Can’t Sleep? Causes of Occasional Sleeplessness
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t I sleep even though I’m tired?”
You’re certainly not alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 35% of the U.S. population reports problems sleeping.
Whether your occasional sleeplessness is caused by worry, stress, or something you can’t quite put your finger on, there are natural products that can help.
You just need to know where to look.
Common Causes of Occasional Sleep Issues
There are many causes of sleep issues, ranging from caffeine to anxiety, from blue light to “cat-napping.”
Each of us needs to be aware of these common causes.
Emotional and Psychological Causes
Some of the most common causes of occasional sleeplessness include:
- Normal everyday anxious feelings
The National Sleep Foundation recommends emotional and psychological issues be explored in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Unhealthy Daily Habits
Often our daily habits contribute to loss of sleep.
- Regular use of alcohol to fall asleep can actually negatively affect our sleep cycle in the long-term.
- Excessive amounts of caffeine consumed during the day can interrupt our sleep, particularly if consumed after lunchtime.
- Irregular sleep schedules, daytime napping, lack of exercise, eating heavy meals or sugary foods close to bedtime, or even exercise too late in the day may contribute to less restorative sleep.
A healthy diet but also breathing and sleeping habits can have a high impact on your mood.
Our gastrointestinal microbiome is comprised of the microorganisms that live and work in our digestive system. The balance of bacteria in the microbiome affects digestion, metabolism, and immune system function, and even our sleep cycle.
What we eat or drink — and even our emotional state — can affect our gut microbiome positively and negatively.
In truth, our gut microbiome is what seems to link our emotions and sleep quality.
Why Sleep Matters
“Short sleep duration” is the term the CDC uses in reference to adults who regularly sleep less than 7 hours in a 24-hour period. And research suggests that prolonged periods of short sleep cycles can adversely impact our health.
Good sleep has many benefits. To wake up fresh helps us maintain a good mood as well as a sharp mind.
Sleep and Overall Health
Sleep is an innate bodily function to allow our body to refresh, refuel, and restore its many complex and interrelated systems.
One way sleep accomplishes this is by initiating a process known as “autophagy,” in which your cells literally recycle themselves. During healthy sleep, autophagy helps maintain healthy brain function and mood.
However, a lack of sleep carries with it not only a disruption to our circadian rhythm — the natural sleep cycle — but also a disruption to the body’s many biological rhythms.
Our body is a complex organism and its systems that we often regard as independent are far more interconnected than we may think.
Chronically short sleep time may cause weight gain and accelerated aging.
In short, good sleep matters for our body’s overall health. It restores and resets our body’s systems for optimal function.
Ways to Sleep Well
What can I do when I can’t sleep? When you can’t sleep, get out of bed and wait to go back until you’re tired. You should avoid blue light, caffeine, and stressful situations beforehand.
- Try sleep supplements (like valerian, melatonin, magnesium, and lavender)
- Limit blue light exposure
- Avoid extended daytime naps
- Follow a consistent sleep routine
- Avoid stimulating or stressful activities before bed
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine
- Make your bedroom an oasis
- Move bedroom clocks out of view
Research shows that moderate aerobic exercise has a positive effect on sleep, as long as you don’t exercise right before bed.
Aerobic exercise generally refers to low to moderate exercise that raises the heart rate, causes increased blood flow, and requires increased oxygen consumption.
This type of exercise helps keep the systems of the body working optimally by pushing them past their resting or sedentary norms.
Types of aerobic exercise include swimming, jogging, walking, cycling, and rowing and help improve your fitness.
2. Try Dietary Supplements
Multiple supplements may offer help for falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting more deep sleep.
- Valerian root: The extract of the root of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been used to support a healthy night’s sleep for decades. Studies show significant improvement in sleep quality with valerian. Valerian extract may be useful for not only helping induce sleep, but also enhancing the overall quality of your slumber.
- Melatonin: Your body naturally produces melatonin to signal tiredness when it’s time for you to sleep. Melatonin supplements have become one of the most popular natural sleep aids and consistently help to promote restorative sleep.
- Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency may be one cause of poor sleep because it plays a part in melatonin production. Supplementing with magnesium alone seems to improve sleep quality, especially in older adults. It’s possible that combining magnesium with melatonin and a B vitamin complex may be even more effective.
- Lavender oil: Lavender essential oil is often diffused at night to encourage restful sleep. Typically, lavender oil should not be ingested. However, a safe ingestible preparation of lavender oil was used in one placebo-controlled clinical trial with patients suffering from both occasional sleeplessness and anxious feelings. Researchers found that, after 10 weeks, both sleep and mood issues had significantly improved.
- Chamomile: One of the most ancient medicinal herbs, Chamomile has long been known to support healthy rest and relaxation. Most popular as a tea, it is also used as an extract and essential oil. The terpenoids and flavonoids in Chamomile contribute to its herbal benefits.
3. Limit Blue Light Exposure
Blue light is a type of artificial light emitted by electronic devices like TVs, computers, phones, tablets, etc.
Blue light suppresses melatonin in human beings and triggers wakefulness. The use of devices that emit blue light prior to bedtime keeps the body from recognizing tiredness and preparing for sleep.
Limit their use within the last few hours before bed, or at least the last hour or so, before you lay down to sleep.
4. Avoid Extended Napping
Napping for more than 30 minutes during the day, especially after 3 PM, can make it more difficult to sleep at night.
However, researchers observed that 20-minute power naps showed no significant impact on nighttime sleep when compared to others taking no naps.
5. Set Up a Regular Sleep Routine
If you’re having difficulty sleeping at night, try developing a regular schedule by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day — even on weekends.
Regular relaxing activities and good nighttime sleep habits can help support your biological clock by getting you into a consistent circadian rhythm.
Some research suggests that the time you go to bed, rather than the time you wake up, is most important. Instead of setting an alarm for waking up, set one for winding down and readying for bed.
6. Avoid Stimulating Activities or Stressful Situations Before Bedtime
Heavy discussions or arguments, checking social media messages, or catching up on work before bedtime sets you up for poor quality sleep.
In fact, overuse of your smartphone and your level of work- or academic-related stress are both factors that greatly disturb sleep quality. Poor sleep and every single one of those factors are also independently associated with burnout. How you reduce stress is closely related to your quality of sleep.
You can get back to the things that need your attention the next day after you wake up from refreshing sleep.
7. Avoid Alcohol Before Bedtime
A late-night drink may be your preferred way to relax and prepare for bed.
However, alcohol actually disrupts your sleep cycle, inhibits deep sleep, and causes sleeplessness in the middle of the night. Interestingly, it may not reduce the time you stay asleep, but that sleep will be less restorative.
8. Avoid Caffeine
Whether it’s a dessert coffee, tea, or chocolate snack, it’s best to avoid caffeine in the evening.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends no caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime.
If you’re particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine, you may need to stop even earlier.
9. Make Your Bedroom An Oasis
A quiet, dark, and cool bedroom environment can enhance your ability to get better sleep. A noisy or light-filled bedroom that’s too cold or too hot makes good sleep more difficult.
Introducing a soothing sound machine, fan, or earplugs into your bedroom can improve your sleep quality. A comfortable mattress, pillow, and sheets can also help support better sleep.
Experiment with different relaxation techniques to make your bedroom an oasis where you can truly rest comfortably.
10. Move Bedroom Clocks Out of View
One way to avoid “can’t sleep” anxious feelings is to move bedroom clocks out of sight.
Anxiously watching the clock, stressing over how little sleep you’re getting, and knowing how exhausted you’ll be in the morning is a recipe for staring at the ceiling.
On the other hand, an oasis-like bedroom with clocks out of sight are part of good sleep hygiene. A healthy sleep hygiene routine is associated with fewer restorative sleep issues.
Reclaim Your Life Through Better Sleep
Good sleep is important for each of us. It allows the complex systems of the body to reset so they can work at their best. This is the way our bodies have been designed.
Some sleep problems may require a sleep specialist or consultation with your doctor. However, there are steps you can take to reclaim your life through better sleep.
Many things may stand in the way of getting better sleep, but there are things you can do about it. It’s never too late to begin.
- Staner, L. (2003). Sleep and anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(3), 249. Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181635/
- Li, Y., Hao, Y., Fan, F., & Zhang, B. (2018). Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290721/
- Chauhan, A. K., & Mallick, B. N. (2019). Association between autophagy and rapid eye movement sleep loss-associated neurodegenerative and patho-physio-behavioral changes. Sleep medicine, 63, 29-37. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31605901/
- Buxton, O. M., & Marcelli, E. (2010). Social science & medicine, 71(5), 1027-1036. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20621406/
- Carroll, J. E., Irwin, M. R., Levine, M., Seeman, T. E., Absher, D., Assimes, T., & Horvath, S. (2017). Biological psychiatry, 81(2), 136–144. Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5536960/
- Dawson, D. and Encel, N. (1993), Melatonin and sleep in humans. Journal of Pineal Research, 15: 1-12. Abstract: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1600-079X.1993.tb00503.x
- Pandi-Perumal, S. R., Zisapel, N., Srinivasan, V., & Cardinali, D. P. (2005). Melatonin and sleep in aging population. Experimental gerontology, 40(12), 911-925. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16183237/
- Passos, G. S., Poyares, D., Santana, M. G., Teixeira, A. A. D. S., Lira, F. S., Youngstedt, S. D., ... & De Mello, M. T. (2014). BioMed research international, 2014. Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4189910/
- Bent, S., Padula, A., Moore, D., Patterson, M., & Mehling, W. (2006). Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American journal of medicine, 119(12), 1005-1012. Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901/
- Shinomiya, K., Fujimura, K., Kim, Y., & Kamei, C. (2005). Effects of valerian extract on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats. Acta Medica Okayama, 59(3), 89-92. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16049561/
- Costello, R. B., Lentino, C. V., Boyd, C. C., O’Connell, M. L., Crawford, C. C., Sprengel, M. L., & Deuster, P. A. (2014). The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature. Nutrition journal, 13(1), 106. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4273450/
- Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M. M., Hedayati, M., & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). Journal of research in medical sciences: the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703169/
- Djokic, G., Vojvodić, P., Korcok, D., Agic, A., Rankovic, A., Djordjevic, V., ... & Vojvodic, J. (2019). The Effects of Magnesium–Melatonin-Vit B Complex Supplementation in Treatment of Insomnia. Open access Macedonian journal of medical sciences, 7(18), 3101. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6910806/
- Kasper, S., Gastpar, M., Müller, W. E., Volz, H. P., Möller, H. J., Dienel, A., & Schläfke, S. (2010). International clinical psychopharmacology, 25(5), 277-287. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20512042/
- Pilcher, J. J., Michalowski, K. R., & Carrigan, R. D. (2001). The prevalence of daytime napping and its relationship to nighttime sleep. Behavioral medicine, 27(2), 71-76. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11763827/
- Knudsen, H. K., Ducharme, L. J., & Roman, P. M. (2007). Job stress and poor sleep quality: data from an American sample of full-time workers. Social science & medicine, 64(10), 1997-2007. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1933584/
- Yan, Y. W., Lin, R. M., Su, Y. K., & Liu, M. Y. (2018). The relationship between adolescent academic stress and sleep quality: A multiple mediation model. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 46(1), 63-77. Abstract: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-31644-006
- Brubaker, J. R., & Beverly, E. A. (2020). Burnout, Perceived Stress, Sleep Quality, and Smartphone Use: A Survey of Osteopathic Medical Students. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 120(1), 6-17. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31904778/
- Lydon, D. M., Ram, N., Conroy, D. E., Pincus, A. L., Geier, C. F., & Maggs, J. L. (2016). The within-person association between alcohol use and sleep duration and quality in situ: An experience sampling study. Addictive behaviors, 61, 68-73. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915974/
- Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195-1200. Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805807/
- Stepanski, E. J., & Wyatt, J. K. (2003). Use of sleep hygiene in the treatment of insomnia. Sleep medicine reviews, 7(3), 215-225. Abstract: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079201902461