Sleep May Be Just a Click Away

6 min read  |  April 19, 2024  | 
Disponible en Español |

Do you have a hard time falling asleep? Before you take a potentially addictive sleeping pill, try using curated sounds, guided visualizations and breathing techniques to calm your mind and lull you into restful sleep.

“When you’re trying to fall asleep, but you’re anxious or worried, thinking about the day’s problems, you release cortisol, a brain chemical tied to stress. This keeps you from falling asleep,” says E. Robert Schwartz, M.D., FAAFP, a physician with the University of Miami Health System who serves as director of UHealth’s Osher Center for Integrative Health. “The process of doing too much thinking and not being able to calm your thoughts often leads to difficulty sleeping or waking up in the middle of the night.”

To break the cycle of sleepless nights, try relaxing your body and redirecting your brain’s focus with exercises and stimuli known to help lower cortisol levels. All of these are available on various sleep-aid, meditation and relaxation apps and video and audio streaming platforms.

Use sounds to clear your mind.

Focusing on certain sounds may help you fall asleep faster and encourage deeper, longer-lasting sleep. 

These include:

  • soft atmospheric music
  • rainforest sounds
  • binaural beats
  • repetitive sounds like ocean waves, rainfall, or a moving train

Some people fall asleep easier when listening to what’s called ASMR audio triggers, which include recordings of soft speaking or whispering, tapping sounds, hair brushing, crinkling paper, typing on a keyboard, and other smooth or repetitive sounds.  

“Music is rhythmic and has various frequencies,” Dr. Schwartz says. “There’s also white noise, brown noise, and pink noise. Each of these sounds has a different frequency of vibrations. One or more of them may help your brain calm down.” 

  • White noise is an equal distribution of all frequencies across the audible sound spectrum. Think of the continuous shhhh of static on a TV screen or the buzz of an air conditioner. 
  • Brown noise is a lower, deeper type of vibration, like the sound of a car engine or the hum in an airplane cabin. 
  • Pink noise includes fewer high frequencies, which makes the sound deeper, like the drone of traffic or a waterfall.

“These different sounds create soothing vibrations for your brain so you can focus away from the thinking process and allow your mind to fall into sleep mode,” he says. This is why some car, train and airplane passengers can’t help but doze off. 

Others find that recordings of sleep-inducing sounds and music are most effective for sleep when heard through headphones. Some headbands with built-in Bluetooth earphones offer wireless comfort and are designed to be worn during slumber.

If your ears aren’t helping you sleep, focus on your mind’s eye.

“The visual component of our brains is a very large part of brain activity,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Visualization is a way of activating this part of your brain. For many people, visualizations (guided or self-directed) help them to focus and provide a sense of relaxation.” 

Guided visualizations include audio recordings of soothing voices directing the listener to picture in their mind a scene or an object in great detail. The image could be something known to be calming, like a field of flowers blowing in a light breeze, or an everyday object, such as an apple. 

Like all non-pharmaceutical sleep aids, this technique doesn’t work for everyone who tries it. Some people simply don’t have the ability to visualize in their mind’s eye, or the act of visualizing may engage and stimulate the mind, distracting the person from sleep.

The key to a good night’s sleep lies deep in the breath and the brain.

“The brain has both electrical activity and hormonal or neurochemical activity,” Dr. Schwartz says. “The vagus nerve, which runs through the brain stem and supplies the heart with nerves, branches into the stomach and the intestines, which are all part of a combined system. So, your brain has the ability to decrease your heart rate, breathing rate, and the activity of your intestines,” all of which happens as we fall asleep.

Focusing on slow and controlled inhaling and exhaling can trigger this relaxing response in your body. Guided breathing exercises, like Box Breathing, are available on many relaxation, meditation and sleep-aid apps.

“Breathing helps modulate how your body’s information returns to your brain. You’re kind of short-circuiting the neurophysiologic information that’s coming from your body into your brain, which sometimes keeps people from falling asleep and relaxing,” he says. “There’s both a biochemical and a physical process that’s going on with the use of your breath. Together, all of this creates a calming effect.”

What can help you fall asleep tonight?

“I usually give patients with insomnia and sleeping difficulties different options,” Dr. Schwartz says. “I show them, for example, how to use their breath to initiate relaxation. They might benefit from learning how to breathe by pursing their lips, and the repetitive action of slowly breathing out helps lull them into a calm, meditative state and eventually fall asleep.” 

Dr. Schwartz also teaches patients how to induce autohypnosis, a form self-hypnosis that helps some people relax and fight off insomnia. “I advise some patients to assign themselves a word to repeat in their mind,” like a chant or mantra, he says.

Once you find a calming, sleep-inducing tool that works for you, repeated use over time will make it more efficient and effective. “The real goal for patients is to get them to use any of these techniques and not to succumb to the easiest way — to take a sleeping pill. But, it takes patience and practice. From a health benefits perspective, and in my professional opinion, it’s much better to learn these techniques than relying on medication every night.”

Beyond these suggestions, don’t ignore the power of regularly practicing good sleep hygiene. This is a combination of daytime and bedtime habits proven to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.

Tags: catch up on sleep, Dr. Robert Schwartz, fall asleep faster, Osher Center

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