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How to Fall Asleep Quickly and Wake Up Ready to Be Productive

Four science-backed techniques

Photo: Sanah Suvarna

It’s Sunday night. You’re awake in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark. You look at the digital clock on your bedside table: 2:39 a.m.

All sorts of thoughts float through your head. You think about the errands you have to do tomorrow, project deadlines this week, and so on. You close your eyes and try to go to sleep.

After what feels like an eternity, you open your eyes and look over at the clock. The numbers glare back at you: 2:39 a.m. switches to 2:40.

You sigh. It’s going to be a long night.

The 200-Hour Wake-a-Thon

In 1959, popular radio disc jockey Peter Tripp decided to pull a stunt for charity. He would go on a “wake-a-thon” for 200 hours. On the day of the event, Tripp did his regular broadcast. Scientists were present, helping him to stay awake and monitoring his health throughout the ordeal.

Tripp did surprising well. He performed his show energetically in a glass booth in Times Square, bantering and playing music for the station. Some onlookers pressed their hands against the glass to watch, while some pledged money for the charity.

After a few days, Tripp began to deteriorate. He snapped at people around him. He hallucinated cobwebs, spiders, and kittens. In his mind, the desk drawer was in flames. And when an overcoat-wearing scientist entered the booth, Tripp imagined himself to be dead and that the man was an undertaker.

For the final 66 hours of his feat, Tripp was administered drugs to help him stay awake. Finally, after surpassing the 200-hour mark, he proceeded to sleep for 13 hours. When he awoke, he was reportedly back to normal again.

However, his life soon after began to rip at the seams. According to friends, Tripp had changed mentally and emotionally. He was indicted in the 1960 payola scandal, lost his job, and became a traveling salesman.

Was it Tripp’s sleep deprivation that led to his fall from grace? According to Dr. Maiken Nedergaard’s research, Tripp’s wake-a-thon could have had lasting effects.

Nedegaard’s team found that during sleep, the brain clears itself of harmful toxins that build up during the daytime. If left uncleaned, the remaining buildup includes such waste products as beta amyloid, which forms sticky plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Since beta amyloid levels increase while a person is awake, Tripp’s eight-day experiment could have contributed to brain damage.

The Prevalence of Insomnia

According to a study performed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30 to 40 percent of the population suffers from symptoms of insomnia in a given year. About 10 to 15 percent of people claim they suffer from chronic insomnia, meaning symptoms appear at least three nights a week for more than a month.

Insomnia, defined as habitual sleeplessness or an inability to sleep, affects many of us at one point or another. We might suffer from it temporarily due to pressure at work, family issues, or trauma. It can be ongoing due to depression or medications that interfere with sleep.

No matter what causes insomnia, studies have shown that a lack of sleep is hurting our performance, whether we feel it or not.

Photo: Markus Spiske

The University of Pennsylvania performed an experiment to determine how sleep deprivation affected groups of people. Over a two-week period, one group slept for four hours a night, a second group for six hours, and the third group for eight hours.

Every two hours, the groups underwent psychomotor tasks on a computer to test their alertness.

After the two-week period in the lab, the eight-hour group performed as expected. They were highly attentive and had no cognitive lapses. The four- and six-hour groups, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. As the days progressed, their performance worsened.

Although the four-hour group performed much worse than the six-hour group, about a quarter of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer by day six. After two weeks, the six-hour group performed as poorly as if they had been deprived of sleep for 24 hours, the equivalent to completing tasks while drunk.

Gregory Belenky, head of the Sleep and Research Center at Washington State University, sums it up:

“You don’t see it the first day. But you do in five to seven days. Unless you’re doing work that doesn’t require much thought, you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.”

Peter Tripp’s publicity stunt may have been an extreme example of sleep deprivation, but the two-week experiment shows that cutting off even a couple hours of sleep a night can have serious consequences.

The most dangerous part of the experiment, however, was that subjects insisted they had adapted to the new schedule. They thought their slight sleepiness was not affecting their performance. The results showed the opposite.

Strategies to Fall Asleep Faster

Now that we see the importance of getting ample rest, what can we do to ensure we’re sleeping enough to perform optimally during the day?

While medications are available, you might want to try these strategies for a good night’s rest.

1. Practice Relaxation Techniques

Muscle relaxation is a simple but effective way to help ease your body into sleeping. It also helps to relax you mentally by keeping anxious thoughts at bay. One of the best things about it is that you can try it while in bed.

Start by inhaling deeply, tensing your toes for a few seconds, and then gradually relaxing them while you exhale. Then, work your way up to:

· Your lower legs

· Your upper legs

· Your abdomen

· Your chest

· Your hands

· Your arms

· Your face

· Your body as a whole

Think of it as if you were scrunching up a section of your body into a ball, and then slowly uncurling it back to its regular state.

Another effective relaxation technique is deep breathing, which can done while in bed or sitting. Inhale through your nose and count to three. The air should flow down to your diaphragm so that your stomach rises.

After holding it in, exhale out slowly through your mouth. I find this method effective not only for relaxing before sleep but also during the daytime to destress.

2. Listen to Calming Music

A study has shown that listening to classical music greatly improves sleep quality when compared to listening to an audiobook or no music at all. If you’re looking for relaxing classical music, try “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy, or Etude in E Major by Frederic Chopin (a personal favorite).

Binaural beats have become a popular choice for their supposed effects, such as increasing focus, improving sleep, and lightening your mood. Wearing headphones, you listen as two different tones play in each ear to create an illusion of a third tone: the binaural beat.

The question is: Does it work?

In an experiment on people with high blood pressure, one control group listened to sounds of a babbling brook while the other group listened to binaural sounds combined with a babbling brook. After several minutes, there was no difference detected between the groups in terms of blood pressure or pulse.

Another experiment found that binaural beats created activity on the human cerebral cortex. However, there was no control group for comparison.

Binaural beats may help with sleep or concentrating on work, but not necessarily more than soothing sounds, such as nature or meditation music.

Of course, music is a personal preference. If you find that a certain type of music helps you sleep better, go for it.

3. Jot Down Your Thoughts

Important upcoming events can sometimes interfere with sleep. I’ve found that thinking about something I have to do the next day can keep me from falling asleep. Other times, worries can pop up that are hard to shake off.

If this sounds familiar, it’s a good idea to keep a pen and paper near where you sleep. You can write down anything: personal reminders, anxieties, or pressing issues on your mind.

You can even write down positive thoughts, such as exciting events in the future, things you’re grateful for, or something good that happened to you today. Writing it all down helps to physically “dump out” your thoughts onto paper so you don’t have to keep thinking about them over and over.

Afterward, it can feel like your head has cleared and prepared for a restful sleep.

4. Read a Book

I make it a habit to read each night. It’s calming and low-key, and I learn something new after 20 to 30 minutes of reading.

Previously, I would always use the computer before sleep, which would keep me awake. After switching to a book, I’ve since felt myself starting to wind down and go to sleep at a reasonable time.

If you want to start reading more, place a book somewhere convenient. For instance, you might keep it on your dining table so you can pick it up after a meal. Or, if you’re like me, leave it beside your computer. This way, picking up and flipping through the book becomes a default choice rather than a habit you have to force yourself into.

Now, there are a few choices here. First: paper book or e-book?

Reading is beneficial, whether it’s on a tablet or paper. But if you have the choice, opt for a paper book. Here are a few reasons:

1. Paper books provide higher memory retention than e-books, since they give readers a sense of progression while they flip through the pages.

2. E-books emit light, which interferes with the ability to fall asleep (same goes for computers and TV).

3. Reading on a screen can be more tiring and stressful than reading the same material on paper.

The second question: read in bed or out of bed?

I usually read and leave the book in a separate room, but other people prefer reading while lying in bed. Since it’s a calming activity, you can choose either.

But beware: If you use an electronic device for reading, you might find yourself up later than you expected.

A Good Night’s Sleep Leads to a Better Day

Insomnia often waxes and wanes, depending on the circumstances and events that happen in our lives. Stressful situations can affect how you feel both mentally and physically, including how it affects your sleep. Your ability to handle that stress will improve if you can get back to sleep.

Now that you have four strategies for getting to sleep, which will you try? Setting yourself up to carry out one or more on a regular basis is your next step to taking good care of your sleep health.