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What to do when you can’t sleep

What to do when you can’t sleep

Team ErbologyErbology

We spend about a third of our lives asleep. Sleep is a basic need for us just like eating, drinking and breathing. It is essential for good mental and physical well-being. However, some of us struggle with falling asleep or getting enough sleep, so let’s find out what to do when you can’t sleep.

March 25, 2022 4:07 pm

Why we need sleep 

As humans we need sleep to survive and thrive. Insufficient sleep can have a significant negative impact on our health. This article will guide you through what to do when you can’t sleep.

In the short term, after a poor night’s sleep, you may feel fatigued, short-tempered and distracted. Although an occasional bad night’s sleep can make you feel tired and irritable, it isn’t necessarily harmful to your health. However, after multiple sleepless nights your mental health can become seriously affected. 

In fact, long-term sleep deprivation can increase your risk of developing chronic health issues such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Sleep is needed for us to consolidate and store our memories, process emotions and replenish our glucose stores to fuel our brain. 

Moreover, proper and sufficient sleep is essential for a healthy immune system. In fact, long-term lack of sleep can disrupt your immune system making you more susceptible to catching colds and other bugs. Additionally, sleeping enough can help you maintain a healthy weight. In fact, those who sleep less have a higher risk of gaining weight than those who sleep enough. This is because sleep-deprived people have decreased levels of leptin (a hormone that makes you feel full) and higher levels of ghrelin (the hormone that makes you feel hungry). 

It seems that sleep is key for many functions throughout our body. But what can we do to optimise our sleeping schedule if we’re struggling to get consistent rest?

Regularity is key 

If you have a hard time falling asleep at night, keeping a regular bedtime routine is one of the best things you can do for better sleep. Ensuring that you stick to a regular bedtime and waking time on most days of the week has been shown to improve sleep quality. Some people can get away with varying bedtimes, for example going to bed later on weekends compared to weekdays. However for others, and especially for those with insomnia, irregular sleeping hours can do more harm than good. 

woman sleeping on blue throw pillow

In fact, sleeping at regular times programs our brain to adapt to a set routine, which in turn makes it easier to fall asleep. Most adults require between 6 and 9 hours of sleep per night. So, by working backwards from the time you need to wake up in the morning, you can calculate what time your bedtime should be. Similarly, waking up at the same time each day helps your internal body clock to get used to a set routine. 

One study looked at the effects of regularising sleep-wake schedules on daytime sleepiness in individuals. The study population was composed of 2 groups, both were given a lower limit for total sleep time (7.5 hours) however one group had to keep a regular sleep schedule whilst the other did not. In this study, the researchers found that after 5 weeks, subjects in the regular sleep schedule group reported increased and longer lasting improvements in alertness as well as improved sleep efficiency compared to their counterparts in the control group.(1) 

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“Consuming healthy foods is associated with better sleep quality and higher intakes of processed foods and foods rich in free-sugars are associated with worse sleep quality.” 

Environment matters when you can’t sleep…

A relaxing and comfortable environment is essential for a good night’s sleep. In fact, excessive light, noise, exposure to screens and an uncomfortable mattress can all hinder sleep quality and quantity. Ideally, your bedroom should be dark and quiet with a room temperature between 18 and 24 degrees celsius. Indeed, a comfortable temperature within a sleeping environment is important for healthy sleep. Studies have shown that the human body is sensitive to air temperature during sleep and even a moderate exposure to heat or cold can significantly decrease sleep quality.(2) So, the next time you can’t sleep, check the air temperature and make sure it’s at a comfortable level.

Investing in some good quality curtains or blinds to block out the light will ensure that your sleeping environment is dark enough. Also, if you live in a particularly noisy area and you can’t fall asleep, consider soundproofing your windows, it can be costly but it’s well worth the investment if it means getting a good night’s sleep. Alternatively, for a cheaper solution you can try earplugs, they come in different shapes and sizes so it’s useful to research what works best for your individual needs. 

And so does your diet

There is increasing evidence that dietary patterns and specific foods can have significant impacts on nighttime sleep. In fact, a study looking at the effects of diet on sleep found that high carbohydrate diets, foods containing tryptophan, melatonin and phytonutrients were linked to improved sleep outcomes.(3)

Overall, consuming healthy foods is associated with better sleep quality and higher intakes of processed foods and foods rich in free-sugars are associated with worse sleep quality.(4) 

person holding silver fork and knife

Moreover, specific nutrients can single-handedly impact sleep quality more than others. Caffeine is a prime example of this. In fact, studies have shown that if consumed too close to bedtime, caffeine typically reduces total sleep time and sleep efficiency, and worsens people’s perceived quality of their sleep. For some people, stopping caffeine consumption after lunchtime can help to avoid the stimulating effects of caffeine before bedtime.(5) So when you can’t sleep, think about your caffeine consumption and adapt it accordingly. 

Your bed is a sacred space

Keeping your bed for sleep only is a positive step you can take towards better sleep. In fact, watching TV or working from our bed can create associations in our mind that can later hinder sleep. When you’re wondering why you can’t sleep after a Netflix binge, this might be why! 

Moreover, ensuring that you have a comfortable mattress and pillow is important for good quality rest. Investing in a high quality mattress or even a topper which is more affordable could make a significant difference to how well rested you feel. 

Watch your workout routine if you can’t sleep

Exercising comes with many health benefits, from better cardiovascular health to improved mental well-being. In fact, a healthy dose of exercise to get our body moving can help us get a better night’s sleep. A study in adults with insomnia observed the effects of exercise on sleep. The researchers concluded that exercise significantly improved perceived sleep quality in people with insomnia.(6)

However, exercising too close to our bedtime can be counterproductive. Exercising in the morning or around midday is ideal so that our body has time to wind down, especially after vigorous exercise. Lighter exercise like walking, stretching or yoga can be practised closer to bedtime, however make sure it is not too strenuous so that you aren’t overly stimulated before going to sleep. 

The benefits of napping

We may think of napping as something that is reserved for infants and young children, something adults don’t have time for. But there is evidence to suggest that napping can benefit adults too! Our demanding lifestyles and work hours can leave us feeling exhausted and sleepy throughout the day. 

Sleep disorders are increasingly common, and as a consequence, some people complain of excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). A review of the current methods used to manage EDS found that naps can have positive effects on individuals who suffer from daytime fatigue.(7) 

Moreover, napping may lead to improved cognitive performance. In fact, a systematic review of the literature looked at the effects of napping on cognitive function in adults working night shifts. It was found that napping during night shifts improves cognitive performance including attention and memory.(8)

Managing your mind 

Most people who suffer from insomnia also have some level of anxiety. Sleep begins in the brain so it’s no surprise that an unmanaged mind can wreak havoc on our sleep. Managing your mind can look different for everyone, but some activities seem to show promising results. So what can you do to manage your mind when you can’t sleep?

Meditation, which has been practised for centuries in eastern cultures, is now trending as a form of self-care in western societies. In fact, there is strong science linking mediation to positive health outcomes, both mental and physical. A study in people with chronic insomnia found that after just 8 weeks of meditation, the severity of their insomnia had significantly reduced. Moreover, amongst the participants who were on sedative medications for sleep, almost 90% of them had either reduced their dosage or stopped taking them at the end of the study period.(9)

Adaptogens 

Adaptogens have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions, as they are thought to help the body in the face of stressors, from physical to biological. They can be used as part of a holistic approach to feel more balanced and relaxed, assisting us in facing the stressors of everyday life. It is well established that stress and anxiety can significantly interfere with sleep, and we all know that dreaded feeling of anxiety that keeps us up at night, unable to fall asleep. 

Some adaptogens such as Ashwagandha have long been used to reduce stress and anxiety. Ashwangadha’s botanical name, Withania somnifera, gives us a clue that it may be linked to sleep. In fact, “somnifera” means sleep-inducing” in Latin. 

One study looked at the effects of Ashwagandha in stressed but healthy adults. The study participants either took Ashwagandha daily or a placebo over 8 weeks. Following the study, anxiety and sleep quality were assessed in all participants. It was found that at the end of the study period, the test group had significantly lower anxiety levels, serum cortisol levels and improved sleep quality compared to the placebo group.(10) 

Overall, it seems that many factors can affect our sleep schedule, and now more than ever we are leading busy lives that can leave us feeling stressed and worn out. However, with just a few tweaks to your nighttime routine you may just find that your sleep will significantly improve. 

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