Why does it take me so long to fall asleep?

Sarah Hyland
Studying Health Sciences, Writer & Product Trainer
Linked In

22 July 2022

A disrupted sleep-wake cycle caused by shift work, or too much screen time, can influence sleep latency, the time it takes to fall asleep. Other factors can include unmanaged stress, underlying conditions such as restless legs syndrome and breathing issues. Lifestyle habits, such as caffeine consumption, can also be very impactful.

Why does it take me so long to fall asleep?

Most of us have experienced those never-ending minutes and hours awake, staring at the ceiling in the dark and wondering why. This can get worse as we get older and the NHS says that a third of us will have insomnia (trouble sleeping) at some point in our lives.(1)
Ideally, it should take about 10 – 20 minutes to fall asleep, if sleep latency (medical speak for how long it takes to fall asleep) is taking longer, and happens frequently, it's considered short-term insomnia, If the problem exists for more than 12 weeks, it's a long-term or chronic issue. There are many factors to consider when trying to be your own sleep detective - there can be a single underlying cause such as a stressful event, but sometimes it's more complicated.

Let’s look at some common reasons why you may take so long to fall asleep.

Disrupted sleep-wake cycle

For much of human history, people went to sleep when it got dark and woke when it was bright. The body's nervous system and production of hormones followed this simple routine. Darkness triggered the production of melatonin to trigger sleepiness and cortisol levels peaked at dawn to get everyone up and ready for the day. For those who are finding that it takes a long time to get to sleep, their cortisol levels may be spiking at the wrong time. Energy levels may feel good in the evening but are dreadful in the mornings and afternoons. In our not very natural world, many artificial constructs interfere with our default circadian rhythm (or wake sleep-cycle): shift work, late nights, phones, TVs, airplane travel and electric lights. Although humans are remarkably adaptable and can cope with a certain amount of deviation from a natural sleep cycle, there is a limit to how much sleep can be missed (or messed with). Getting up early, and at the same time, every day can help to re-establish a natural sleep cycle. Exposure to natural light in the morning (for example while on a short walk) signals to the brain that we are up and need the appropriate amount of cortisol. Before bedtime, dim lighting and avoiding screens will help the body to produce the melatonin needed to become sleepy.
Herbal remedies may help when trying to reset a natural sleep rhythm that is out of whack. A herbal tea such as Chamomile, or a sleep aid such as Dormeasan Sleep can be taken before bed and won't make you feel groggy the next day. Liquid tincture drops are particularly handy for those instances when you wake in the night as the tummy doesn't have to break down a tablet before they get to work.

My Top Tip: Take 30 drops in a little juice or water 30 minutes before bedtime

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Restless leg syndrome

It's estimated that 5-10% of people have Restless Leg Syndrome (Willis-Ekbom disease). It causes a physical sensation that can feel intense, wound up, crawling and nervy, and is only relieved by moving or jerking the legs.(2) It usually occurs in the evening just when you have had a chance to relax and sit or lie down. This can be immensely uncomfortable for the wiggler on the sofa (and the person next to them!). I have this and it makes going to the cinema or long bus journeys a nightmare! There's a genetic cause for Restless Leg Syndrome; some people get it in their teens, but there can be other complicated reasons contributing alongside, such as low iron levels or certain medications (especially if they affect dopamine, a neurotransmitter). Alcohol, coffee, smoking, pregnancy and kidney disorders can worsen the symptoms. Home remedies include moderate exercise, warm baths and (ironically) more sleep!

Being stuffed up

Many people have allergies such as hayfever or allergic rhinitis (allergies to dust, pets or other airborne particles) that make them feel stuffed up and uncomfortable. It can be hard to get to sleep when only one nostril works; flipping over to get comfortable may make breathing more difficult and therefore sleep harder to achieve too. Tackling allergies may improve sleep quality and this can be done by identifying the offending substance (perhaps pollen or dust?), getting it out of the bedroom, and treating the symptoms with remedies such as Pollinosan. Our health blog pages may offer more useful information. If that doesn't help and you are waking each morning with a dry mouth and headache it may be useful to talk to your GP. Disturbed breathing can mildly affect people with broken sleep and snoring, but it can be more serious if breathing is obstructed. The British Lung Foundation has estimated that 1.5 million people in the UK may have Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.(3)(4)


Stress, depression and anxiety are the biggest offenders when there isn't a physical reason for insomnia. Feelings of stress and anxiety trigger fight-or-flight mode, the nervous system's response to a threat which activates the release of hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, to ready the body for action or drama. As mentioned above, cortisol is also the hormone that the body uses to wake us up in the morning. When stress levels are high, it can take longer to fall asleep because elevated levels during the day or in the evening will cause wakefulness even when the body is exhausted. Deep breathing techniques are simple, easy and free and can help switch off the fight or flight response that is causing cortisol levels to peak.(5)

Lifestyle habits

Having worked in a health food shop for twenty years, I can testify that people are astonishingly good at compartmentalising their lives and can fail to make the most obvious connections, partly because they can be bombarded with very daft internet advice. For example - the lady who ate 3 tablespoons of raw cocoa (a very big portion of a stimulant) before bed to help with her insomnia because she read that it was rich in magnesium. Smoking and caffeine (in coffee, many soft drinks and tea) are also stimulants and can keep you awake. Alcohol may feel like it's helping in the short term, but between one and three in the morning it may have you awake, sweating. Plus, a diet of takeaways, fatty foods and baked goods that cause weight gain can make heartburn, or sleep breathing difficulties (mentioned above) more likely.
A food/drink sleep diary is a very good way of pinpointing a connection between what you eat and drink and how it may be affecting your sleep. You may notice that you sleep well after a night out with a rich boozy meal but may be terribly restless the following night. Eating big dinners or having them too late may not agree with you. Missed meals may have you waking up too early. This is information that is valuable and may allow for small tweaks and changes that may make all the difference to sleep quality.

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