Lying awake in the middle of the night and wondering if or when you will finally get to sleep is one of the most frustrating everyday things we can face, but have you ever wondered just how long does it take to fall asleep for a healthy adult?
Unlocking the Secrets of Sleep Latency
The length of time it takes us to fall asleep is known as sleep latency.
We measure sleep latency from the moment we lay down, turn out the lights and remove all distractions (for example our mobile phones) and begin the first stage of sleep.
A reasonably brief sleep latency lasting between 10 to 20 minutes is common for most healthy adults, though the exact time will vary for each person.
If you fall within the 10-20 minute window, it can show that your sleep cycle is reasonably healthy and it sets you up for better quality sleep, though it doesn’t guarantee it.
A 2018 study involving 83 people aged 18-65 from the North of England, showed that if people perceive they are taking longer to get to sleep, they actually tend to have worse sleep quality when sleep is rated based on standard sleep scale assessments.
So if you often take longer than 20 minutes to get to sleep, this might be a red flag that something else is going on.
Reasons Why It Can Take Longer to Fall Asleep (And What to Do About It)
Too much caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that can help wake us up. The problem is, if we have too much caffeine throughout the day it can increase the time it takes us to actually fall asleep.
Try tapering off your caffeine intake through the day and replacing caffeinated drinks with soothing herbal teas in the evening.
Sneaky stimulants. If you have prescription medications or regularly use pain relief like paracetamol, check to see if they contain caffeine or other stimulant effects. Consult your doctor if you have concerns and never stop using medications without medical advice.
Napping through the day. While a power nap is great for your productivity, having too many naps throughout the day can upset our natural sleep patterns. Try cutting down to just a quick nap once in the afternoon to avoid disrupting your nighttime sleep pattern.
Not exercising enough. Exercise burns off excess calories, promotes well-being and relaxation and can help tire us out, particularly if we work in an office job or a job where we are sitting for much of the day.
Research shows that exercise can improve sleep latency as well as our overall sleep quality.
Exercising too close to bedtime. Research into the effects of exercising close to bedtime has given us mixed results, but some studies suggest that it can take us longer to get to sleep if we do vigorous exercise right before bed.
Try a morning or afternoon workout instead, or consider switching to moderate activities like walking or yoga if you have to exercise late in the evening.
A poor sleep environment. It’s generally recommended that we remove all distractions from our bedrooms, including things like TVs and mobile phones, but did you know that temperature is also important?
Research shows that keeping our bedrooms at a temperature between 16°C to 19°C for most adults (excluding seniors) can give us a more comfortable sleep.
Eating large meals. Most of us enjoy a hearty meal, but eating a large amount of food too close to bedtime can lead to feeling uncomfortably full. It can also increase the risk of heartburn and acid reflux, which can interrupt our attempts to get to sleep.
Try to avoid eating around two to three hours before bed.
Underlying Health Conditions and Sleep Latency
While taking action on things like reducing caffeine and screen time may help, they are not fixes for underlying mental or physical health conditions, so if you are often taking a long time to fall asleep it’s really important you see your doctor.
There are a number of health problems and circumstances that can make getting to sleep difficult.
Many women report that one of the most difficult parts of menopause can be its effects on their sleep. This can include taking longer to fall asleep.
Common mental health problems like depression and anxiety have a direct effect on our sleep, too. This can include anxious thoughts preventing us from getting to sleep, and depression making us sleep more but have a poorer quality of sleep.
Is There Such a Thing as Going to Sleep Too Quickly?
Actually, there is.
If you find yourself falling to sleep in less than five minutes, but it’s after a few disturbed nights or because of a particularly active day, then it is unlikely to be a problem.
However, if your sleep latency is consistently below 10 minutes, it might be a sign of an underlying issue. It could be something simple like not getting enough sleep or that your sleep quality isn’t sufficient and so your body is desperate for more sleep.
What Should I Do If I Can’t Sleep?
If you find that sleep just isn’t happening for you, the temptation can be to stay where you are and to keep trying.
However, this can cause stress which in turn can interrupt the process of getting to sleep. Instead, do something else like read or listen to soothing music.
Doing activities when you “should” be sleeping might seem strange, but it can help to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep and begin the biological processes that help you drift off.
The length of time it takes to fall asleep will vary from person to person and depend on different things such as personal circumstances, health and sleep environment.
However, the guideline of 10 to 20 minutes gives us an insight into whether we’re having healthy sleep onset or whether there might be something we need to take a closer look at.
Of course, there are many factors that play a part in healthy sleep and the time it takes you to fall asleep is just one part. So don’t fret if you struggle to get to sleep every now and again.
Do you have any tips for falling asleep faster? Let us know in the comments.