I have always had trouble falling asleep. When I was real little, I remember getting out of bed after I got bored of lying there trying to fall asleep, and asking to join my parents while they watched TV, promising I would be as “quiet as a mouse” (they were hesitant—I realize now it probably wasn’t because they thought I’d be noisy). When I was in elementary school, I would make up stories in my head while I waited to fall asleep at night. In high school, I remember the desperation I felt during that time lying in bed, because I knew the longer I couldn’t sleep for, the more tired I’d be during the next day. That was about the time when I started taking action to try to solve the problem.
It would still take several years and lots of trial and error, but I did eventually figure out how to fall asleep faster. Here are the things I’ve tried over the years–the ones that have worked along with those that I’d suggest skipping. Just a reminder–I’m not a health care provider, so this isn’t medical advice; if you have questions, go see your doctor.
I took Tylenol PM from time to time starting in high school and into college. I remember my family had a big bottle of it–I wasn’t the only one having a hard time falling asleep! It did help me sleep, but I knew it wasn’t made to be just a sleep aid since it included Tylenol. I’ve learned since then that there are some serious dangers to taking the pain reliever long-term and/or at high doses. That’s what I’d tell anyone else, too: I think it can be helpful, but should probably just be used occasionally; you should also read the directions and use the proper dosage.
When I was 21, I left for 18 months of volunteering in South Korea. I knew I’d have a strict schedule and that I’d be away from familiar resources, and I was worried about having sleep problems on top of that. I decided to bring the dietary supplement melatonin with me.
Your body actually naturally produces melatonin, a hormone released by the pituitary gland, as part of your circadian sleep-wake cycle. As a dietary supplement, it works on the same system. Melatonin is available over the counter without a prescription. Though this is a “natural” product, however, doesn’t mean a free pass for consuming it. You’ll still want to follow the bottle’s instructions for taking it. Also of note, however, is that supplements in the United States aren’t monitored the way medications are, so there are no standards for things like concentration and dosage of these substances. This means you’ll want to do your research–and go to a professional with any questions.
Did it work? Yes! For me, it was a huge relief that it helped me fall asleep faster. This was the first time in my life (that I could remember) that I fell asleep consistently each night–and it was awesome. Over time, however, I noticed I needed to take more and more of the supplement to get the same result.
Overall, I found melatonin helped me sleep, and I didn’t notice any side effects. Again, however, this wasn’t a long-term solution.
A prescription for sleep medication
I eventually went to my doctor about my trouble sleeping, and I was prescribed the medication quetiapine. Quetiapine is actually an atypical anti-psychotic medication, but it is frequently prescribed off-label as a sleep aid, like for me. One reason for this is that it isn’t “Off-label” means it isn’t officially tested and approved by the FDA as a sleeping aid (like it is as an anti-psychotic).
Quetiapine has felt like a lifesaver to me. It is a huge help in falling asleep consistently. I still struggle sometimes, and still need to use routines and lifestyle changes to fall asleep, which I talk about in the next section. The medication can also sometimes make it hard to get up in the morning, and I’ve also recently discovered there might be some adverse effects from taking it long-term. So, it isn’t a cure-all.
The conclusion? A prescription can make a bit difference in falling asleep faster. Any medication, however, comes with the risk of side effects, adverse interactions with other medications, and may have negative consequences associated with taking it long term.
I recently posted about sleep hygiene practices: lifestyle and environmental changes you can make to sleep better. These are things like avoiding screens before bed, dimming the lights before going to sleep, making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, and only using your bed for sleep.
Some of these practices haven’t been useful. I haven’t found dimming the lights for some time before bed to be particularly helpful. I’ve tried lavender essential oil, but don’t find it particularly calming. I also use the “nighttime” setting on my phone before bed, but I don’t think that does anything to help me sleep. It also always still takes be a bit to fall asleep, so I find suggestions about not staying in bed awake for more than 15 minutes at a time unrealistic. Here’s what I have found helpful as far as sleep hygiene goes:
Some wind-down time before bed. I find if I’ve been going, going all day, rushing around right up until bedtime, I’m more likely to get out my phone to play with in bed. Why? I’ve realized I want a break before going to sleep, and if I haven’t taken one before bed, I’ll want to take one when I’m in bed. This always hurts my sleep. For me, a little TV or other wind-down before bedtime is a big help.
Putting down the cellphone. It’s easy for me to pick up my phone when I’m in bed, and before I realize it, it’s 3 AM. Like I alluded to in the previous point, I do better if I don’t even get going at night. I try to set my alarm and put it down.
Thinking of the snoring as comforting. Like I mentioned, my husband snores. A lot. Really loud. I tried earplugs, but they don’t do it. I was looking around once for suggestions for the situation, and read one suggesting thinking of the sound of snoring as comforting–thinking about being glad you can sense your loved one close by, that kind of thing. This has made the difference with the snoring, and now it isn’t a big deal!
A sleep mask and earplugs. Though I don’t use earplugs for my husband’s snoring, I still keep them and an eye mask close by–especially when traveling. This is a big help for unexpected noise or light.
A weighted blanket. I recently did a whole post about how my weighted blanket helps me feel calm and safe, in addition to easing my restless legs.
Consciously “turning off” my brain. It’s easy to lie in bed and think, and stress, and worry. I’ve found it helps a lot to consciously tell myself to turn off the turning wheels so I can go to sleep.
Guided meditation. When I’ve used the medication, put down the cell phone, and tried to turn off my churning mind, but still can’t sleep, playing a guided meditation often finally gets me to sleep. It’s an awesome tool for the toolbox. I love the app Smiling Mind, which is free!
With all the things that I’ve tried to help me fall asleep faster, talking to my doctor about a prescription, winding down at night, avoiding my cell phone in bed, thinking about my husband’s snoring as comforting, “turning off” the worried mind, and using guided meditation are the things that have helped the most.
What helps you fall asleep? Please take the survey here!