HOW TO FALL ASLEEP IN FIVE MINUTES

Benjamin Franklin once said “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, and wise.” Or to put it another way: “Sleep is the single most powerful performance enhancer and health giver there is,” says Dr Guy Meadows, a clinical director and the co-founder of Sleep School.

Too bad we’re not getting enough of it. A recent YouGov poll found that while 77 per cent of Britons aim to get eight hours of sleep, just 25 per cent of us actually manage it. So is it possible to fall asleep fast – and what really helps? 

Can you really fall asleep in five minutes?

Absolutely, says Dr Meadows, “However, while being able to get into bed and fall asleep in under five minutes from time to time may indicate good sleep health and efficiency, consistently taking five minutes or less to fall asleep can also be a sign of excessive sleepiness or sleep deprivation.” 

The average healthy sleeper takes 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, he says. And are some of us simply better at falling asleep more quickly or easily? “Yes, some people are more predisposed to falling asleep quickly due to factors such as genetics, how good their sleep hygiene is, lower stress levels, regular physical activity, and good mental health.”

The importance of sleep

Where do we begin? “Sleep is a really wonderful and powerful way of improving our health,” says Meadows. “It improves everything from our mental focus and emotional regulation, to managing the hormones that control our appetite and lowering our blood pressure.”

 A 2022 study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found a “robust association” between getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night and an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, depression and diabetes.

Dr Severine Sabia, from University College London and a lead author on the study, said that multimorbidity [having two or more chronic diseases] is on the rise in high-income countries. “As people get older, their sleep habits change,” she said. “However, it is recommended to sleep for seven to eight hours a night, as sleep durations above or below this have previously been associated with individual chronic diseases.”

Meanwhile, a 2022 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who sleep less consume more calories and crave higher fat and calorie foods than those who get more sleep. Beth Frates, from Massachusetts General Hospital, who led the research said improving your sleep hygiene, “may help people to extend sleep time to the recommended seven to nine hours per night”, which could in turn lead to them consuming fewer calories and losing weight. “Many people focus on exercise and diet when it comes to weight management and a healthy heart, but few focus on sleep,” she says.  

How to fall asleep faster

Get light into your eyes first thing  

When it comes to being able to fall asleep quickly, what we do in the day is almost as important as what we do when we go to bed, says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford and author of Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionise Your Sleep and Health

“Most of us should get as much natural morning light as possible to improve our chances of falling asleep later that day,” he says. “This has been shown to move the circadian clock to an earlier time, which helps you feel sleepier at bedtime.” Our circadian clock, or circadian rhythm, is the 24 hour ‘internal clock’ that regulates our sleep/wake cycles.

Guy Meadows agrees. “Your body is naturally preparing to fall asleep from the moment we wake up, and there are things you can do early in the day to help you fall asleep more quickly. Getting light into your eyes first thing signals to your body that the day, and the countdown to bedtime, has begun. In winter I use a light therapy lamp, but in lighter months I get outside for some natural light soon after waking.” 

Meadows is also a fan of what he calls the “fake commute”: “Now more of us work from home we don’t have to step outside every day. To counter this I take a walk round the block every morning without sunglasses to get light into my eyes to set my circadian rhythm. This creates a wonderful pattern of circadian synchronicity and helps improve the quality of my sleep that night.”

Never nap after 4pm

Prof Foster says a short nap or siesta in the early afternoon has been historically common throughout Mediterranean countries, largely due to their warm climate and tendency to have their largest meal in the middle of the day. However, while napping has its health benefits, take caution with a daytime nap to ensure you’re still able to fall asleep at night: “Firstly, if you find yourself regularly wanting a nap in the day, you probably aren’t sleeping enough at night,” says Prof Foster. “However, the occasional nap will improve alertness and performance in the afternoon, providing it’s no longer than 20 minutes and not within six hours of bedtime, otherwise it will delay the time it takes you to fall asleep.

Don’t exercise too close to bedtime

Exercise is good for our ability to fall asleep, says Prof Foster but, like napping, we have to do it right. “For most of us, exercise helps the sleep/wake cycle and reduces insomnia. However, exercise within one to two hours of bedtime may be a problem by overriding the circadian rhythm and delaying the onset of sleep.” Vigorous exercise in particular isn’t advised, he says, because it can cause a “runner’s high”, which will also delay sleep.

Think about your mattress

Prof Foster thinks our mattresses matter when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, but says there are few scientific studies to back this up. “Research does suggest, however, that a good mattress and the right bedding can conduct heat away from the body, which lowers core body temperature and this can reduce the time it takes to get to sleep and increase deep slow-wave sleep.” 

 He says you probably need a new mattress if your current one feels saggy or unsupportive, or if you wake up with aches and pains in your back or limbs. “And has it been more than seven years since you purchased it? Do you become more allergic or develop asthma symptoms in bed? If so, it may be time to think about buying a new one.” If you’re menopausal, he advises getting a cooler, more breathable one, and suggests visiting showrooms or department stores to test some out.

 On the topic of temperature, Guy Meadows says we sleep better in a cool room and that the ideal bedroom temperature is around 16C to 17C. “Women tend to want a warmer bedroom though, and I’ve had couples tell me that a Dyson fan has saved their marriage when they couldn’t agree on the right temperature,” says Prof Foster. “Men have more muscle than fat and tend to be bigger so retain heat, but your bedroom should be no warmer than 18C.”

Stick to the same bedroom routine

Our circadian rhythm thrives on routine, so aim to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, which makes waking up – and falling asleep – easier.

“More research is needed, but anecdotally relaxing oils, such as lavender, also improve sleep and can be a helpful part of a bedtime routine,” says Prof Foster. “A warm bath is also another good part of a ‘sleep preparation’ routine, because it warms the skin, which increases blood flow from the core of the body, which some studies show can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.” 

Lastly, he says, make your bedroom a haven for sleep: “Your bedroom should contain minimum distractions and be quiet, dark and calm, so try not to work in it during the day.”

Mindfulness to minimise stress

“I used to be terribly rude about mindfulness in the old days when there was little data on it,” says Prof Foster. “Now I know better and that mindfulness techniques can help with daytime stress, which is a powerful sleep disruptor.”

 In 2015, a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found those who practiced mindfulness before bed slept better, which the researchers believed was due to it calming the nervous system and lessening anxiety, which helped with relaxation before sleep.

 “Most people don’t have a sleep problem, they have an anxiety problem, and mindfulness can be whatever behaviour winds you down for bed,” says Prof Foster. “Whether that’s reading, or some breathing exercises. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a defined practice, nor take a certain amount of time.”

 “Mindfulness is being present with our thoughts, which is the opposite of what many us of do before bed, which is to ruminate over the past or catastrophise over the future,” says Guy Meadows, who says mindfulness might include choosing to focus on the feel of your duvet on your feet or on the movement of your breath for a few minutes.

Prof Foster also advises against using electronics before bed but not because of the light: “But rather because of the kind of things you might see that will cause stress,” he says. “For this reason, I’ve stopped catching up on the news on my phone before bed. Even an email from your boss can make one very stressed before bed, so avoid electronics.”

Lastly, leave tricky conversations for daylight: “Many couples only find the time to talk about important stuff when they’re lying in bed at the end of a busy day,” says Prof Foster. “My wife does the family finances, but I won’t let her talk about them in bed because it’s not conducive to falling asleep quickly.”

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