How (not) to Fall Asleep
July 22nd, 2022
Here's a list and review of 20 things I've tried to help me fall asleep - some worked better than others. May be useful for those who also have trouble sleeping.
Ever since I started college I’ve been struggling with falling asleep. The reason is simple. Before college, I was forced to wake up at 7 every day to go to school that started at 8. This made me incredibly tired by the afternoon and usually knocked out by 11. Ironically, after I was able to wake up naturally on my terms and not be groggy since morning, it’s been harder to consistently fall sleep at the same time every day.
When I can’t fall asleep, it’s usually because of two related and stress-induced phenomenon. One is an elevated heart rate, which leads to this incessant and annoying pounding in the chest. Another is an endless stream of thoughts playing in my head that makes sleeping impossible.
Below I’ve listed all the things I’ve tried to help me sleep better. Some worked, some might’ve worked, and some didn’t. I’m better at sleeping now than I was couple years ago, but it’s still a work in progress. Disclaimer — while I hope the following information can be of use, I’m only reporting my personal experience, which are not results of scientific inquiries and randomized controlled trials. I make no claim on how well these results will generalize to others, and I’m not making any specific recommendations.
What didn’t work
White noise machines
These are machines or apps that make a type of noise that’s supposed to distract the mind and make it harder to concentrate on any specific thought, leading to better sleep. What ends up happening for me is that the noise just stresses me out and I end up being more alert than ever.
Essential oil diffusers
Maybe I didn’t try enough different essential oils? These just don’t seem to have any effect.
Anti-cortisol / rescue pastilles pills
These are supposed to relieve stress, but for me, they also didn’t seem to do anything. My guess is either the dose is not strong enough, or lowering cortisol (often called the stress hormone) is treating the wrong node in the causal chain — it might be the case that stress induces cortisol production, but lowering cortisol via intervention does not lower stress (similar to how we can’t change the temperature by changing the thermometer reading).
I’ve been recommended to drink a glass of wine before going to bed. This seems to work for some, but alcohol for me actually makes sleeping harder. I’m not sure why, since alcohol is a depressant. Drinking always accelerates my heart rate, and I only find myself falling asleep after sobering up. In any case, I’d caution against this as having alcohol in the bloodstream during sleep is known to cause memory issues and interferes with REM sleep.
What might’ve worked
I wore eye masks for a long time (maybe 4~5 yrs). Reducing light exposure does help, but in the end, I can’t tell if eye masks themselves had a decisive effect on how fast I fall asleep. Plus, having constant pressure on the eye is not too pleasant.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamps / exposure to sunlight during the day
These are supposed to help “sync” the circadian rhythm with the natural day/night cycle. I can confirm that walking outdoors and getting sunlight help with my mood, but results on sleep were inconclusive.
Over the years I’ve tried exercising in the early morning, late at night, and early evenings. While consistent exercise is good for general health reasons and they do make me more tired when I go to bed, I can’t conclude that this had a noticeable effect on sleep.
Reading before bed
This can work if done right, but doing it right is super tricky. Ideally, I’d be reading a book that I’m both interested in and can somehow bore me to sleep. I’ve actually had books like this, where the high-level picture is interesting, but the details are boring. These types of books are hard to find. Reading a book where everything is interesting and engaging is a no-go — that just makes me excited and want to stay up to read more.
Music / podcasts / audio books
I think these approaches have the same problem with books — they have to be interesting enough to grab my attention (otherwise I end up ignoring them and it would be as if they weren’t playing at all), but not too interesting as to make me mentally engaged. So, they could work, but it’s tricky to find ones that do.
Limited food and water before bed
I think balance here is key. While it is hard to sleep with a stomach actively digesting food, it is also hard to sleep with an empty stomach. It seems to me that stopping food and water intake an hour before bed won’t make things worse, but it’s not clear that it makes things better.
I used Headspace on and off over the years for a few weeks at a time. Maybe the benefits only show up when this is done consistently over a longer period. Meditation helps me calm down and clear my thoughts, but I usually feel more energized afterwards. To me, it was more useful to meditate in the morning to get ready for the day, instead of meditating at night to get ready for sleep.
High quality mattress, sheets, and pillows
Having a comfortable bed setup is definitely important, but these by themselves are not sufficient for a good night of sleep. I spent a lot of time trying out different pillows and finding ones that work, and having a good pillow did make some difference.
I’ve tried three specific approaches with using journals to aid sleep. One is gratitude journaling in which I write things I’m grateful for, two is writing down a list of things I’m worried about, and three is writing about whatever I feel like writing about. While these three writing exercises all have their own benefits, I’m not sure of their impacts on sleep. The worry list does work sometimes, but results are inconsistent, and sometimes journaling makes me worry about things even more.
I stopped regularly drinking coffee and tea awhile ago, and this had a noticeable effect on my sleep hygiene. There is a tolerance aspect to this — the more coffee one drinks, the less effect it has. But personally, my response to caffeine has always been one of jitter and anxiety and not focus or productivity, so the trade-offs were not worth it.
Blue light filter on electronic devices
Exposure to blue light suppresses production of melatonin, a hormone that prepares the body to sleep. I use a very aggressive setting of f.lux and similar apps that dim blue hues during evenings on all my electronic devices. There is a noticeable difference in alertness after looking at a screen w/ and w/o f.lux for an extended period of time.
Reduced light exposure before sleep
This is similar in spirit to f.lux. Making my bedroom and living room dim with warm light before going to sleep helps me feel more tired and ready to rest.
These actually work like magic, but there’s a caveat. There is some evidence that compressive pressure reduces stress and improves sleep quality, and my experience attests this. However, the caveat is that the effects of weighted blankets wear off after a month or so of continued use. Also the fact that weighted blankets may bring excessive warmth makes it not a good long term solution.
I began wearing ear plugs in college to filter out all the noise in my dorm, but the habit stuck. To me, wearing earplugs gives the opposite effect of the white noise machine — it filters out background noise and reduces stress. On a side note, ear plugs (and eye masks) are especially helpful when it comes to sleeping in unconventional settings, like airplanes, busses, or hackathons.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is the most effective, non-medicinal way I have of bringing down my heart rate and calming my mind. 4-7-8 refers to inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8, and this cycle is repeated a few times. Doing this doesn’t immediately put me to sleep, but usually I end up sleeping in 10 to 20 mins. I actually found this to be more helpful if I forgo the concept of seconds altogether. Now I just count to 4, 7, and 8, and I slow the counting speed with each cycle (so in effect I might be doing 6-10-12). The key to deeper breaths is breathing by expanding the stomach and not the chest.
These are very effective and I take them as a method of last resort. One pill (3mg) usually reduces my heart rate within 5 mins and puts me to sleep within 20, and I take a few every month. Note that 3mg is a relatively small dosage — there are pills that are 5mg or even 10mg. I haven’t found studies that present strong evidence against using melatonin, and my doctor was ok with my infrequent usage. I’ve read that unlike stronger sleeping aids, melatonin doesn’t induce dependence, and its effects don’t wear off over time. Although with any hormone supplements it’s good to be careful and do your due diligence. I also found melatonin pills to be helpful with adjusting to different time zones and going to sleep earlier than usual for early wake ups, like for early flights.
In an ideal world, I would always feel perfectly relaxed and comfortable at the end of the day to fall asleep at the same time all the time. Unfortunately, I learned that this ideal world doesn’t exist, and there are always external and internal factors that we don’t have direct control over. Building healthy habits, reinforcing mechanisms, and sleeping environments are concrete things that can be done. If you have comments, questions, or tips on sleep, please let me know, and I’d love to discuss them with you. For additional reading, I’ll point to the book “Why We Sleep” by Professor Matthew Walker, who does research on sleep at UC Berkeley.
Footnotes and Updates
This post was originally posted on Facebook, where I received many helpful feedback and suggestions:
- Syncing circadian rhythm with day/night cycle is very important. Exposure to natural sunlight or waking up to light (or light alarms) and blackout curtains can all play a positive role.
- White noise machines are quite effective for some.
- Even smaller melatonin dosage might work.
- When laying in bed, replay your day in as much detail as possible may help with relaxation.
- Another way to relax the body is by mentally scanning each muscle group and try to relax each one in sequence.
- Keeping a cool room at night
- Long distance running