Can’t Sleep? How To Fall Asleep Fast and Naturally

By Roy Krebs

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Do you find it difficult to fall asleep quickly, or wake up in the middle of the night?

Or maybe you find yourself waking before the wee hours of dawn and are unable to fall back asleep? 

If so, you are likely one of millions of people around the world who suffer from sleep deprivation. 

Sleep deprivation can affect your work, social life and relationships—and it can also lead to serious health problems.

Chronic or even occasional sleep deprivation—or insomnia—affects us in different ways. Some people find they're groggy and unfocussed, while others may experience an ongoing sense of restlessness and anxiety. 

Insomnia isn’t just annoying, it’s bad for your health.

Insomnia sufferers are prone to irregular mood swings and lack of focus, which can cause serious performance problems at work or school.  

One-third of Americans say they have problems falling asleep at least once a week. [1]

But many take over the counter and even prescription medicines regularly as sleep aids. These have unpleasant side effects and can be addictive.

And whether they seem to “work,” or not, they fail to address the root cause of your insomnia.

In this article, we’ll discuss why sleep is so important for your health. We’ll consider the causes of insomnia and outline our favorite techniques to help you fall asleep quickly and naturally.

We’ll also highlight the most common sleep disorders, and discuss the best supplements to help you sleep.

Having trouble falling asleep? Stop counting sheep and read on for some natural strategies for falling asleep that really work!

The Importance of Sleep

We all need adequate sleep to allow brains and bodies to rest and your cells to rejuvenate.

It's been scientifically proven that sleep is crucial for our overall health. 

Maintaining a healthy sleep routine: 

  • Improves mental focus, processing, and learning [2]
  • Improves overall brain health
  • Reduces anxiety and depression [3]
  • May help prevent heart disease by giving the heart adequate rest [4]
  • Helps you maintain a healthy weight [5]
  • Promotes a healthy immune system [6]
  • Facilitates the production and proper balance of hormones in all major body systems  

Reasons Why You Can’t Sleep

If you regularly have trouble falling asleep, it’s important to work out the root cause of your insomnia so you can find a remedy that works for you.

Insomnia is a general term for the inability to sleep, and it may be chronic or occasional.

Causes include:

  • Stress, anxiety
  • Pain
  • Hormonal symptoms such as hot flashes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Diseases such as arthritis
  • Asthma, allergies, and respiratory problems
  • Stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
  • Disruptions in sleep routine from working late or caring for children
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Medications such as antidepressants, decongestants, and steroids 

How to Fall Asleep Fast and Naturally

Here’s a roundup of 10 of our favorite strategies for falling asleep quickly without using sleeping meds.

1. Don’t take Long Naps

According to the Mayo Clinic, a well-timed nap can help you relax, reduce fatigue, increase your mental alertness, and boost your mood and performance. It may even improve your reaction times and memory.

They also say, however, that if you suffer from sleep problems at night, napping during the day can make it worse.

It’s a good idea to limit naps to about 30 mins, and even a 10-minute “catnap” can give your brain a rest.  

Another rule of thumb? Don’t nap too late in the day as it can disrupt your natural circadian rhythms and melatonin release cycle.

The ideal time to nap is between 1 and 3 pm.

2. Exercise and Sleep

People who do physical activity during the day are more likely to fall asleep quickly—but exercising too close to bedtime stimulates adrenaline and endorphins which keep you awake.

If you want to get a bit of exercise before bed, a walk or yoga stretches are a much better alternative than a heavy workout, and yoga specifically will help you relax. [7]

3. Nutrition and Sleep

While you don’t want to go to bed hungry, a full stomach is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

If you need a snack at night, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) advises mixing complex carbohydrates with food high in tryptophan.

Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical that aids sleep. Whole wheat crackers with peanut butter or cereal with milk or a banana are good nighttime snacks.

The NSF also advises steering clear of foods that can upset your stomach such as spicy, fatty or fried foods. [8]

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is also important for good sleep hygiene.

Scientists refer to the gut as the “second brain,” as there are so many links between what you eat and good brain health.

It’s particularly important that you eat foods to stimulate the good bacteria in your gut as this can improve sleep quality.

A recent study found that students who drank fermented milk containing probiotic bacteria before bedtime took less time to fall asleep and had better quality sleep than the control group. [9]

4. How Does Light Affect Sleep?

Your body was designed to be awake when the sun comes up and go to sleep when it goes down.

If the photoreceptors in your eyes think it’s daytime, they’ll signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up.

You’re probably aware that blue light from electronic devices can harm your sleep by affecting the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your brain it’s time for bed.

While you might be tempted to scroll through social media before you turn out the light, this isn’t a great idea; the blue light from your device sends a signal to your brain to stay alert rather than settling down for the night.

That’s why switching off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime and leaving your cell phone in the kitchen might be two of the best things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. [10]

You may also find that blocking out light that shines into your room at night from streetlights or digital clocks helps you sleep better.

Related: Beyond Blue Light: How Technology is Killing Our Eyes

But there’s more to the story than just blocking out light from your devices.  

Did you know that you need exposure to natural light during the day in order to sleep well at night?

A study found that people who work in offices with windows on average sleep 45 minutes longer at night than people who work in offices with no natural light. [11]

So make sure you get outside for a walk at lunchtime. You’ll be glad you did when your head hits the pillow.

 

5. Limit your Caffeine and Alcohol Intake

As anyone who has regretted that post-dinner coffee can attest to, drinking coffee in the day is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to get a good nights’s sleep.  

But what’s a little more interesting is that even the coffee you drink earlier in the day can negatively affect sleep quality.  

A study reported in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine measured the effect of 400mg caffeine consumed 0, 3 and 6 hours before going to bed.

The results of this study showed that even caffeine consumed 6 hours before bedtime can have “important disruptive effects on sleep.” [12]

Similarly, while alcohol might make you feel sleepy initially, more than one glass is likely to lead to disturbed sleep because of the different systems used in our bodies to metabolize it.

It also tends to reduce REM sleep.  

6. Control the Temperature

In order for you to sleep well, your body temperature has to dip and stay low throughout the night. If you feel too hot, your sleep will be disturbed. 

As well as controlling the temperature in your bedroom, a warm bath or shower at night can help your body reach the optimum temperature for sleep.

When you get out of the bath or shower, your temperature will drop in the same way that it does at bedtime, signalling to your brain that it’s time to release melatonin to help you sleep. [13]

The results of a study in Nature suggested that encouraging your body heat to move from your core to your extremities by placing a hot-water bottle at your feet may also help you to fall asleep faster. [14]

7. Meditation and Sleep

If you find it difficult to switch off from your day when you go to bed, a period of quiet meditation may help calm your mind.

Focusing on your breath and progressively relaxing your body can stop your brain from doing somersaults.

And what about the old myth of counting sheep? Well this is really a form of visualization but it’s usually effective to visualize anything you find relaxing (a forest or beach will do just fine). [15]

You can also try a 4-7-8 breathing technique to promote sleep. It is thought this increases the amount of oxygen in your blood, decreases carbon dioxide in your lungs and slows your heart-rate.

If you want to try this technique, place your tongue behind your upper front teeth and exhale completely. Breathe in for the count of 4 through your nose, hold for 7 and breathe out through your mouth for eight. Repeat three times. 

Listening to music has been shown to help you relax before bedtime. 

Related: Dr. Michael Breus: A Sleep Doctor's Advice On Fixing Your Sleep For Good 

8. Lavender and Chamomile for Sleep

The results of a study involving students with sleep problems suggested that sleeping with an inhalation patch laced with lavender leads to better quality sleep.

The study group also reported feeling more refreshed on waking. [16]

If you don’t want to wear a patch, try dabbing a drop of lavender oil on your wrists and temples before bedtime.

Chamomile is one of the best natural remedies for sleep; even sipping one cup as a part of your pre-sleep routine is a simple and easy way to calm your nerves, reduce anxiety, and even ease digestion. [17]

9. Stop Smoking to Sleep Better

Insomnia is yet another reason to quit smoking. Nicotine acts as a stimulant which affects your ability to get into and maintain a deep sleep.

Smokers might also have disturbed sleep as their bodies suffer from withdrawal in the night. [18]

10. Can’t Sleep? Get Up!

According to the National Sleep Foundation, if you wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, it's actually better to get up and do something relaxing rather than lying in bed being anxious. 

Why? If you stay in bed when you can’t sleep you might start associating your bed with thinking and worrying.

A healthy rule of thumb is to reserve your bed for sleep and sex only. 

Sleep Disorders

If you’re still having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, then you may want to consult with your healthcare practitioner to see if you have a sleep disorder.

The most common sleep conditions are insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy.

Related: How To Sleep Well: The Ultimate Night Routine For Better Sleep

Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and is characterized by:

  • Having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Waking early
  • Having poor quality sleep
  • Suffering from fatigue during the day

If you have difficulty sleeping three times a week for a month or more, you are considered to have chronic insomnia.

Insomnia can last for a few weeks or longer and can come and go.

Sometimes it is caused by the factors mentioned above, but it can also be a symptom of other medical or psychiatric conditions. 

If you have consistent symptoms, head straight to the doctor to get checked out. 

Sleep Apnea

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. [19]

This is a serious condition where the muscles in the throat fail to keep the airway open reducing the amount of oxygen your body takes in during the night.

As well as causing disturbed sleep, sleep apnea can lead to hypertension, heart disease, mood and memory problems.

If you suffer from sleep apnea your doctor is likely to prescribe a CPAP device (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) which is a mask that keeps the airway open at night.

Both smoking and being overweight can exacerbate the symptoms of sleep apnea. Quitting smoking and losing weight should be priority if these are factors.

Restless Legs Syndrome

It is thought that 7-10 percent of Americans may suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). [20]

Symptoms of RLS include discomfort in the legs (and sometimes arms), along with an irresistible urge to move them. Symptoms are usually worse in the evening and at night, and during periods of inactivity such as a long flight.

Because of sleep deprivation, RLS can affect energy and productivity during the day and lead to anxiety and depression.

The causes of RLS are unknown, but it is thought in many cases to be genetic. RLS has also been linked to iron deficiency, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking. Some medications are also thought to trigger symptoms.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder where the brain can’t control the sleep-wake cycle.

People with narcolepsy often fall asleep frequently or feel extreme fatigue during the day which can have psychological effects as well as making it difficult to work and carry out normal daily functions.

You are more likely to suffer from narcolepsy if you have a family history, an autoimmune disorder or have had a brain injury. [21]

Supplements to Help Your Sleep Quality

While eating a balanced diet is crucial for good sleep-hygiene, supplements can help you address any nutritional deficiencies that may be preventing you from getting the sleep you need.

Magnesium

A magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia. Studies have shown that increasing your magnesium intake can help you to fall asleep more easily and improve the quality of your sleep.

Combining calcium with magnesium makes it easier for your body to absorb this important mineral. [22]

You can increase the amount of magnesium in your diet by consuming foods such as kefir (goat’s milk), spinach, pumpkin seeds, and even a square or two of high-quality dark chocolate.

Alternatively, you can include a quality magnesium supplement in your stack.

Related: Do you Have a Magnesium Deficiency? 

GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that works in your brain to calm anxiety and help you relax.

GABA kick-starts each stage of the sleep cycle. If you are GABA-deficient, you’ll find it difficult to fall asleep and you’re more likely to have a restless night.

The easiest way to make sure you have enough GABA in your diet and that it is optimized for absorption through the blood-brain-barrier, is to take a quality GABA supplement.  

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are carbohydrates that feed the good bacteria in your gut.

Studies suggest that dietary prebiotics could reduce stress and improve the quality of your sleep by increasing the time you spend in Non Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (NREM).

NREM is crucial as this is the stage of the sleep cycle when the brain slows down enough to give the body a chance to rest and recover. [23]

Related: Dietary Prebiotics May Improve Sleep and Reduce Stress

Why Melatonin is Bad For Sleep

Many people with sleep problems take melatonin. In fact, it’s thought 3 million adults and half a million kids in the US regularly take a melatonin supplement. [24]

While melatonin might help regulate a sleep cycle that has been disrupted by jet lag or a few late nights, there is no evidence that it is useful for treating insomnia.

In addition, melatonin supplements might actually be bad for your health. Melatonin is known to boost blood sugar, so it is not advisable for people with diabetes.

It can result in disturbed sleep and make you feel groggy the next day. It can also stop some medications—including hypertension meds, birth control pills, and seizure drugs—working efficiently.

In addition, little is known about the long-term effects of taking melatonin regularly. Animal studies suggest that regularly taking melatonin could affect puberty. [25]

In addition, the quality of some widely available melatonin supplements varies greatly with some containing much higher doses than is stated on the label. 

How To Fall Asleep Fast and Naturally

In order to be able to fall asleep quickly try creating a nighttime routine that signals to your brain it’s time to release the melatonin that helps you sleep well.

  • Switch off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime
  • Do calming activities such as reading, listening to music or taking a warm bath
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals late at night
  • Try meditation or breathing exercises to slow your heartbeat and allow your brain to relax

In addition, make sure you eat a balanced diet and consider a quality sleep stack to boost your nutrition.

What are your top tricks for a good night’s sleep? Tell us in the comments!

  1. "2015 Sleep in America Poll." National Sleep Foundation.
  2. 2. Siobhan Banks, Ph.D. and David F. Dinges, Ph.D."Behavioral and Physiological Consequences of Sleep Restriction." J Clin Sleep Med. 2007 Aug 15; 3(5): 519–528.
  1. ibid.
  2. Nagai, M. et al. "Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease- a Review of the Recent Literature." Curr Cardiol Rev. 2010 Feb; 6(1): 54–61.
  3. Patel, Sanjay R. et al. "Association between Reduced Sleep and Weight Gain in Women." American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 164, Issue 10, 15 November 2006, Pages 947–954.
  4. "Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick?" Mayo Clinic.
  5. Banno, Masahiro et al. "Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis." PeerJ. 2018; 6: e5172.
  6. National Sleep Foundation.
  7. Takada, M. et al. "Beneficial effects of Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota on academic stress-induced sleep disturbance in healthy adults: a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial." Beneficial Microbes, 2017; 8(2): 153-162
  8. National Sleep Foundation.
  9. Boubekri M et al. "Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers: a case-control pilot study." J Clin Sleep Med. 2014 Jun 15;10(6):603-11.
  10. Drake, Christopher et al. "Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed." Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 9;11.
  11. Lillehei, Angela Smith et al. "Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial." J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Jul 1; 21(7): 430–438.
  12. Krauchi, Kurt et al. "Warm feet promote the rapid onset of sleep." Nature volume 401, pages 36–37 (02 September 1999).
  13. Harvey AG1, Payne S. "The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction." Behav Res Ther. 2002 Mar;40(3):267-77.
  14. Lillehei, Angela Smith et al. "Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial." J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Jul 1; 21(7): 430–438.
  15. Srivastava, J.K. et al. "Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future." Mol Med Report. 2010 Nov 1; 3(6): 895–901.
  16. "Smoking Linked To Sleep Disturbances." Science Daily (via the American College of Chest Physicians), February 7, 2008.
  17. National Sleep Foundation.
  18. "Restless Leg Syndrome Fact Sheet." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  19. "Narcolepsy Fact Sheet." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  20. Chollet, D. Et al. "Blood and brain magnesium in inbred mice and their correlation with sleep quality." Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2000 Dec;279(6):R2173-8.
  21. Thompson, Robert S. et al. "Dietary Prebiotics and Bioactive Milk Fractions Improve NREM Sleep, Enhance REM Sleep Rebound and Attenuate the Stress-Induced Decrease in Diurnal Temperature and Gut Microbial Alpha Diversity." Front Behav Neurosci. 2016; 10: 240.
  22. Marshall, Lisa. "Melatonin Benefits, Risks: What You Need to Know." Web MD.
  23. Batmanabane M and Ramesh KG. "Effect of exogenous melatonin on the onset of puberty in female albino rats." Anat Rec. 1996 Jul;245(3):519-24.
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