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'Why can't I sleep?' We all know how lousy we feel after a poor night's sleep: lethargic, difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly, headaches, and mood changes. But do we understand why sleep is so important for our health and what causes our insomnia in the first place?
Good sleep is vital to staying well and the effects of a lack of sleep on our health, both physically and mentally, are significant. Yet so many of us aren’t getting enough.
So, we’ve put together some crucial tips to help improve your sleep hygiene, make bedtime a more enjoyable nightly experience, and help you wake feeling refreshed and ready to embrace the day.
This is a topic I know well as I struggled with insomnia for many, many years. And it never gets easier.
In my early 20’s I started looking for help and saw several doctors, however - and you might have experienced this yourself -
they brushed off my claims of poor sleep telling me, in their own way, that I’d be getting more sleep than I thought.
And, perhaps foolishly, I left it at that and for some time downplayed my trouble and carried on as normal. But things continued to get worse and eventually I became unwell.
Just as your phones battery needs to be plugged in to recharge, your body needs sleep to regenerate and restore. If your body continues to miss out on this health necessity it may run flat and in the long term this may lead to a variety of chronic illnesses.
The effects of sleep deprivation long term can be harsh and include a number of health and brain issues including anxiety and depression, weakened immunity, type 2 diabetes, memory loss, low sex drive, heart disease, and fatigue.
It’s also regularly associated with car accidents.
Poor sleep and weight gain are also linked. When you're tired you're likely to crave processed carbohydrates (think deep fried potato chips, white bread and biscuits), that might perk your energy in the short term but inevitably leave you more drained and often lead to overeating.
And it’s also much harder to resist unhealthy temptations when you’re exhausted and lack strong willpower.
There are other challenges which come with poor sleep such as drinking too much alcohol and a dependence on sleeping medications and sometimes other drugs.
But even if you’re only experiencing occasional troubles with sleep, you know it’s hard work. It can increase your stress levels, make you more emotional, provoke irritability and a short temper, cause memory difficulties, and trouble thinking and concentrating.
And of course there are the visual side effects a lack of sleep has on your appearance including a dull complexion, red eyes, deeper lines and wrinkles, droopy corners of your mouth, and dark circles under your eyes.
Photo: Unsplash/Romina Farías
It's frustrating to say the very least, lying awake in bed at night, again, contemplating the day you face tomorrow, and wondering ‘why can't I sleep at night when others I know sleep so well?’ What’s stopping me?
And when it's a regular scenario it can be awfully overwhelming.
So what causes your insomnia? Why can't you sleep at night?
Like most health challenges there can be more than one reason for poor sleep including stress, genetics (insomnia can be inherited), other health problems, a traumatic event, separation or job loss, and seeking the help of a medical professional or psychologist could be beneficial.
But with insomnia the best place to start looking is your sleep hygiene and taking note of what is happening in your routine each day that could be affecting your sleep.
Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe your habits, both before bed and once in bed, and how they might be impacting the quality of your sleep.
Good sleep hygiene refers to making your bedroom environment and daily routines support better sleep and it's fundamental to improving your chance to experience healthy sleep, consistently.
It refers to forming long-term healthy habits such as keeping a regular sleep schedule, making your bedroom comfortable and inviting, having a relaxing pre-bed routine, and healthy eating plans.
They are personal habits and you can tailor them to suit your particular needs. For example, if your sleep problems are severe you might need to turn off screens earlier than others.
Whatever your needs, you can put-in-place some positive sleep hygiene routines to help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and return to sleep when you need to. Routines that will help you wake in the morning feeling rejuvenated and ready for the day.
Photo: Unsplash/Louis Hansel
You might struggle with how to get to sleep quickly, or you wake frequently during the night and then have trouble getting back to sleep. Maybe you find yourself constantly waking much earlier than you need to or perhaps you're experiencing all of these problems combined.
The Sleep Health Foundation in Australia recommends adults get between 7 to 9 hours sleep a night.
If you’re not achieving this sort of sleep there are some simple changes you can make to help improve your sleep straight away.
Here are the best tips for improving your sleep hygiene :
A healthy diet is responsible for a lot when it comes to your health and your sleep is another area that can be impacted by a poor
And it’s not just what you eat or drink close to bedtime. Your diet throughout the day also affects your sleep cycle.
Research conducted by the Centre for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital has shown that eating less fibre, more saturated fat and more sugar throughout the day is linked with lighter, less restorative sleep.
Ana Krieger, Medical Director of the centre, explains, ‘Eating healthy and allowing the body to absorb proper nutrients provides the brain with the chemical environment that it needs to produce the neurotransmitters that it needs to maintain adequate sleep’.
The foods you might crave, particularly when you’re tired, such as a white-bread sandwich, a packet of chips, sugary muesli bar, crackers, soft drinks, or a chocolate bar or sweets - all processed foods with added sugar and limited to no nutrients - could be disrupting your sleep.
What your daily diet should consist of are meals and snacks filled with colourful vegetables and leafy greens, fresh fruit, sources of protein such as seafood, chicken, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds, and whole grains and legumes.
So instead of an oily potato bake from the food court at work, you could try an avocado salad or tuna sandwich on whole-grain bread.
For snacks it could be a handful of nuts and seeds, some fresh berries, or some veggie sticks with a healthy hummus.
These alternatives are loaded with vitamins and minerals, iron, protein, and healthy fats and all work towards good sleep and better health.
Photo: Unsplash/Zan Wrue
It might feel like enjoying a couple of drinks in the evening leaves you relaxed and drowsy and ready to fall asleep, but too much alcohol or alcohol close to bedtime is most likely to damage the quality and duration of your sleep, causing you to wake more frequently during the night and making it harder to fall back to sleep.
And if you’re regularly experiencing poor sleep because of alcohol, it could result in a pattern of long-term disrupted sleep setting in.
The Sleep Foundation explains that, ‘Research has shown sleepers who drink large amounts of alcohol before going to bed are often prone to delayed sleep onset, meaning they need more time to fall asleep. As liver enzymes metabolize the alcohol during their night and the blood alcohol level decreases, these individuals are also more likely to experience sleep disruptions and decreases in sleep quality’.
The Foundation also advises that not only can alcohol impact the hours you sleep, it can also exacerbate symptoms of sleep apnoea and cause night sweats, nightmares, and headaches.
Studies also show that binge drinking can impact your melatonin levels for up to a week after the binge, leading to extended periods of poor quality sleep.
On average, it takes one hour for a serving of alcohol to metabolise, meaning that if you are drinking multiple glasses in an evening it could be several hours before it leaves your system.
Research suggests that to achieve quality sleep you need to stop drinking approximately four hours before bed. A bummer, I know!
Whether you love it or see it as the devil, exercise benefits just about every aspect of your health, including your sleep.
Medical studies have shown consistent evidence that exercise can both help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep.
While researchers don’t completely understand how this happens, it’s clear that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get, which is when your brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate.
Exercise can also help stabilise your mood and relax your mind, which are significant factors when it comes to getting sound sleep.
Just make sure you’re not exercising within 1 to 2 hours of heading off to bed as the release of endorphins and increase in body temperature from physical activity can signal to your body that it’s time to wake up, rather than fall asleep.
Photo: Unsplash/Amaru Cazenave
Whether it’s a TV, smartphone, tablet, e-reader, or laptop, looking at screens close to bed can delay your circadian rhythm - your internal clock - which is your body’s 24-hour physical, mental and behavioural cycle. This can suppress the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it difficult to fall asleep.
Studies have shown that your sleep can be impacted by screens if you’re using them within an hour before bed. They’ve also found that using these devices for more than an hour in the evening, no matter the time, can still suppress your melatonin and disrupt your sleep.
So, put down and step away from your smartphone! And stop using your laptop or tablet in bed!
If it’s going to take some time for you to abandon your evening social media ritual or your late night catch-up on work emails, there are a few things you could try which may still help.
Firstly there’s the software program, f.lux, which both reduces blue light and increases orange light emitted from screens, lessening the impact on melatonin levels and mental stimulation.
Or you could try blue light-blocking glasses or the filter on your smartphone, which has a similar effect.
But at the end of the day your best bet is to stop using screens an hour before bed to help your mind and body quieten and relax, giving yourself a much better chance of restful sleep.
Michael Breus from The Sleep Doctor
says, ‘It’s tough to overstate the importance of your bedroom environment to the quality of your sleep.
Ideally, you want your
bedroom to be a sanctuary for
sound, restful, restorative sleep. All too often bedrooms are cluttered, noisy, and bright - environments that actually fight against good
He goes on to explain that, ‘To create an ideal sleep environment, you need to pay attention to all five of the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste’.
Here are some ideas for you to think about.
Photo: Unsplash/Anastasia Taioglou
It may sound insignificant, but a consistent daily routine can improve your chance of good sleep. This means using a routine throughout your day, from the time you get up to the time you head to bed.
Let’s face it, poor sleep is so not fun and the effects of a lack of sleep can be quite overwhelming, both physically and mentally.
You know why sleep is so important for your health and the potential effects of sleep deprivation in the long term, but hopefully you now also understand what might cause your insomnia and what you can do to improve your sleep.
Improving poor sleep hygiene is the first thing you should consider. Starting today, try following the simple steps you’ve found
here to see how they help your sleep.
It can be difficult to change your habits but sleep is too significant to your health to ignore. And it's the first step that's hardest. Once you've tackled that one the rest will be easier.
If your sleep improves with these tips but not enough, or you believe your sleeping well but are still tired and lethargic, then it might be wise to visit your doctor to discuss what else could be affecting you.
Obviously a prescription from your doctor for sleeping pills is another option if you’re really struggling, but they’re not the best option. So have a go at the healthier methods you’ve found here before heading down the path of medication.
And if you have your own successful tips and tricks that have helped you overcome poor sleep, please share them in the comments below. When you’re struggling with something like insomnia it can be good to hear from others who understand.
Here’s to the happy nods to come!