Whether you’re asking at 2:30 in the morning or at the crack of dawn, “Why can’t I sleep?” is one of the most common sleep questions. From time to time we’ve all had trouble getting to bed, and the most frustrating thing is not knowing why.
This list will give you a good idea of what to fix if you can’t sleep.
Did You Have Caffeine?
Everybody knows that coffee has caffeine. But so does tea, including black tea and green tea, as well as chocolate, chocolate milk, energy drinks, and pop. Plus, high sugar drinks like iced tea and fruit juice can keep you up, even if they have no caffeine.
Some lucky people can drink coffee and caffeine drinks right before bed with no sleep interruption. Most people though, should avoid caffeine for at least a few hours before bed. In fact, try cutting out caffeine closer to five or six hours, to be sure it’s not keeping you up.
Remember, as we age we respond differently to caffeine. Just because you used to drink coffee without it keeping you up, doesn’t mean the same is true now.
Are you Stressed?
Your brain has just as much power to cause insomnia as any stimulant. If you’re worried, distracted, or stressed out about something in your life, it will keep you up. When you get into bed, try to turn your brain off – to forget the events of the day and anything you’ve got planned for tomorrow.
Some people like to chill out by picturing a relaxing scene, real or imaginary (like counting sheep, or a peaceful river). A bath before bed can also help relax you, or playing some low key music.
Don’t get stressed out about not sleeping either. This creates a vicious cycle where you can’t sleep, so you stress about not sleeping, and that stress keeps you up, so you stress more….
Are Hormones Running Wild?
This one’s mostly for the ladies. During your period or during menopause, hormone levels can be all over the place. This can mess up your sleep.
Plus, if you’ve recently started taking a new birth control pill, keep in mind that this will upset your hormone levels for a while as well.
Is Your Room Quiet, Cool, and Dark?
Your sleeping environment can do a lot to impact your rest. If there’s too much noise coming in from the outside, there’s not much you can do to stop it. But you can drown it out with white noise. You can use a white noise generator, a de-tuned radio, or a fan to make gentle sounds.
A fan will help to keep your room cool. When you sleep, your body drops several degrees from your waking body temperature. Making your room slightly cooler than usual can help you fall asleep (but not so much that cold toes keep you up).
To keep your room dark, you obviously turn all the light off. But what about all the little lights that you never think about? Things like computers, DVD players, game systems, digital clocks, charging phones, and more can fill your room with tony glowing lights. These might be more of a distraction than you think. Try powering this stuff down at night, or at least face the lights away from you.
Are You Getting Enough Sunlight?
Your body takes its cues from the world around you. During the day you get sunshine and light, and during the night, darkness.
But with office work, winter months, and our indoor culture, we might go the whole day without getting any natural sunlight on our skin. This is bad. Your body needs the sun to help calibrate its natural clock – to know that this is day, soon to be followed by night.
Try to get at least 30 minutes to an hour of sunlight a day.
Have You Been Watching TV Before Bed?
If your night is full of artificial lights, especially lights from devices pointed right at your face, your body may be thinking it’s time for work, rather than rest.
Screens of all kinds, like TV, computers, smart phones, and tablets, can ruin a good night’s sleep. Not only do they stimulate your brain and get you riled up instead of chilled out, but the light from the screen can trick your body into wakefulness.
Avoid using screens and digital devices right before bed. Some people even like to avoid the use of artificial lights during the evening entirely. For them, when it gets dark, it stays dark. Although this makes it harder to get things done and have a night life, it definitely aids sleep.
Are You Getting Enough Exercise?
Adding a regular fitness to program can completely transform your sleep. By tiring out your muscles, your body will be as tired as your brain, and sleep will come easier. When I started going to the gym and lifting weights, I went from tossing and turning every night, to falling asleep as soon as I hit the sheets.
However, be sure not to work out right before bed. Try to give yourself at least a few hours to cool down after exercising, or you may be too pumped to fall asleep.
Did You Eat Before Bed?
A big meal can put you to sleep, as we learn every Thanksgiving. But too big of a meal before bed will cause indigestion – and that is sure to keep you awake.
Smaller meals are better before bed, and a good mix of protein and plenty of carbs will help trigger the tryptophan in your system and make you drowsy. My recommended bedtime snacks are:
- Cheese and crackers
- Peanut butter on toast
- Cereal with milk
- Muffins and cream cheese
There are some foods you should avoid before bed as well. These include:
- Anything with caffeine or sugar
- Garlic and onions
These foods aren’t necessarily stimulants like caffeine and sugar, but they are more difficult to digest for most people. A rumbling tummy will make it harder to sleep.
Is your Sleep Schedule Steady?
Your body loves routines. If you go to bed at the same time every day (and get up at the same time every morning) your body will adapt to that routine. As you approach your scheduled bedtime, your body will begin to release those sleepytime hormones that make you feel drowsy.
Most people do not keep to a steady sleep schedule though. You might stay up late at a club, or to watch a movie, or write a paper. You might sleep in late on the weekend, or get up early to hit the gym. When you break up your sleep schedule this way your body doesn’t have time to set up a solid pattern.
As much as you can, try to stick to the same sleeping times every day, even weekends. You can learn more in our article on good sleep hygiene.
Have You Been Hanging Out in Bed?
Another important element in sleep hygiene is using your bed for sleep and nothing else. If you read, watch TV, or play with phones and tablets in bed, this associates your bed with fun and stimulation, rather than rest. Do these things in other rooms of your home. Once you get into bed, that’s the time for sleep.
Have You Been Napping?
It’s another nasty cycle: you can’t sleep, so you’re tired during the day. So you nap. But this will make you not be able to fall asleep at night, and the process continues.
Napping may be tempting, but it can end up doing more harm than good in the long term. Keep to your steady sleep schedule and your sleeping hours will be far more effective.
Do You Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition in which the tissue of the throat sags down into the airway during sleep and blocks the flow of air. This can often cause snoring, but more severe cases of sleep apnea block the airway entirely, leading to no snoring – and no air reaching your lungs.
During periods of sleep apnea, you may or may not be awakened by the lack of air. Likewise, you may be awakened by your own snoring, or you may sleep through it. Even if you don’t wake up during the night, sleep apnea causes reduced quality of sleep and health problems overall.
Sleep apnea is most common for overweight individuals, the elderly, or people with genetic predispositions towards the condition.
Are Pains Keeping You Up?
It may seem obvious, but for people with chronic pain sleep can be a real challenge. This is one reason why the elderly can have difficulty sleeping – aches and pains are continually preventing them from drifting off. There’s no magic solution to this – just speak to your doctor and see what can be done to alleviate the pain.
Are You On Medication?
Medication, for pain or otherwise, can often have a stimulating effect. Medications for a variety of conditions can cause anxiety, restlessness, or excess nighttime energy. If you can’t sleep, look back and see if the time of your insomnia matches when you started any new medication.
Medications known to cause insomnia include:
- Cold and flu medication
- High blood pressure medication
- Heart disease medication
- Anti-allergy medicine
- Cholesterol treatments
If you’ve gone through this whole list and none of it seems to apply, you might talk to your doctor about a sleeping aid, or a more thorough examination.
For the short term, supplements like melatonin can help, as well as specialty pillows, night shades, and assorted sleep aids.
Photo credit: Sleeping Beauty by Wiros, on Flickr, Stephy IV by Shandi-lee, on Flickr, and America’s Best Value Inn, Somewhere On The Outskirts Of Houston, Texas by BrittneyBush, on Flickr