Have trouble falling asleep? Wish there was a switch you could flip to help you fall asleep more easily? Well, what if we told you that, in a way, there is such a switch? And you probably have more than one within reach as you’re reading this.
That’s right. We’re talking about a light switch.
And although it may not be as instantaneously sleep-inducing as the magical sleep switch we’ve all wished for at one time or another, a light switch is both symbolic and practical. Because being able to strategically control the timing of your light exposure can make a huge difference in your sleep. And it’s a powerful tool for anyone who wants to learn how to fall asleep faster.
In this article, we’ll explain why light is a vital part of keeping your circadian rhythm — your internal body clock — aligned for optimal sleep. In addition to giving you the exact formula for a sleep-enhancing light exposure schedule, we’ll share bedtime routine ideas and relaxation techniques to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night.
Sleep latency is the official term for the time it takes to go from wakefulness to sleep when you go to bed at night. Also called sleep onset latency, the longer it is, the more likely you are to worry about it. But how long is too long?
As a general rule, you should fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed. Difficulty falling asleep for more than 30 minutes is often considered evidence of insomnia.
There are some common things that, when you do them too late in the day or evening, can make it hard to fall asleep at night. These include napping, eating a heavy meal, and consuming caffeine or alcohol.
And when anxiety and depression contribute to prolonged wakefulness, it can feel doubly frustrating. Anxious thoughts can quickly multiply when you add in the new worry that you’ll never fall asleep or that you’ll get so little sleep you’ll be exhausted the next day.
Unfortunately, such worries are warranted. Insufficient sleep and sleep deprivation will indeed zap next-day energy levels, making it difficult to feel and perform at your best.
On the other hand, falling asleep too quickly — as soon as your head hits the pillow, or even five minutes afterward — can be a sign of a sleep disorder or high sleep debt.
Sleep debt is a running total of the sleep you’ve missed — as compared to the sleep your body needed — over the past 14 days. It’s the number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. And when you rack up too much sleep debt — more than five hours — you’ll suffer negative impacts to your immune system, cognitive function, physical performance, and much more.
So how do you prevent prolonged sleep latency from piling more hours of missed sleep onto your sleep debt? Pay special attention to the timing of your light exposure — and other habits — to stay aligned with your circadian rhythm.
Usually, what we think of as a sleep problem — or a falling asleep problem — could more accurately be described as a light problem.
Light is the primary external influence on your circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that governs your sleep-wake patterns in roughly 24-hour cycles. And your brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is running the show.
Located inside the hypothalamus, the SCN is a special group of neurons attuned to the roughly 24-hour cycle of changing light caused by the rising and setting of the sun. At night, darkness signals the SCN to prompt your brain’s pineal gland to secrete the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to prep your body for sleep. In the morning when the SCN senses daylight (via the eyes and the optic nerve), melatonin production stops, signaling to your brain that the day has begun.
Although, as a concept, the way these processes work together is not difficult to grasp, most of us rarely stop to think about the real-life impacts haphazard light exposure — using bright artificial lights late into the night, for example — can have on our sleep. They don’t teach this stuff in school.
Maybe that’s why some people who have trouble falling asleep wouldn’t think twice about reaching for over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids but never stop to consider how simply adjusting the timing of their light exposure can dramatically improve their sleep — without the unwanted side effects of sleeping pills.
Because circadian misalignment can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, timing your light exposure and sleep schedule to support your circadian rhythm is vital for optimizing your sleep at night for more energy during the day.
Follow these circadian-friendly light exposure and sleep schedule guidelines to make it easier to get the sleep your body needs.
Your circadian rhythm thrives on consistency, so keep a regular wake time and bedtime. That includes weekdays and weekends. Staying up late for some Friday night fun or sleeping in for hours on a lazy Sunday morning may seem harmless, but the disruption of your normal sleep-wake cycle can throw off your circadian rhythm, making it harder to wake up or fall asleep on schedule the following week. So stick to a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible.
Napping is ok if you’re trying to pay down sleep debt, but to avoid increased sleep latency at night, make sure to nap during your afternoon dip and limit your nap to a maximum of 90 minutes (the length of a full sleep cycle). The RISE app will tell you the exact time of your afternoon dip each day.
As soon as possible after waking, expose yourself to daylight. Sunlight through a window will do as a last resort, but going outside is ideal. And because physical activity during the day can make it easier to sleep at night, taking yourself out for a morning walk or run is even better.
Light exposure at night can disrupt your body’s natural melatonin production, so try to eliminate as much light as possible at night, especially in the 90 minutes before bed. Bright lights and the blue light from electronic devices can be especially problematic. So turn off or dim the lights in your home and/or wear blue-light blocking glasses. And make sure your bedroom is completely dark — no night lights! Use blackout blinds or curtains and an eye mask.
About 2-3 hours before your biological bedtime, your pineal gland starts ramping up its production of melatonin. This is known as dim light melatonin onset (DLMO), and it marks the start of your Melatonin Window in the RISE app. Going to bed within this window of time — when your body is producing its highest levels of melatonin — will make it easier to fall asleep quicker. Miss the window and you’ll likely find it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. (The exact timing of your Melatonin Window varies from day to day, depending on your recent sleep times and other factors. But in the RISE app, you can add the Melatonin Window habit to your Energy Schedule to remind you of your ideal bedtime each night.)
Along with your circadian rhythm’s DLMO, the natural sleep pressure that builds in your body throughout the day helps you feel sleepy at night. Inside the brain, sleep pressure is the gradual accumulation of adenosine, an organic compound that makes you feel drowsy.
By the end of the night, when adenosine hits its peak, the drive to sleep gets so strong that you cannot keep your eyes open. While you sleep, your brain purges itself of adenosine.
Sounds like a pretty good system, right? And it is — except when we consume things that suppress sleep pressure (or disrupt your circadian rhythm) and make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
Let’s take a look at substances that have the potential to sabotage sleep.
A cup of coffee in the morning can help you feel more awake. That’s because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, making you feel more alert.
Drinking coffee too late in the day, on the other hand, can make it hard to fall asleep. At night, you need your brain to react normally to the adenosine it has built up during the day so that you’ll feel drowsy and drift off to sleep easily. At Rise, we recommend avoiding caffeine in the 10 hours before bedtime, and our app will remind you of your exact cutoff time each day.
Alcohol is one sneaky sedative. Although it may help you fall asleep initially, the fact that it causes sleep fragmentation — multiple awakenings during the night — should be enough to make you question its sleep benefits.
After all, what does it matter if you fall asleep quickly if the sleep you get is interrupted and insufficient? Bottom line: Don’t booze before you snooze. The last thing you need is more sleep debt, so avoid alcohol in the 3-4 hours before bed.
As tempting as the ubiquitous ads promoting them make them sound, using over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids is not a viable solution for most sleep problems. Sleeping pills can cause next-day drowsiness, which may disrupt your circadian rhythm and make it even harder to fall asleep the following night.
It’s also important to note that these pills are sedatives that produce manufactured sleep, not naturalistic sleep. That means you're not getting the restorative sleep your body needs and thus exposing yourself to all of the outcomes of acute — and in time, long-term — sleep deprivation.
Even natural supplements, which are not closely regulated by the FDA, are inherently problematic because their safety, effectiveness, and even the accuracy of their ingredients labels is always up for debate.
That includes melatonin supplements which, though increasingly popular in recent years, are really only useful in special situations, like trying to adjust to a new sleep schedule when working the night shift or dealing with jet lag in a new time zone. In general, you’ll get more reliable results by adopting habits that support your body’s natural melatonin production and circadian rhythm.
When driving a car and approaching a red light, the smoothest way to come to a stop is to start letting off the gas before hitting the brakes. Likewise, for a smooth and efficient transition from wakefulness to sleep, it’s best to take some time at the end of the night to slow down and unwind to disconnect from the bustle and stress of the day.
Here are some tips for a relaxing nighttime routine.
When you finally lie down to go to sleep, there are things you can do to fall asleep faster. The next time you find yourself feeling tired but wired and staring at the ceiling, try these bedtime tactics.
Whether you want to do them before bed or in bed, the RISE app lets you schedule nightly relaxation sessions and customize them by choosing guides and recordings for relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training with visualization, and other relaxation techniques.
Breathing techniques that promote relaxation can help you fall asleep faster because they help pull your focus away from anxious thoughts and onto your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing is a belly breathing method designed to lower heart rate and stabilize blood pressure. Another helpful technique is 4-7-8 breathing.
Based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama and studied extensively by University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine director Dr. Andrew Weil, 4-7-8 breathing has been described as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
That’s because controlling and elongating the exhaling of your breath sends a signal to your brain that you’re safe and not in danger — which helps you relax.
Here’s how to do it: Touch the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth and empty your lungs of air. Next, inhale silently through your nose to the count of four. Hold the breath in for seven, and then exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth, making a whoosh sound, to the count of eight. Repeat four times or until you fall asleep.
If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up and do a sleep reset to help prevent your brain from forming an association between your bed and wakefulness or insomnia. Get out of bed and do something relaxing. You might read a book, listen to soft music, or engage in mindfulness meditation, but don’t lie down. Wait until you start to get sleepy, then go back to bed. Repeat as needed.
If you want to learn how to fall asleep faster, the best thing you can do is adjust your daily and nightly habits to harness the power of circadian alignment. When you time your light exposure just right, take time to wind down, and go to bed during your Melatonin Window, you’ll do more than set yourself up for a quick and smooth transition into sleep. You’ll also give yourself the best shot at having a full night of restorative sleep that will help energize your day.
The RISE app will give you a clear picture of your circadian rhythm, so you’ll always know the exact timing of your Melatonin Window. It also supports sleep-friendly habits with reminders and guided relaxation exercises to help you doze off with ease.
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