The question is simpler than it sounds: How did you sleep last night? I mean exactly the moment when you went from waking to sleep or, if you prefer, to the moments before, what happened? how did you get it? What did you feel at that moment? It is still curious that, even though we sleep every day, “falling asleep” is such an unknown process.
And not only by ordinary citizens, but by scientists themselves. In the last decade, the technological leap in neuroimaging tools has brought us much closer to what happens at that enigmatic moment in which we plunge into the domains of Morpheus.
And yet the web is still full of “quick sleep” “solutions” that are closer to magical rituals and superstitions than anything resembling a scientifically consistent, behavioral technique. What does science tell us about all this?
A Quick Course in Sleep Neurobiology
There are quite a handful of brain structures directly involved in sleep processes: the hypothalamus (which acts as a control center for arousal and contains key neural structures in circadian rhythms), the brain stem (where the transition between wakefulness and sleep takes place), the thalamus (which, in a way, , is the structure that passes sensory information to the central nervous system and that, during sleep, enters “do not disturb” mode), the pineal gland (which secretes a hormone, melatonin, which helps induce sleep by adjusting to the cycle day-night) or the amygdala (which “processes” emotions and plays a very important role in REM sleep).
However, the most interesting thing about all this anatomical analysis is to realize that we do not have structures specifically dedicated to sleep. Although there are groups of neurons whose function is centered on it, but the difference between wakefulness and sleep is more in the way the nervous system works than in the structures that are involved. The core issue of “falling asleep” is how to change modes without compromising system performance.
For this reason, within the famous REM and non-REM phases of sleep, there is one (phase 1) that, although it lasts a few minutes, is tremendously important. It is a light sleep during which the body (heartbeats, breaths, movements) relax and slow down and in which brain wave patterns begin to show that the transition between one state and another is underway.
This gives us a first clue as to what the body takes to start the process that will end us asleep. However, having a period of calm is not enough. Typically, there are two internal biological mechanisms that help regulate sleep and allow synchronization those moments of rest with our physiological needs: circadian rhythms (a kind of “biological clock” that regulates many functions: from body temperature to the release of hormones) and wake-sleep homeostasis (that is, the need for sleep) .
The three key tips for falling asleep
Those three levers are the fundamental instruments we have to facilitate sleep not only be deep and restorative, but also be able to reconcile quickly. In general, all the techniques that we can find to help us fall asleep fast play with them in one way or another.
Relax your mind and body
Unless the need to sleep is imperative, the nervous system will not initiate the sleep process if we need not to sleep. What’s more, he is going to resist it. Therefore, the first phase of sleep involves a neurological, physical and environmental relaxation: is the ‘trick’ our body uses to check that we can sleep.
What happens is that, normally, we are not able to compartmentalize our lives enough to get to bed with everything resolved. Sometimes it is our mind that does not stop thinking about pending issues or problems that we cannot solve; other times it is the rest of the body that, due to the activities we have been doing previously, has not captured the signals that tell it to relax.
A clear example is exercising. There is no doubt that physical activity and good sleep are related (Loprinzi and Cardinal, 2011) and it seems that 30 minutes of physical activity most days is a good thing (Reid, 2010). However, it is advisable to do it 2 to 3 hours before going to bed. On the contrary, “physiological inertia” can work against us.
It is also not a good idea to consume caffeine because It is not only related to a lack of sleep, but to a poor quality of it (Kerpershoek, Antypa and Van den Berg, 2018; Snel and Lorist, 2011). Something similar happens with alcohol (Singleton and Wolfson, 2009) or nicotine (Jaehne, 2009). However, there are people who all this (especially the last two) help them to fall asleep.
The reason is simpler than it seems: we often use alcohol or tobacco as forms of emotional management and, for that reason, they can help us to reconcile. The problem is that they do so at the cost of dissolving our ability to sleep in the long run. If we need to manage our emotions, it is better to do relaxing tasks before going to bed (Blanaru and others, 2012; Nicassio and Bootzin, 1974). Things like reading, listening to music or, directly, pulling the famous relaxation techniques.
In fact, Most of the techniques that we see on the internet to help you sleep are covert relaxation techniques. Either the 4-7-8 technique (repeating the sequence of “inhaling air through the nose for four seconds; holding it for seven; and exhaling it for eight” until sleep) or the Sharon Ackerman method to sleep in two minutes. are. Our colleagues from Vitónica have a good compilation to find the one that best suits us. You just have to have one idea in mind: mastering them takes practice.
Order our life
If an important part is the psycho-physiological disposition at the moment of sleep, another part is the vital rhythm: making our life and our rhythms (circadian) fit together. Let’s face it, as we get older, our sleep gets worse and worse: more than half of older adults suffer from insomnia symptoms (Ohayon, 2002). However, studies tell us that a consistent and organized lifestyle can help us sleep better and faster (Zisberg, Gur-Yaish, & Shochat, 2010; Monk, 2010).
By the way, this lifestyle has to be daily, the week does not serve as a unit of compensation. Or, in other words, there is no use sleeping late on weekends. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is the best option for regulating sleep whether we are children (Mindell and others, 2015), elite athletes (Bird, 2013) or normal people.
As we said above, wake-sleep homeostasis is very important. It’s hard to sleep if, well, we’re not sleepy. For this reason, it is interesting to manage well the hours we spend asleep throughout the day. Naps, without going any further, are one of the most amazing things in the world (Rosekind, 1995): sleeping an average of 25 minutes improves our cognitive functions between 16% and 34% (Mednick and others, 2008; Naska, 2007; Saunders and Chaput, 2012).
However, they must be used correctly or they can make it very difficult for us to fall asleep at night (Dhand and Sohal, 2006). Definitely: the best way to fall asleep quickly is to get to bed tired, relaxed and at the right time. It is not a magic trick to sleep (especially, if you have sought this theme motivated by a sleepless night), but it is something that you can start to implement tomorrow.
Image | Jen theodore