In a survey of 2,000 healthy, typically developing people, Woltering says the average time people self-reported falling asleep was less than 2 minutes. When Woltering’s graduate student Yajun Jia added more controls to measure the sleep conditions (aka not going by self reports), the number was higher but still below about 8 minutes. Women tended to have a longer SOL than men, even if they transitioned to sleep quickly.
Yet a third of us struggle to fall asleep at night, putting the number of Americans with insomnia—the diagnosis for trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep—in the millions, and forcing 5 percent of women to turn to sleep medications to help them catch a break at bedtime. So what’s going on?
First, a bit of good news: Doctors don’t consider you to be a “problem sleeper” if you’re not falling asleep within 8 minutes. In fact, trouble falling asleep is not considered a “pathological problem” until it’s happening on a regular basis, according to David White, chief medical officer of Philips Sleep and Respiratory Care. You need to lie in bed for 30 minutes (or more) more than three times a week for a month for a doctor to make an insomnia diagnosis, White says.
An insomnia diagnosis can be short term or chronic, meaning some people will struggle with sleep for just a few weeks or as little as three months, whereas others can face bedtime battles for longer. The reasons this is happening—and the speed with which you can (or can’t) kick insomnia—are as individual as people themselves.
“The more we learn about what goes on in our brain when we fall asleep, the more we realize that sleep does not depend on a single mechanism,” Woltering tells HealthyWay.“There are a number of brain nuclei, biochemicals, and endocrine systems involved, and they all interact. What this tells us is that sleep has evolved as a very important function. I think having such a complex and widespread network is helpful in terms of having some safeguards: If something goes amiss with one system another can take over to compensate so we can still sleep.”
One of the biggest factors in whether we fall asleep quickly is a brain chemical called adenosine. Adenosine builds up when you’re awake, and the longer you’re awake, the more you tend to have.
“The more adenosine you have in your system, the more pressure you will feel to go to sleep! It’s like an internal clock,” Woltering says.
Unfortunately caffeine, certain medications, stress, and other factors can block our adenosine receptors, keeping us awake longer.
So, is it possible to fall asleep faster and actually stay that way? The experts say yes! Here’s how to alter your space, your body, and your mind to make it easier to fall asleep fast—and stay asleep.