So many things can wreck a good night’s sleep that it’s a wonder we get any sleep at all. The causes range from the obvious to the subtle. Before you reach for the sleeping pills, understand why you can’t sleep and try to solve the underlying issue. Many times, it’s as simple as changing a few routine behaviors. Here’s a checklist of what might be causing your poor sleep patterns – from the obvious to the subtle – and what to do to get a good night’s rest.
Simple Causes: Environmental Factors
Sometimes we overlook the simple. Here are a number of causes for poor sleep, most of them easy to pinpoint and solve.
- Noises from the street
- Loud neighbors
- A snoring partner
- Humming, beeping, singing electronics (ex. refrigerator, heat/air turning on or off)
- TV or radio playing in the background
- Phone alerts
- Light from the street, clock, an electronic device or light leaking under a door
Solutions: When it comes to environmental disruptions, you can usually go low tech on these to solve the problem (though a snoring partner might be the most difficult to handle).
White noise from fans or white noise devices can cover irregular noises or help those who need background noise to sleep. This is far better than a TV or radio playing random programs, especially TV – the changes in screen light can actually be disruptive.
Ear plugs work wonders for most noises. At first they may be uncomfortable but like wearing earphones, you adjust. Buy pairs that are the right size to minimize discomfort.
Mute or turn off your phone or put it on do not disturb. Turn off email and text alerts. If you’re afraid of a missed emergency call, in your settings you can usually allow certain callers through.
Black out curtains and eye masks work really well for neutralizing light problems. For curtains, you’ll want something from 75% black out to 100%. Be warned that you may not want to get out of bed if you use black out curtains since they make a very dark, sleep-inviting environment.
Semi-Obvious Diet-Related Causes
These common food and drink habits will do a good job keeping you awake or waking you up later.
- Eating or drinking after 8pm, including alcohol. Sugary foods can be especially problematic.
- Drinking caffeine after 3pm
We are chemical beings and what we eat and drink matters because of how they sabotage the chemistry of sleep or impact our bodily functions. Liquid after 8pm will usually guarantee a higher risk of waking to go to the bathroom. Caffeine and sugar will keep us alert and not help us fall asleep. They may also wake us up in the middle of the night. The best thing is to not consume caffeine after 3pm or consume liquids and food past 8pm so that our body’s chemistry doesn’t get sabotaged.
Semi-Obvious Mental Causes
We all know that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression can keep us up at night or wake us to endlessly toss and turn. Their solutions aren’t so simple since these sleep disrupting moods can have several causes.
Worry, stress and anxiety are the body’s way to alert us to a perceived problem and get us to act. If we don’t deal with that problem, it tends to fester. If you’re stressing, anxious, worried or depressed over something or many things, facing those issues or taking action can alleviate the emotional turmoil since you are taking control of the situation. Making a decision and planning how to deal with the current circumstances will help the mind bark less because its alerting function has done its job. See my article Sick of Worrying? How to Take Control & Finally Get Some Sleep.
If it’s a personal trauma, then talking to someone, including a psychologist or counselor, and working though it to move forward can greatly help in all aspects of your life, including your sleep.
Meditation and mindfulness not only promote calm and peace but their techniques can also teach us how to let go of pernicious thoughts, emotions and feelings while learning how to generate peace, calm and happiness. Meditation and mindfulness also teach us how to see problems more clearly, which leads to more skillful actions regarding them. This promotes ease and well-being which in turn promotes healthy sleep.
However, stress, anxiety, worry and depression often have less obvious roots or compounding causes.
Less Obvious Causes
If you can’t sleep because of worry, stress, anxiety or depression, it might be due to causes that make you more susceptible to worry, stress, anxiety or depression. Did you know that the foods and drinks we consume or don’t consume greatly impact our mental and emotional health?
Researchers are constantly finding that a diet poor in nutrition and high in sugar and processed foods is linked to depression and anxiety. See my article The Mind-Gut Connection: Depression Linked to Gut Bacteria and What We Eat?. Eat poorly and your body won’t have the nutrients your nervous system needs to maintain or repair itself in good health. This directly impacts our emotional and mental well-being.
Relatedly, diets high in sugar and processed foods like the typical American diet cause all sorts of medical conditions that will keep you awake or result in poor sleep quality.
Eat poorly and chances are that you will sleep poorly. The solution is a good diet high in nutrition and real foods but low in processed foods.
Subtle Tech Sabotage
Researchers are also finding that screen time can impair our sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, using electronic devices before bedtime can be physiologically and psychologically stimulating in ways that can adversely affect your sleep.
Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock (a.k.a., your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. This is largely due to the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that’s emitted by these devices. The more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep. Besides increasing your alertness at a time when you should be getting sleepy, which in turn delays your bedtime, using these devices before turning in delays the onset of REM sleep, reduces the total amount of REM sleep, and compromises alertness the next morning. Over time, these effects can add up to a significant, chronic deficiency in sleep. This is true for children and adults.
Initiate a digital curfew for the entire family, a time at which you and your kids turn off all electronic devices for the night. Try setting the curfew at two hours before bed, one hour before bed, or even 30 minutes before bed—the earlier in the evening, the better, but whatever feels realistic.
One good substitution is reading. Reading an old-fashioned, printed book under lamplight (as opposed to bright overhead lighting) is a great choice. And using an e-ink e-reader (like the Kindle Paperwhite, as opposed to the Kindle Fire) is also a good idea, because it doesn’t produce the same type of blue light that a smartphone or tablet would.
This checklist is by no means exhaustive. Generally, though, the causes of poor sleep often are preventable and depend on personal habits. Good diet and making efforts to take care of our mental and emotional well-being will eliminate many sleeping problems. We can also develop good habits around food and beverage consumption, as well as the use of electronics, in the lead up to bedtime in order to limit their impact on our sleep.
Before you reach for the sleeping pills, understand why you can’t sleep and try to solve the underlying issue or issues. Your health and well-being will be better for it – and your sleep too!
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