In the sleep medicine toolbox, doctors differentiate between the disorders of
- Falling asleep (sleep onset disorder)
- Staying asleep (sleep continuity disorder)
- Early morning awakening
Our focus here is on the tricky task of shortening that period in bed after lights off till … whoosh, you’ve fallen asleep. How did it happen? How does it happen, night after night? The findings of sleep research can be translated into useful hints. Here are a few simple ways to help you fall asleep quickly and regularly:
- First of all, you should know your chronotype. You can find this out from our AutoMEQ personalized survey. You may be born with a tendency to fall asleep and wake up either very early (“lark”) or very late (“owl”), though most people fall in the middle. In teenage years the hormones shift everyone’s bedtimes later and later — by about 15 minutes each year! — until the age of 20 when chronotype stabilizes. At older ages everyone shifts back in the earlier direction (with the problem of “early morning awakening”). It is obvious that owls and larks will have problems adjusting to the requirements of school and work; Till Roenneberg has appropriately calls this misalignment between waking up naturally as our clock demands (weekends) and waking up with an alarm clock (work days) as “social jetlag”. More flexible work times and later school start times would help enormously. Owls cannot fall asleep earlier and larks cannot go to bed later! It’s biology!
Rule #1: If your work or school times permit, RESPECT YOUR CHRONOTYPE and fit sleep timing to when you feel tired.
- The second point is to keep a regular schedule, if at all possible. Different chronotypes will have different schedules, as far as their commitments allow, but the important thing is that this be maintained, day by day, even on weekends. This will reduce the amount of social jetlag and thereby other side effects that affect mood and alertness.
Rule #2: REGULAR SLEEP-WAKE SCHEDULES
- Falling asleep is triggered by a series of events related to circadian timing. The pineal gland hormone melatonin begins secretion in the evening and gives the body a signal that it is night. This triggers heat loss in the hands and feet, which in turn induces sleepiness. If your physiology is well coordinated, you then lie down and fall asleep quickly. The important clue is to know that warm hands and feet are the physiological gate to sleep.
- Avoid medications that cause blood vessel constriction or block melatonin synthesis (beta-blockers are a prime example). These drugs can lengthen the time to fall asleep because of reduced circulation.
- This is where the psychological factors preventing sleep come in — because one main effect of stress and brooding is to cause vasoconstriction in the hands and feet — so although you might be otherwise ready to fall asleep, the message to relax doesn’t come through to warm you up.
Rule #3: WARM HANDS AND FEET BEFORE SLEEP! Remember your grandma’s sleep aids before sleep? Still smart: a hot water bottle, warm bath or footbath, bed socks, hot milk. Or relaxation exercises.
- Get enough light outdoors during the day — at least half an hour in the morning. More bright daytime light supports better nighttime sleep. Light also helps performance and mood.
- At night, avoid light in the bedroom (use blinds or curtains). Lamps with warmer light (for example, 3000 Kelvin) or amber-colored bulbs will help the relaxation process before sleep. Don’t stay hooked on the blue-ish light of laptop and mobile phone screens (switch background to amber with the app, lux).
Rule #4: BRIGHT LIGHT DURING THE DAY, Go out regularly in the morning each day. AVOID BLUE-SPECTRUM VIDEO SCREENS IN THE EVENING, OR DIM TO AMBER.
- Naps can be great. But they should be short (30 minutes or less – set an alarm clock) and not after 3 p.m. If you nap longer or later, sleep pressure will be reduced so that you won’t have much left to let you fall asleep quickly at night. Caffeine also should be limited after the lunch-time expresso.
Rule #5: SHORT NAPS AFTER LUNCH: Not later, not longer. No caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
Sweet dreams from CET!