When do I finally fall asleep? We all know the feeling: Tomorrow is an important day, you have to get up early and be fit, but you can’t fall asleep at all. You roll around, look at your alarm clock, pick up your smartphone again and already have a bad conscience: You should have been in dreamland already. You start calculating how many more hours you have left to sleep, time fades from minute to minute, and a feeling of stress sets in. Everything that you do from then on often counteracts falling asleep. And even if you finally manage to fall asleep, waking up often becomes a struggle due to the lack of sleep.
Sleep well – it sounds so easy sometimes, but it often does not work out as easy as it seems. But what is sleep and how can we learn to sleep better?
What is sleep and what happens during sleep?
Sleep is a temporary state of reduced consciousness. During sleep, our brain is in a different electrophysiological state. We switch to “stand by” to save our energy reserves. Our breathing and heart rate, pulse and blood pressure drop and we breathe very regularly and shallowly. Our body temperature drops and our level of the stress hormone cortisol, which keeps us awake and increases our ability to perceive and react in stressful situations, also drops and increases again in the morning. At the same time, many other organs are very active. For example, our liver breaks down toxic products or pollutants and our immune system fights off pathogens.
The stages of sleep
A total of 5 sleep stages are assumed in which our brain shows different activity patterns. These sleep stages have different functions and are cyclical, i.e. they are repeated several times within one night. One cycle lasts about 90 minutes. Stages 1&2 are the stages of falling asleep and light sleep. Stages 3&4 are deep sleep stages and stage 5 is REM sleep. In REM sleep we roll our eyes 1-4 times per second. Amazing, isn’t it? You can even observe it from the outside. We dream in all sleep phases, but in REM sleep our dreams are more intense.
The function of sleep: why do we need sleep?
We sleep about ⅓ of our life. But sleep does not only ensure the regeneration and build-up phase, during sleep we also fill our energy stores (e.g. glycogen in the brain) and save energy at the same time. For example, we do not have to prepare or consume any food. According to studies, sleep also seems to have an important function in memory consolidating, processing what we have learned during the day. Since our brain is not supplied with new impressions and information while we sleep, it can filter and sort information during sleep and store important information. Emotional experiences that we have collected during the day also influence our sleep. We process stimuli that keep us busy during the day. This in turn can have an impact on our mental health.
Restful sleep also promotes our performance. Disturbed sleep, on the other hand, can lead to problems such as reduced performance, concentration difficulties or mental problems. These unresolved problems can in turn affect sleep. A vicious circle, which feels very stressful for those affected and is difficult to break once you find yourself in it. But there are some methods to optimize sleep and thus to be more rested and efficient during the day.
Melatonin and Cortisol – The body’s own sleep aid vs. the natural stimulant
The sleep hormone melatonin is described as a kind of endogenous sleeping drug. Melatonin makes us understand that it is time to go to bed and thus, it controls our sleep-wake rhythm. Overnight, the concentration of melatonin increases until it reaches its peak around 3 o’clock in the morning and drops afterwards. Melatonin is controlled by light and thus, the day-night cycle. It is formed in the darkness. When it is light, the production of the sleep hormone is suppressed. Therefore we sleep better in the dark and wake up in the morning when it gets light. With increasing age, less melatonin is produced by our pineal gland and we sleep less.
The melatonin level is not only influenced by light and age, but can also be negatively affected by medication. We can also influence our melatonin level ourselves. If we tend to use dimmed light in the evening or avoid electrical devices with blue light (such as smartphones or TVs), more melatonin is produced and we fall asleep better. In addition, enough natural daylight during the day helps to stabilize the sleep-wake rhythm and promotes the release of activating hormones and therefore has a mood-lifting effect.
Cortisol is a natural stimulant and thus, it is the antagonist to the sleep hormone melatonin. Cortisol is a stress hormone and prepares us for stressful situations. It sharpens our senses, makes us alert and lets us react quickly. In the early morning hours our cortisol level rises and enables us to start the day. In the evening, however, our cortisol level decreases, allowing us to sleep. If there is too much cortisol in the blood in the evening, it’s hard to fall asleep. For example, if you have been to an exciting event, sleeping is sometimes impossible. Cortisol can be a cause of this. Because from an evolutionary perspective, the body is in a kind of alarm state, in which your attention is still fully there. If the cortisol level is permanently elevated, cardiovascular diseases can occur.
Diagnosis: Sleep Disorder – What causes it and what are the symptoms?
There are different types of sleep disorders. There is insomnia (sleeplessness), which is contrasted by hypersomnia (excessive tendency to sleep) and parasomnias (including sleepwalking, nightmares, and night cries). Diagnosed insomnia increases with age. Various studies have shown that the prevalence of sleep disorders in the population ranges between 4.4% and 11.7%, depending on the study. Women are affected more often than men. Depending on the study, 30-60 % of people with a mental illness also suffer from insomnia.
Probably the best-known sleep disorder is insomnia. A total of 26% of the population report having problems falling and staying asleep. In order to be diagnosed with insomnia according to the criteria of ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), one must have trouble sleeping at least three times a week for a month, i.e. insufficient duration or quality of sleep. In addition, insomnia either causes significant suffering or has a disruptive effect on social and professional functioning. This is often accompanied by symptoms such as poor performance, concentration problems and bad mood. If insomnia lasts longer than three months, it is called chronic insomnia.
What affects sleep the most? Influences on sleep: why do I sleep well on some days and poorly on others?
There are many factors that influence the quality of our sleep. Check out the following influences.
1. Rhythm and work
- Jet lag, shift work or irregular work disturb our inner clock and thus our sleep-wake rhythm is out of sync because our body needs time to adapt to different circumstances.
- Frequently going to bed and waking up at different times throws our sleep-wake rhythm out of sync and makes it difficult to fall asleep.
- Being tied to the bed for a long time as well as a lack of exercise make it difficult to fall asleep because stress hormones cannot be broken down.
2. Mode of action of light
- Blindness or little sunlight over a longer period of time can lead to sleep disorders, as sufficient daylight during the day is crucial for good sleep.
- Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine have a negative influence on our sleep duration.
- Taking certain medicines has a negative influence on sleep.
Sleep deprivation: how long can we go without sleep and what are the consequences?
The longest documented sleep deprivation was 11 ½ days. Toimi Soini managed to stay awake for 276 hours. The consequences of sleep deprivation are similar to the consequences of alcohol consumption. Sleep deprivation can cause reduced reaction time, reduced concentration and judgment, memory disorders, mood swings and even hallucinations. The attention after 17 hours of being awake corresponds approximately to the same attention that one has with 0.5 ‰ alcohol in the blood.
Sleep duration: But how much sleep do we need every day to regenerate sufficiently?
The usual sleep duration of an adult is between 6-9.5 hours. In children, the need for sleep is significantly higher (up to 16 hours), as the growth hormones are particularly active during sleep, thus promoting growth. With age, the number of hours we sleep decreases. Older people sleep less deeply and also sleep through the night less often. An average American spends 8.5 hours a day in bed. Ultimately, however, the optimal length of sleep is always an individual need. Every body needs different amounts of time to regenerate – some need more sleep, others less. Therefore there are short and long sleepers as well as morning and evening types.
Can I catch up on sleep?
If we know that there is a party night coming up tonight or that we will have to stay out longer than usual, we would sometimes like to “sleep in advance”. If we can’t do that, we have to “catch up” on our missed sleep, whether it’s because of a party night, a transatlantic flight, or even a newborn baby begging for our attention at night.
Generally speaking, it is difficult to sleep in advance because we need a certain amount of sleep pressure from a biological point of view. However, our body can compensate for a sleepless night with deep sleep. Therefore, we do not necessarily sleep longer after a drunken night, but deeper. The deep sleep phase takes up a larger share.
Sleep hygiene: 22 tips for better sleep
The following tips should help you sleep better. Control the following external influences: Light, noise, and environment.
- Turn off the light and avoid bright electric light, because it stops the production of our sleep hormone melatonin and thus, you have a harder time falling asleep. Dimmed light also helps.
- Smartphone away from your bed – the effects of the blue light of our smartphones have a negative influence on our sleep because it also inhibits the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
- If you can’t be in bed without a TV or your cell phone and thus, the blue light, then blue light filter glasses help to prepare your eyes for your beauty sleep or alternatively the “night mode” most smartphones have.
- On dark winter days, daylight lamps are helpful so that the sleep hormone melatonin is not released at dusk and you get tired during the day. Additionally, when more melatonin is produced, more serotonin is broken down. A lack of serotonin is related to depression (serotonin hypothesis). Therefore a lot of light in winter is also helpful against winter blues or winter depression.
- Use earplugs! Even in sleep we still react to noises. Loud noises, such as airplane noise, cars, neighbors or talking people on the street, alarm our body and can cause our blood pressure to rise.
- If you hear any noise, try not to be annoyed by it, because it stresses you and makes it difficult for you to fall asleep again. Accept the noise, because you cannot change anything about it and try to shift your focus. Try to relax or visualize an image that calms you.
- If possible, choose a bedroom that is not facing a noisy street.
- Do you have a bedroom that is exposed to noise? Noise-reducing carpets or curtains can help to reduce noise.
- Keep the temperature comfortable – if it is too cold and you are freezing, your muscles cannot relax. Temperatures between 18 and 21 degrees are recommended. It may be even cooler to fall asleep, but an even cooler temperature at night can cause sleep disturbances.
- Dark curtains and blinds: In complete darkness, we produce the sleep hormone melatonin, which supports our sleep.
How do I get out of bed? 9 tips to wake up faster
- It is best to leave your curtains a little bit open in the evening so that light reaches you in the morning and thus, your body stops producing the sleep hormone melatonin.
- Think about the right room temperature! If your ambient temperature is similar to the temperature of your comfortably warm bed, it is easier to get up.
- Turn on the light! Eating breakfast in the dark or avoiding the light is not a solution – it only makes you more tired, as your body continues to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. Only with sufficient light, the production will stop.
- Do not stay in bed. It is often still dark there, so your body continues to produce tiring melatonin.
- Start the day with a smile, even if it is hard for you, this activates happiness hormones. Why has a smile been proven to work? You can find out more about the effect of our facial expressions on our mood here.
- Activate your body so that it knows that the day is beginning. Stretch to activate your muscles and supply them with more oxygen and better blood circulation.
- Jump in the shower and start with an alternating shower, because this opens the vessels and the blood pressure rises. It makes the body noticeably more alert! Nice side effect: Contrast showers reduce stress, strengthen the immune system and stimulate fat burning.
- Motivate yourself to start the day! Think about goals for your day the night before. That way you know why it is worth getting up. Goals have a great effect on our motivation. They drive us. Therefore it is important to set short-term goals for the day, but also long-term goals – no matter if personal or professional.
- Avoid the snooze function! Delaying getting up makes you lazy and leaves time for negative thoughts about the day ahead.
Try to make your bed a restricted area for your smartphone this evening (setting the alarm clock is of course allowed). In this way, you not only protect your eyes but also make sure that the production of the sleep hormone melatonin is not inhibited by the light of your smartphone.
What helps you fall asleep or get up? If you have any feedback, questions or additions to the article, please feel free to message us here or on instagram (@psychologyjungle). The anonymous commentary function allows the exchange of content. Make sure you treat us with respect, even when we are on the Internet 🙂
References (click to expand)
Chang, A. M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F., & Czeisler, C. A. (2015). Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(4), 1232-1237.
Gesundheitsberichterstattung des Bundes (2005). Heft 27: Schlafstörungen. Robert-Koch-Institut, Berlin.
Kirschbaum, C. (Ed.). (2008). Biopsychologie von A bis Z. Springer-Verlag.
Ohayon, M. M. (2011). Epidemiological overview of sleep disorders in the general population. Sleep Medicine Research, 2(1), 1-9.
Prehn-Kristensen, C., Alfer, D., Dück, A., Frölich, J., Göder, R., Kirchhoff, F., & Schlarb, A. A. (2018). AWMF S1 Leitlinie Nichtorganische Schlafstörungen im Kindes-und Jugendalter.
Roehrs, T., & Roth, T. (2001). Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 25(2), 101-109.
Schlack, R., Hapke, U., Maske, U., Busch, M., & Cohrs, S. (2013). Häufigkeit und Verteilung von Schlafproblemen und Insomnie in der deutschen Erwachsenenbevölkerung. Bundesgesundheitsblatt-Gesundheitsforschung-Gesundheitsschutz, 56(5-6), 740-748.
Stutz, J., Eiholzer, R., & Spengler, C. M. (2019). Effects of evening exercise on sleep in healthy participants: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 49(2), 269-287.
Van Cauter, E., & Plat, L. (1996). Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep. The Journal of pediatrics, 128(5), S32-S37.