Sleep expert reveals what could be causing your sleepless nights – and tips for fixing it.
Many people will experience trouble sleeping at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the NHS, insomnia is thought to affect around one in three adults and is particularly prevalent among the elderly population.
Insomnia can be extremely frustrating whether you experience hours of tossing and turning each night or only once in a while. Isolating the cause of your sleeplessness is essential for fixing it.
With this in mind, sleep experts at Bed Kingdom reveal eight potential causes of insomnia and research-backed solutions to help fix your sleepless nights and develop better sleep hygiene.
That innocuous afternoon coffee might be playing more havoc on your ability to sleep than you realize. According to one study published in the National Library of Medicine, caffeine was found to have a half-life of around five hours in healthy individuals, which means it could take around five hours for half of that caffeine to be cleared from your body. Caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that naturally builds up in the body during the day and creates pressure to sleep.
While it may sound extreme, if you are having trouble drifting off in the evening, consider cutting off caffeine 8 to 12 hours before your bedtime. If you typically go to bed at 11 pm, this could mean having your last caffeinated drink at around 1 pm and opting for decaffeinated options for the remainder of the day.
Blue light exposure
The blue light emitted by electronic devices like smartphones and laptops can interfere with your body’s natural sleep cycle. Blue light can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate sleep. The body produces melatonin in response to darkness, contributing to the maintenance of the body’s natural circadian rhythm. According to a study published by Harvard Medical School, blue light disrupts the body’s production of melatonin more powerfully and for twice as long as other wavelengths of light.
Try keeping electronic devices out of your bedroom or avoid using them a few hours before bedtime. Scheduling the night mode setting on devices can also filter out some of the blue light emitted from screens in the evening.
Daytime habits can also contribute to a healthy circadian rhythm and fewer sleep disruptions. Getting as much natural daylight exposure during the day can help reset your natural sleep schedule. Try to get around 15 minutes of sunlight first thing in the morning on a sunny day, and up to 30 minutes on a more overcast day.
Irregular sleep schedule
The Sleep Foundation recommends having a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends, as necessary for good sleep hygiene. A regular daily routine for when you go to bed and wake up normalizes your body’s sleep schedule and helps you to feel sleepy and awake at the appropriate times. Going to bed and waking up at different times can disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep in the evening.
Incorporating a winding down period at the end of the day can help you relax before bedtime and help you fall asleep at a regular time. Try meditating, taking a warm bath, or listening to a calming podcast.
Poor sleep environment
A comfortable sleep environment is crucial for quality sleep. If you are having trouble falling or staying asleep, it may be because your sleeping conditions are sub-optimal. An uncomfortable bed or a bedroom that is too bright, noisy, hot, or cold can make it difficult to get quality sleep.
Consider using an eye mask and earplugs to block out any ambient light and noise that may be entering your bedroom, and check whether your duvet is appropriate for the outside temperature.
The Sleep Foundation suggests keeping your bedroom between 15.6 – 19.4 degrees Celsius for the best quality sleep. Your body’s temperature naturally drops by 1-2 degrees as you fall asleep, so having a colder room can be conducive to aiding this natural drop in body temperature and help you fall asleep more easily.
Some medications, such as antidepressants, steroids, and beta-blockers, can interfere with the quality and duration of your sleep.
If you are experiencing sleep disturbances after starting a new medication, it is important to speak with your doctor, as they can address whether an active ingredient or certain dosage might be affecting your sleep. They can then lower the dosage or change the medication completely if the problem persists.
Alcohol and nicotine consumption
While alcohol can often make you fall asleep faster, drinking it close to bedtime can cause fragmented sleep and can be the cause of frequent waking throughout the night. Studies have found that drinking alcohol within four hours of bedtime can negatively affect sleep continuity and duration, leading to longer ‘wake after sleep onset’ (WASO), where you wake up during the night and struggle to get back to sleep.
If you are having trouble staying asleep after an evening drink, try to have your last drink around 4 hours before you go to bed to ensure that your body has had ample time to digest and metabolize the alcohol before you try to fall asleep.
A study by Zandy et al. (2020) also found that nicotine consumption is positively correlated with insomnia and sleep disturbances. Nicotine use impacts the body’s ability to fall and stay asleep, thus, quitting smoking might help you sleep better.
While napping can help you catch up on lost sleep, longer naps later in the day can interfere with our ability to sleep at night. During each typical 90-minute sleep cycle, we progress through two distinct types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM sleep is further divided into four stages, the first two of which consist of light sleep, while the second two stages consist of deeper sleep.
Napping earlier in the day and for short periods means that our sleep is more likely to remain in these first two stages of light NREM sleep rather than dipping into stages three and four NREM sleep. Napping for longer than 20 minutes later in the day means you are more likely to enter these deeper phases of NREM sleep, and this can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
If you need to nap during the day, aim for short naps between 10-20 minutes in the morning or before 2 pm. Try to avoid naps longer than 20 minutes or take them in the late afternoon or at night.
8. Eating before bed
Eating too close to bedtime can also interfere with sleep. Studies show that while eating too close to bedtime may not affect sleep duration, it can lead to frequent awakenings and increased wakefulness after sleep onset (WASO) at night. This can be due to gastrointestinal discomfort and reflux that occur during digestion at irregular hours, as digestion is less efficient at night than during the day due to the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Try to eat your last meal at least two hours before bedtime to ensure you have ample time for proper digestion. Keeping your evening meal lighter and avoiding spicy foods are also good ways to reduce the risk of food interfering with a good night’s sleep.
When to see your GP
If insomnia affects your daily life and has been a problem for longer than a month, especially if the above-listed measures have not been helpful, you may want to make an appointment to see your GP. They will check your medical history for any illness or medication contributing to your insomnia.
Some people find over-the-counter sleeping tablets helpful, but they are a temporary fix as they don’t address the underlying causes of insomnia and can have side effects. Thus it is important to make time to see your GP so that they can address the underlying reasons for your insomnia.
In conclusion, sleep is essential for overall well-being, yet many factors can interfere with quality sleep. By understanding these common reasons people can’t sleep and taking steps to address them, you can improve your sleep quality and wake up feeling rested and rejuvenated.