The best feeling in the world after a long day of work is to be able to retire into bed and fall asleep. When you’re really tired, it is natural to fall asleep within minutes — after all, you were sleepy, to begin with. But if you find yourself falling asleep within five minutes on a regular basis, it may be a sign of a sleep disorder. Before going into what these signs are telling you, let’s understand how sleep works.
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How Does One Fall Asleep?
Typically, when you hit the bed you take some time to settle in before you’re finally fast asleep. There are several stages of sleep before you enter the stage of restorative sleep, that is when you experience REM sleep. This is the stage of deep sleep where you dream and your mind is active but most of your muscles are in rest. When you’re awake the whole day, a chemical called adenosine keeps accumulating in your brain. The accumulation of this chemical is what causes sleepiness. Through the day as your body uses up energy and metabolism occurs, adenosine is steadily released and keeps collecting in your brain. The longer you stay awake, the more the chemical accumulates in your brain. This is why, when you finally hit the bed at night or are inching closer to your bedtime, the signs and the overwhelming feeling of sleep starts to creep in.
Once you get a solid seven hours, or so, of sleep, the amount of adenosine in the system is cleared out by way of the lymphatic system. You wake up feeling fresh and no longer sleepy once the chemical has successfully been burnt during the respective sleep stages. The whole process begins again until you reach the end of your day when adenosine levels are at their highest and you finally fall asleep again.
The longer you stay awake, the more the chemical accumulates in the brain. This leads to an occurrence called homeostatic sleep drive where the body craves restoration or to reach a state of equilibrium so it can start again. This is why, when you are deprived of sleep for too long, the first chance you get to get some shuteye, you fall asleep quickly and slip into the deep sleep stage. This is because the adenosine levels are relatively higher and push your body to fall asleep fast. You may even sleep for longer to make up for the excess adenosine in the body. But, of course, this is only for the cases where you have been awake for too long and your body needs to make up for all the extra hours. But what if every time you go to sleep, you find yourself falling asleep immediately as if your body is telling you it has excess adenosine? That’s a falling asleep disorder that you may not have realized you are suffering from.
Are You Falling Asleep Too Quickly?
Ideally, when you settle into sleep, it should take about 15 to 20 minutes for you to fall asleep if you don’t have adenosine in excess. It is usually difficult to tell how long it takes people to fall asleep on an average as the moments of wakefulness right before you fall asleep are not committed to long-term memory. For example, when you wake up the next morning, you can hardly recall the precise moment you fell asleep.
Another factor that prevents most people from being sure of how long it takes them to fall asleep is the stage of light sleep. This is the first stage of sleep and consists of a gradual shift into deeper sleep. Since your sleep is light in this stage, you may wake up a few times from your phone receiving a message or from someone turning on a light. But often, this stage of light sleep is confused with wakefulness. When you keep coming and going out of light sleep, you may register that as having been awake for longer during the initial hours of your sleep cycle.
The period between wakefulness and falling asleep is called sleep onset latency, which can be impacted by several things. But if this period is too short or nearly non-existent, that’s a sign your body has been craving sleep. If it is a regular occurrence, it’s a sign of a falling asleep instantly disorder. It means your body constantly feels it hasn’t had adequate sleep and you fall asleep instantly the first chance you get.
How Can You Check If You Have a Sleep Disorder?
As explained above, it is not easy to ascertain how long it takes you to fall asleep. An average, healthy person takes about 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. Any more than that could be a sign of insomnia, while any less than that could be a sign of a different kind of sleep disorder.
The one way to scientifically ascertain how much time it takes for a person to fall asleep is to measure the activity of the brain when you’re going to sleep, something frequently done in sleep studies. This is done using an electroencephalogram (EEG). During the procedure, electrodes are placed near the temples to study brain waves. As the onset of sleep occurs, your muscles begin to relax and these electrical waves, also known as theta waves, begin to slow down. The quality of sleep and the number of hours spent in each stage of sleep is ascertained by recording the speed of these waves.
Before getting into the stage of participating in a sleep study, you can complete the Epworth Sleepiness Scale questionnaire, if you suspect you have the symptoms of a sleep disorder. It is a simple questionnaire which determines how sleepy you feel during the daytime and whether it’s a cause for concern. Scores above 10 on the scale are typically correlated with excessive sleepiness. These elevated numbers could be a sign of sleep apnea or even narcolepsy.
The Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) is another test you can take to ascertain if you have a sleep disorder. The setup is similar to the other test described above. The test is used to measure sleep latency by allowing you to take short naps every two hours. It checks how quickly you fall into REM sleep or how long it takes you to fall asleep. It is one of the more reliable tests for idiopathic hypersomnia and narcolepsy.
What Causes You to Fall Asleep so Quickly?
There are several reasons you could be falling asleep quickly. Excessive sleepiness is typically caused by overall sleep deprivation as the body is trying to make up for the lack of sleep. It is why you fall asleep almost immediately when you finally get to sleep. If you feel the need to take frequent naps during the day, fall asleep at unexpected places or can’t get yourself out of bed on weekends, these are signs of sleep deprivation. While an average adult should get about seven hours of sleep per night, most people have different needs. But your sleep deprivation may be caused by fragmented sleep, which could be as a result of several other factors:
Sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of fragmented sleep. It frequently causes poor quality of sleep, wakefulness during the sleep cycle and disturbed breathing. It is typically associated with loud snoring, frequent shortness of breath and a dry throat, leading to recurrent arousals. The discomfort causes you to wake up frequently through the night, causing your body to be sleep deprived when you don’t get adequate hours of sleep but still have to wake up early and be productive at work. It is also associated with excessive teeth grinding when trying to fall back to sleep and waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom repeatedly.
Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome is another disorder that causes frequent fragmentation of sleep at night. It is characterized by periodic movements or shaking of the legs at night. It is associated with an uncontrollable and often unpleasant urge to shake one’s legs while at rest. The sensation is described by many as a creepy, uncomfortable urge that can only be alleviated by shaking their legs. This causes you to have a disturbed sleep as your muscles are never fully at rest and the sensation keeps you up at night.
Fragmented sleep is often also associated with fragmented wakefulness, like in the case of narcolepsy. This disorder is associated with excessive daytime sleepiness and uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep in unexpected places. It is usually a case of excessive adenosine that the body feels the need to clear out at the earliest.
When repeated tests and questionnaires fail to diagnose the cause of excessive sleepiness, it is often categorized under idiopathic hypersomnia. It is characterized by constantly feeling sleepy, even during the day. It leads to a disrupted concentration at work and constantly feeling fatigued.
How Can This Disorder Be Fixed?
Since the cause of the disorder lies in sleep deprivation, the cure lies in treating the underlying causes. If it takes you less than eight minutes to fall asleep every night, chances are your body is not getting the adequate amount of sleep. If things have not progressed too far, you can start making small changes without needing to rely on any medication yet:
Go to Bed at the Same Time
Try to fix a bedtime and create a routine so you go to sleep at the same time every day. This provides your body with a pattern it can follow and rely on and also gives you the discipline to fit in the adequate hours of sleep you need. Late wake times can gradually lead to other sleep orders like insomnia, so you may pride yourself on being able to stay awake and finish work but you’re also making your system vulnerable to all kinds of neurological and sleep disorders.
This is far easier said than done but work pressure, stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle. A lot of the sleep disorders described above can be a direct or indirect result of constant stress and anxiety. Try to alleviate stress as much as possible. If you can, take on only as much work as you can handle and learn to say no when your plate is too full. Try to get some exercise in the day to get the blood flowing to all parts of your body and to stay oxygenated. These small changes can have a lasting impact on your health. Remember, the things that you take back home with you from your day have an effect on your sleep.
Avoid Naps Late in the Day
While the problem of falling asleep too early is not directly related to taking naps during the day but the more frequently you take naps in the day, the greater the chances are that you are sleep deprived. Falling asleep too early, as described above, is a sign of sleep deprivation too. Your sleep behavior is intrinsically connected with lifestyle and discipline and taking naps too late in the day puts your whole sleep cycle out of sync. Maintaining good sleep hygiene has everything to do with inculcating discipline.
A well-balanced diet is a cure for several ailments. Ensure you include all the major food groups in your daily diet and consume them in well-portioned meals. What you put in your body has a lasting impact on your health. Minerals like magnesium have a great impact on your sleep, so ensure you have a balanced intake of all the important nutrients.
Visit a Sleep Specialist
If you think your condition is worse than a simple lifestyle change, visit a sleep specialist to get a proper diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, typically you will be prescribed a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine which ensures the airways are continuously open by applying mild pressure. Disorders like narcolepsy are often treated with stimulants that help you stay awake during the day. Make a visit to the doctor if you feel constant fatigue, if you have an urge to sleep all the time and if you fall asleep within minutes of resting your head on the pillow.
Sleep disorders can be exhausting, debilitating and a hindrance to everyday life. But they can also be easily treated if tackled in an effective and timely manner. Some common symptoms of different sleep orders include:
- Constant fatigue and irritability during the day
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Feeling the urge to take long naps during the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loud snoring or breathing trouble while sleeping
These are only some of the commons signs of sleep disorders. Take notice of what your body is telling you and find help today.