After a long day, falling asleep quickly can feel like a blessing. Getting the right amount of sleep can be hard enough as is — especially if you struggle with revenge bedtime procrastination — so when your head hits the pillow, you want to be able to actually sleep, right? At the very least, it’s better than the alternative: lying in bed for hours.
However, according to sleep specialists, both falling asleep too quickly (and too slowly) can be a symptom of a larger problem. The time it takes you to drift off to dreamland is clinically called ”sleep latency.” And while there is no set “normal” ― or better yet, healthy — amount of time it “should” take your body to fall asleep, there are some general guideposts.
“The ideal amount of time for the body to fall asleep truly varies from person to person,” said Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist. “The National Sleep Foundation suggests that it should take about 15 to 20 minutes for a healthy person. However, people are complex, so we may have more issues that stop us from falling asleep soundly that are likely out of our control.” People with health conditions, for example, may take 30 or 40 minutes, she said.
Sleep hygiene can help. “It’s good to spend the half hour before bed winding ourselves down while we’re awake and do a kind of night bedtime routine,” said Dr. Dave Rabin, a neuroscientist, board-certified psychiatrist, and co-founder and chief innovation officer at Apollo Neuroscience, which developed wearable technology meant to improve sleep. Falling asleep “within a half hour is a good goal.”
What Your Body Is Telling You When It Falls Asleep Quickly
Falling asleep minutes after your head hits the pillow isn’t necessarily a cause for concern overall, but it could be a signal that something is going on in some cases. The specific cause will differ for each person, even if they have similar sleeping schedules or sleep in the same bed. Here are some of the main culprits, though, according to the experts:
You simply need more sleep.
“Falling asleep too quickly can be a sign of exhaustion, a sign that we are overworking ourselves, a sign of burnout, and generally a sign that we’re not spending enough time recovering and resting,” Rabin said.
Further, you may be sleeping long enough, but the sleep you get is “junk sleep,” or sleep that’s not deep enough to truly nourish you.
As you probably know, addressing a lack of sleep can be easier said than done for many reasons, however. Many of us are busy beyond belief, struggling with anxiety that keeps us awake — the list goes on. And since each person’s sleep journey is unique, different people will need different treatments. So what can you do?
Casey recommended seeing your doctor. “We choose a treatment that will be clinically indicated based on the origin of sleep latency issues,” she said. “For example, if someone is falling asleep too quickly because they are exercising too much and working 12-hour days, it’s likely they have a very high sleep drive. ‘Sleep drive’ is the body’s biological need for sleep.”
For this patient, she continued, treatment might look like carving out more time to sleep, adjusting how much they exert themselves, and getting labs done at the doctor to cover all the bases.
You have a mental health condition.
Another potential reason Casey mentioned relates to another aspect of your well-being.
“It can also be a side effect of medication or caused by mental health diagnoses, such as depression,” she said. So again, you’re dealing with a catch-22: Depression may make you sleepy, but so do certain antidepressants.
However, given that untreated depression, for example, can be dangerous, it’s best to address it head-on. Antidepressants that are less likely to cause fatigue, anecdotally, include bupropion, reboxetine and venlafaxine.
You’re experiencing sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea, most common in older adults, could also be at play. “Sleep apnea is a chronic sleep disorder whereby the upper airway is completely or partially obstructed during sleep, leading to a decrease in oxygen content in the blood and sleep fragmentation,” said Theresa Schnorbach, a sleep scientist with mattress company Emma.
If you’re struggling with this, you may also notice fatigue during the day and cognitive dysfunction, she noted. As far as treatment goes, she advised a regular sleep schedule and quitting smoking, if applicable.
“If you suspect you might have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, consider seeing your general practitioner,” added Catherine “Katie” Yu, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with Thriveworks in Portland, Maine, who specializes in depression, anxiety and sleep/insomnia. She also recommends setting aside seven to eight hours for uninterrupted sleep.
What Your Body Is Telling You When It Falls Asleep Slowly
Now, let’s talk about the other side of the coin: not being able to fall asleep. What’s up with that?
Interestingly, some of the same causes. “Difficulty with falling asleep may be a symptom of insomnia, chronic pain or a psychological or medical condition,” Casey said. “Most of the time, people who struggle to fall asleep are anxious, experiencing pain or struggle to have a high sleep drive at night.”
Here are a few additional reasons this may be happening:
Your sleep routine isn’t the best.
With busy schedules, practicing a routine around sleep (versus just getting in bed) can take effort — but it’s worth it. While some aspects are harder to address, not all of them are.
“Having an inconsistent bedtime, poor sleep habits, working non-traditional shifts (such as evening/night shifts or rotating schedules), undiagnosed or unmanaged health conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, COPD, GERD and having an uncomfortable sleeping surface could all contribute to taking too long to fall asleep,” Yu said.
She points to drinking too much caffeine or drinking it after 2 p.m., looking at screens an hour before bed, napping during the day, decongestants and eating or exercising a lot right before bed. While you may not be able to change when you work or whether you have a medical condition, consider taking medicine, meditating before bed or not going to bed any later than you need to.
You feel emotional or stressed.
Rabin homed in on the mental health aspect. “Pretty much every mental illness often starts with difficulty falling asleep,” he said. “This doesn’t mean if you have difficulty falling asleep you have mental illness, but it does mean that the body is struggling with something that is making it feel unsafe or unable to settle down enough to be able to be vulnerable to enter sleep states — deep sleep states in particular.”
Schnorbach agreed distress, anxiety and other emotional concerns can trigger insomnia by leading “to an overactive sympathetic nervous system that controls the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, releasing the stress hormone cortisol.” She mentioned the awful cyclical nature of this, too, saying insomnia can lead to depression (and depression can worsen insomnia).
Again, Casey believes seeing a medical provider is your best bet. “We may suggest psychotherapy to address a person’s anxiety if that’s causing them issues initiating sleep at night,” she said. “One technique that may be useful includes scheduled ‘worry time.’” The latter is what it sounds like: giving yourself about 10 minutes to worry, and telling yourself you’re only allowed to let yourself worry during that period.
“The standard for treating sleep disturbance in the medical community often involves the use of intensive psychotherapy like CBTI, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which does work but requires a lot of effort from the patient,” Rabin added.
He also mentioned the helpfulness of at-home wellness practices, such as breathwork, meditation, yoga, exercise and creating a soothing environment. Certain products can help with this, such as “brown noise” machines.
“You know your body best,” Schnorbach said. “Listen to it and be conscious of any changes in how you are sleeping.”