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Why Can't I Sleep? 7 Things Keeping you Awake

In American culture, sleep deprivation is a running punch line. The truth is, lack of sleep is a public health crisis. Not only do 30% of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, but the consequences are serious. (1) Why can’t I sleep? Here are seven common reasons and how to fix them.

Why Lack of Sleep is Bad

Sleep is crucial because toxins accumulate in the brain during waking hours. Your brain uses sleep to flush them out. Don’t believe us? According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), getting seven hours of sleep on a regular basis is important to avoid Alzheimer’s. (2) The AASM says that a protein called beta-amyloid, a key factor of amyloid plaques, increases in your brain during periods of sleep deprivation. Over the years, this buildup of plaque can lead to conditions like Alzheimer’s. Experts also believe that drowsy driving affects people in the same way as drunk driving: Slowing reaction times, hindering decision-making skills, and reducing alertness. 21% of car accidents that end in fatalities involve a sleep-deprived driver. (3)
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation shares a key link with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. It doesn’t help that sleep deprivation increases cortisol. (4) Your work performance and efficiency also suffer because a lack of sleep drastically reduces your cognitive performance. (5) The body carries out special tasks and produces unique hormones during your sleep cycle. Losing sleep on a regular basis can lead to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, poor immune function, and many other health conditions. (6) When you consider that one-in-three Americans is sleep deprived, everyone can benefit from finding ways to sleep better.

Why Can’t I Sleep?

You know that sleep is important and you want better sleep but you still can’t figure out what’s wrong with your sleep schedule. Why can’t I sleep? What’s keeping me awake? Maybe you feel tired all day but as soon as your head hits the pillow, you’re wide awake. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night tossing and turning. Here are seven reasons why you just can’t make it happen.

1. You Had Caffeine Too Late in the Day

Caffeine is an excellent stimulant for boosting energy because the effects come on quickly within 30 or 60 minutes. Who doesn’t love that after-lunch cup of coffee to power through the afternoon after a heavy shawarma sandwich? Unfortunately, your afternoon pick-me-up might be keeping you up at night. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, caffeine has a half-life of five hours. In other words, it takes five hours for half of the caffeine you consumed at 2:00 PM to exit your body. By 7:00 PM, half of the coffee remains. (7) The Fix: Avoid drinking any caffeine at least six hours before you plan to sleep. If you typically enjoy coffee any time after noon, limit yourself to only having a cup or two in the morning.

2. You’re Exposed to Blue Light Late at Night

It’s important to sleep in total darkness, if possible. Light of all kinds interferes with the body’s natural melatonin production. However, blue light is the absolute worst offender. Researchers at Harvard found that blue light suppressed melatonin production twice as long as green light and shifted circadian rhythms for up to three hours. (8) You might say to yourself, “but I don’t have any bright blue lights in my home, so why can’t I sleep?” Well, electronic devices like laptops and computers still produce blue wavelengths which affect melatonin production. The Fix: If possible, avoid all electronic devices for one to three hours before bedtime. This will also calm down your mind. If you like to read on your phone prior to bed, change your settings to apply a blue light filter or download an app.

3. You Drink Alcohol at Night

You may not believe it, but drinking alcohol at night is actually one of the worst contributors to poor sleep quality. Yes, a single nightcap can definitely put you to bed – especially if you aren’t a routine drinker – but you’ll pay for it in a few hours. Have your eyes ever shot open at 3:00 AM after a night of moderate to heavy drinking and you can’t understand why? As alcohol exits the body, your brain goes through a rebound effect to adjust. (9) Plus, as the alcohol wears off, you come out of a deep sleep and enter REM sleep – and it’s much easier to “accidentally” wake up during your REM cycle. The Fix: Avoid alcohol entirely, if possible. If you don’t want to give it up completely, you’re much better off enjoying your drink in the afternoon as soon as you finish work. This will give your body enough time to process the alcohol and adjust your circadian rhythm.

4. You’re Suffering from Stress and an Overactive Mind

We’ve all been there: your head hits the pillow and suddenly your entire life flashes before your eyes. Why did you say that stupid thing at work today? How will you ever get your taxes done on time? Is your mom okay? An overactive mind is one of the most common factors behind acute sleepless nights and even long-term insomnia. The Fix: It’s difficult to suppress an overactive mind because you need to gain control of your thoughts. Here are a few strategies.
  • Buy a physical daily planner (not a phone app) and spend an hour before bed planning all of your tasks for the following day or week.
  • Meditate – twice per day ideally, in the morning and before bed. Sit on a mat and face a wall with eyes open. Focus on clearing your mind of all thoughts or concentrate on specific senses.
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia if the problem persists.

5. Your Circadian Rhythm is Out of Whack

Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock and its main responsibility is to control sleep through hormone production. (10) If you work a typical 9 to 5 schedule or slight variation, you will feel most tired between 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM while you’re (hopefully) fast asleep. Your circadian rhythm also triggers sleep hormones mid-day around 1:00 PM or 3:00 PM. Yes, it’s truly out to sabotage your afternoon every day. People with healthy sleep schedules don’t notice much during their 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM dip. If you’re sleep deprived or lacking high-quality sleep, however, you could find yourself nodding out at your desk after lunch. The Fix: If your work schedule permits, force yourself to develop a sleep routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even weekends. Expose yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning – this will decrease melatonin production – and shut out all of the light when it’s time for bed. We don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but this might mean giving up thrilling late-night sports games and movies to keep your natural sleep hormones balanced. However, exercise during the morning or afternoon could help promote a healthy circadian rhythm.

6. You Suffer from Sleep Apnea

Just because you get enough sleep, it doesn’t mean you’re getting high-quality sleep. If you get your full eight every night but still feel tired, you could suffer from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a very real and serious condition – it's one of the most common sleep disorders. It essentially means you stop breathing during the night because snoring interferes with your air supply. The Fix: There’s no at-home fix for sleep apnea. You’ll need to visit a doctor for a diagnosis and use a CPAP device.

7. You Have Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is another real condition that interferes with sleep. RLS presents itself as an uncomfortable and uncontrollable urge to move your legs. Symptoms vary drastically from person to person. Many factors can cause RLS including low iron levels, pregnancy, genetics, and low dopamine levels. This isn’t the same as periodic limb movement of sleep which causes your legs to twitch or jolt as you drift off to sleep. The Fix: To treat RLS, you’ll need to figure out what’s causing it. Talk to a doctor for a diagnosis and to go over your medical history and habits.

How to Develop Good Sleep Habits

Image It’s important to develop good sleep habits if you’re serious about getting better sleep and enjoying a healthier day. You’ll feel much better overall.
  • Create a sleep schedule and stick to your bedtime routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: meditate, journal, read a real book, or enjoy another relaxing activity like a bath or yoga.
  • Adjust your daytime schedule to match your sleep schedule and circadian rhythm.
  • Block out all the blue light in your home a few hours before bed.
  • Don’t consume any caffeine after lunch or any alcohol in the evening.

Sleep Hacks to Get You in the Mood

If you need an extra boost, try the Sleep with Me podcast. Test out different herbs, supplements, and essential oils like melatonin or lavender to promote sleep and relaxation.  
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