Why Can’t You Sleep, and What To Do About it When You Can’t Sleep

Let’s face it, most of us are fairly unhygienic when it comes to sleep. That’s right, sleep hygiene is a thing. From texting and watching shows in bed to going to bed late on weekends, it’s no wonder so many of us wake up feeling poorly rested in the morning. In fact, sleep problems are rampant in modern times. Approximately 40% of adults report they get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night.[1]

You are probably familiar with the experience of getting into bed and tossing and turning for an hour or more. If you get in bed and can’t fall asleep within twenty minutes, try getting out of bed and do a quiet and relaxing activity until you start to feel sleepy. If you only get into bed when you are sleepy, and only use the bed for sleeping, you’ll train your body to sleep more easily and effectively when you’re in bed.

Also, avoid napping. Napping can be a useful tool for combating sleep deprivation, but if you are having a difficult time falling asleep at night, napping could be affecting your circadian rhythm

Let’s take a look at some common reasons why you can’t sleep, and some more ways to improve your sleep hygiene. 

Optimize your natural circadian rhythms

Avoid artificial lights before bed, especially blue light

Your body’s natural circadian rhythm governs important processes such as cell regeneration, feeding patterns, and sleeping patterns. This biological clock is largely “programmed” by bright light and darkness when you are exposed to each. When exposed to artificial bright light at night, especially in the blue spectrum, your brain essentially thinks its daytime and responds by not producing as much of the sleep hormone melatonin.[2][3] 

To sleep better, avoid artificial light, especially blue light, one hour before bed. This includes light emitted from laptops, cell phones, tablets, TVs, and computers. Instead of backlit eReaders and TV, try reading a physical book or listening to an audiobook in the hour leading up to sleep to relax your mind. Consider reading in dimmer light and in another room instead of in bed. 

Listening to soothing music at bedtime is a great way to help bring the mind to rest in order to fall asleep more quickly. In one study from 2008, 94 students with sleep complaints were split into three groups, one that listened to classical music before bed, one that listened to audiobooks before bed, and a control group with neither. The music group reported significant improvement in sleep quality while the other two groups reported insignificant improvements.[4] 

The Z’s app has a broad range of free soothing bedtime music and guided sleep meditations that can help you settle your mind before drifting off.

Get up and go to bed at the same time every day

To further reinforce an optimal circadian rhythm, get up and go to bed at the same time every day. A consistent sleep schedule will be a strong cue for your body to fall asleep quickly, and can help improve everything from hormone production to mood, concentration, and even memory. The same holds true for weekends. Trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends can wreak havoc on your body's natural clock and can make your productivity and your mood suffer the following week. 

Remember though, not all sleep is created equal. The average full sleep cycle lasts about ninety minutes, and if you wake up in the middle of a cycle, you will likely feel very groggy and tired. Instead, try to set your bedtime and awakening times to reflect these cycles. If you are planning to wake up at 7:30a, plan to be in bed at 11:00p after an hour or so of winding down to sleep approximately five full cycles. Alternatively, use the Z’s app to track your sleep patterns and plan your wakeup time for during a light sleep phase. Optimizing your sleeping hours for complete sleep cycles is a great way to get the most out of your sleeping hours and awake feeling refreshed.

Exercise regularly and earlier in the day

If you could condense all of the benefits of exercise down into a pill, it would probably be the closest thing to a panacea for mood and sleep disturbances. In addition to improving your mood, exercise can increase subjective sleep quality, sleep efficiency, total time asleep, and slow-wave sleep.[5]

Moderate amounts of exercise for at least thirty minutes from activities such as brisk walking, resistance training, yoga, or sports can all help us naturally transition to restful sleep. However, exercising too close to bedtime can be stimulating, so keeping the workout to earlier in the day is best. Learn more about the connection between sleep and fitness here.

Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol within four hours of bedtime

Caffeine increases adrenaline levels and blocks adenosine receptors, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. As a result, you might feel less sleepy and, if consumed later in the day, you may be sacrificing both sleep quality and quantity. Since caffeine has a half-life of about five to six hours, limit your intake to earlier in the day — preferably in the morning.

Nicotine is also a stimulant that can produce symptoms of insomnia, namely increased sleep latency, sleep fragmentation, and decreased slow wave sleep as well as increased daytime sleepiness.[6] Being an addictive chemical, it can cause withdrawal symptoms at night in regular users, which can make staying asleep difficult. 

We may fall asleep sooner from alcohol, but it is overall a bad sleep aid. It reduces the quantity of the restorative REM sleep our brains need, can cause early awakenings, and often makes sleep apnea worse.[3]

Develop Sleep Rituals

If you can’t sleep or stay asleep, developing some of these nighttime sleep habits thirty to sixty minutes before bedtime can help get things on track. 

Take up a meditation practice

This parasympathetic-enhancing practice can create physiological changes that are similar to the changes experienced during sleep. Consistent mindfulness practice, even for just 15-20 minutes a night, cultivates a restful, alert state that can promote relaxation, improve sleep quality, enhance REM and slow-wave sleep, and reduce stress.[7] Some other helpful relaxation techniques before bed include deep breathing exercises, body scanning meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.

Take a warm bath or shower

This one is best done about an hour before bed. The rapid warming and cooling of the body helps to promote the natural drop in temperature the body undergoes when drifting off into a sleep cycle. If taking a bath, certain herbal bath bombs or aromatherapy oils such as lavender oil will help promote relaxation to make drifting off even easier. 

Herbal tea

Herbal teas have been used for centuries for their sleep-promoting properties. Chamomile, Valerian Root, Lavender, Passionflower, Lemon Balm, and Magnolia are all great options to produce a calm, relaxed state of mind. 

Journal

Instead of checking your phone or surfing the web, journaling can help integrate all of the events of the day and declutter your mind in preparation for sleep. An ordered to-do list for the next day can also reduce worry for the next day’s activities and lead to a calm state of mind to facilitate better sleep. 

Get an alarm clock

Stop using your phone as an alarm clock. A classic alarm like the one you used to karate chop every morning up until about a decade ago does the job just as well. You probably already have one in the back of a closet somewhere. 

If not you can pick one up for the price of a deli sandwich. Once you’ve got an alarm clock you don’t really have an excuse to have your phone in your bedroom, which will make it easier to start winding down. Don’t worry, it will be there in the morning. 

Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and comfortable

There are multiple things you can do to become a sleep environment pro. First, keep the bedroom cool, in the low to mid-60s. This can help prepare your body for sleep, which naturally decreases its temperature when you enter a sleep cycle. 

If there is some ambient light in the bedroom, using blackout curtains or a comfortable sleep mask can be a good option. If a quiet room disrupts sleep (as tinnitus sufferers sometimes experience), white noise machines or a fan may help. Finally, a clean room and a comfortable, supportive mattress can make a big difference in falling asleep and staying asleep.

Time to go to bed

Inadequate sleep makes virtually every facet of being human harder. It impairs our concentration, memory, energy, mood, motivation, and our ability to learn. Trying these sleep hygiene practices helps set up a solid foundation for more restful sleep and as a result, a better tomorrow.  

However, It’s important to note that sleep problems may be from unhealthy sleep habits or can be caused by an underlying sleep disorder. Be sure to consult with a medical professional to rule out any physical cause for your sleep disturbances.

Additional Resources:



Glossary

Circadian rhythm: Our internal biological clock that plays an essential role in regulating and maintaining our sleep-wake times, eating cycles, and hormonal cycles.

Body Scan Meditation: A meditation practice that involves focused attention on physical sensations in the body, usually awareness is brought from one body part to another in a “scanning” manner.

Deep-Breathing Exercises: Slow and controlled breathing that promotes a parasympathetic response such as decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and improved digestion. Common types include diaphragmatic breathing and 4-7-8 breathing, the latter of which involves a four-second inbreath, a seven-second hold, and an eight-second outbreath. 

Half-life: The time it takes for your body to eliminate half of the drug.

Inhibitory neurotransmitter: A chemical messenger used by nerve cells that decreases the probability that the nerve cell it is communicating with will fire an action potential. The main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain is GABA, which is commonly either increased or mimicked by drugs that promote relaxation and anti-anxiety effects.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A relaxation method that involves progressively tensing and relaxing different muscles of the body, ultimately to achieve whole-body relaxation. Useful in some cases of insomnia. 

REM sleep: One of the two basic sleep states, along with NREM (Non-rapid eye movement) sleep. Also known as dream sleep, this state is characterized by rapid eye movements, desynchronized brain waves, low muscle tone, and irregular breathing and heart rate compared to NREM sleep.

References

  1. Youngstedt, Shawn D et al. “Has adult sleep duration declined over the last 50+ years?.” Sleep medicine reviews vol. 28 (2016): 69-85.
  2. Bradford, Alina, “How Blue LEDs Affect Sleep”, LiveScience, 26 February 2016, https://www.livescience.com/53874-blue-light-sleep.html
  1. “External Factors that Influence Sleep”, HealthySleep, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, December 18, 2007, http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/how/external-factorsExternal Factors that Influence Sleep
  1. Harmat, L., Takács, CS, J., & Bódizs, R. “Music improves sleep quality in students.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62 (2008): 327-335.
  1. Kline, Christopher E. “The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement.” American journal of lifestyle medicine vol. 8,6 (2014): 375-379. 
  1. Jaehne A, Loessl B, Barkai Z, Riemann D, Hornyak M. “Effects of nicotine on sleep during consumption, withdrawal and replacement therapy.” Sleep Med Rev. (2009): 13:363–77.
  1. Nagendra, Ravindra P et al. “Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep.” Frontiers in neurology vol. 3 54. 18 Apr. 2012