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Why Can’t I Sleep? Here’s Why, What to Do and What Not to Do

Why Can’t I Sleep? Here’s Why, What to Do and What Not to Do

Written by Maisie Bygraves on Aug 04, 2021.
Scientifically fact checked by Nick Witton, Sleep Scientist.

If we were given a penny every time someone asked “Why can’t I sleep?” we’d be millionaires, actually no, probably billionaires. Sleep problems are rife all over the world and many people can’t seem to find the answer to their sleeping woes.

Whether you have trouble falling asleep, long periods of wakefulness or general sleep problems, not being able to sleep at night can be draining and life-changing.

Those who persistently have difficulty sleeping, even if their sleep conditions are optimum and they have ample opportunity to nod off and have trouble with sleep initiation, sleep maintenance or waking too early, may in fact have insomnia.

People can suffer from either short-term (acute) insomnia, where their symptoms have been present for less than three months, or long-term (chronic) insomnia, where their symptoms have been present for at least three months and occur at least three times a week.

Insomnia is usually a direct result of another problem, for example stress at work, family troubles or financial anxieties. And unfortunately these problems can not only cause insomnia but also make it far worse.

We’re going to explain why you can’t sleep, by pinpointing those sleep-deprivation triggers of which you may not be aware. (Some may surprise you.)

By identifying the reason/s why you can’t sleep, you’ll begin to work on what to do next to improve your sleep and also what to avoid doing.

By investing the time and energy into solving your sleep problems, you’ll not only start to feel better, but you’ll also become much more aware of what might trigger any sleep problems in the future, how to deal with those warning signs and how to stop them interrupting your slumber.

Reasons why you can't sleep

Stress, anxiety and depression are the leading cause of insomnia and general sleep problems. Other lifestyle factors such as medication, caffeine and alcohol intake, and a poor sleep environment (e.g. electronic devices and blue light exposure), all play their part in insomnia and sleep disorders.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you been through a recent trauma that may have disrupted your sleep?
  • Are there things that are worrying you or causing anxiety?
  • Are you sleeping in the wrong environment?
  • Does your medication affect how you sleep?
  • Do you often drink alcohol in the evening?
  • Are you staying up watching movies or working late in front of a screen?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then this article could help identify and pinpoint why you’re not sleeping.

Caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeine and alcohol intake

Photo by YesMore Content on Unsplash

Sometimes the reason why we can’t sleep can be self-inflicted and we’re often unaware that what we’re doing to ourselves can be detrimental to our sleep and health.

Alcohol is both a stimulant and a sedative. So, although you may feel like you’re sleeping well under the influence, it actually lowers your sleep quality and your total time asleep. Alcohol also acts as a diuretic, which means a few extra trips to the bathroom are needed. These loo visits further interrupt and break your sleep.

Caffeine can also stop you from sleeping, as it’s a stimulant and increases activity in your brain and nervous system. One study found that 400mg of caffeine taken up to 6 hours prior to bed significantly inhibits your ability to sleep. That’s around 4 cups, which may seem like a lot, but 4 or 5 cups is deemed as ‘safe’ and ‘not generally associated with dangerous side effects’ by the FDA. However, the study shows that having caffeinated coffee in the afternoon can significantly disrupt sleep, which can be dangerous to your health.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you drinking caffeine in the afternoon and late at night?
  • Are you drinking too much caffeine during the day?
  • Are you drinking alcohol that’s disrupting your sleep?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then caffeine or alcohol consumption may be one of the reasons you’re not sleeping.

Blue light exposure and electronic devices

Blue light from screens, other devices and artificial lighting can negatively affect sleep if used at the wrong time of day. The lights can mess with your circadian rhythm and inhibit melatonin production (the hormone that facilitates the onset of sleep) and as a result it can make you feel more awake and ready to push through your tiredness.

Blue light is really beneficial in the morning and in the afternoon but the blue light ‘tells’ your brain to “wake up!” when you should be relaxing and winding down before bed, resulting in a disturbed night’s sleep.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you keep bright lights on late at night?
  • Do you use your phone for a while in bed?
  • Do you watch TV for a few hours each night?
  • Are you working online late at night?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then blue light and electronic device exposure in the evening or at night may be one of the reasons you’re not sleeping.

Stress, anxiety and worry

The NHS highlights how stress, anxiety and worry are the leading causes for insomnia and sleep problems. As we all know, life is full of different stressors, whether at work, home or elsewhere. And being stressed can evoke both mental and physical fatigue.

Stress can cause racing thoughts which can keep you awake for hours, or the entire night - no matter how trivial the worry may be. Heightened adrenaline levels and an increased heart rate can result in entering a fight-or-flight response. In other words, your body thinks it needs to stay awake to survive, which isn’t (always) necessary.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is work life and/or family like causing you to feel stressed?
  • Do you worry about things that are out of your control?
  • Does the future and/or the past make you feel anxious?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then stress, anxiety and worry may be one of the reasons you’re not sleeping.

Hormone changes

There are many hormones that are involved in sleeping - and not sleeping. As mentioned, melatonin is the hormone that facilitates the onset of sleep, however, other hormones can disrupt your sleep too.

Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone (produced by the HPA axis, which also plays a part in coordinating your sleep) and it’s associated with the circadian rhythm and produced in response to a variety of stressors. Cortisol production is really important (at the right time of day) but not when trying to sleep. If the HPA axis ever gets disrupted by stress, this can result in sleep problems and insomnia.

Ask yourself the following question:

  • Are you feeling stressed or anxious?

If you answer yes to this question, then hormone changes may be one of the reasons you’re not sleeping.

Medications

A number of medications can affect the way you sleep in a negative way and actually cause sleeplessness. However, many medications can’t be avoided, so it’s about becoming aware of the medications that can affect your sleep and supporting your sleep in other ways to counteract them.

Here are some examples of medications that interfere with sleep:

  • Beta blockers: often associated with sleep disturbances such as waking during the night and distressing dreams. Beta blockers inhibit melatonin secretion (the hormone that facilitates the onset of sleep) at night, so falling asleep can be difficult.
  • ACE inhibitors: by increasing someone’s levels of bradykinin, ACE inhibitors are often thought to be the cause of a hacking cough. The cough can keep people awake and disrupt their sleep, causing sleepless nights.
  • Statins: they cause muscle pain in many people and it’s this muscle pain that keeps people awake and unable to drift off to sleep.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you take different medications?
  • Could your medications be impacting your sleep?
  • Do you need to ask your doctor about your medications and if they affect your sleep?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, then medication may be one of the reasons you’re not sleeping.

But why can't I sleep even though I'm tired?

Feeling tired doesn’t mean you’ll get to sleep easily or have quality sleep at that. With so many external and internal factors that can affect your sleep, being tired can help you drift off, but it’s not always enough. Other factors such as stress, medication, blue light exposure and caffeine all take their toll on how well you sleep.

And why all of a sudden can I not sleep?

Changes in your sleep environment, personal life, work life, health and the weather can all affect the way you sleep. Even if you were sleeping fine before, sudden or slow changes can mean the quality of your sleep can disintegrate.

Think of a heatwave and how the sudden change in temperature can keep you awake most of the night, or how an unexpected stressful situation can lead to a racing mind and rapid thoughts in bed - both examples highlight how unexpected occurrences can suddenly change the way you sleep, night after night.

What to do if you can't sleep

What to do if you can't sleep

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

1. Control racing thoughts

If you can’t sleep, a proven way to help is to take control of racing thoughts at night. Racing thoughts cause stress and lack of sleep, so by conquering them, you can begin to master the way you sleep. Explore our article on how to control racing thoughts, which offers 4 easy ways to control those thoughts and get back to sleep.

2. Improve your wind down

Taking control of what you get up to before bed can seriously improve your sleep quality. Improving your wind down routine does not need to be difficult, in fact, our wind down article explores 6 ways to relax before bed to improve your sleep.

What not to do if you can't sleep

1. Don’t panic

Remaining calm and clear-headed is the best way to cope with not sleeping. It can be very easy to fall into a cycle of stress and panic, which only makes the situation worse. Waking up at the end of a sleep cycle is natural, you just normally don't realise it and fall back to sleep - so don't stress about why you've woken up.

If things have escalated then taking a step back and thinking about a strategy to help you sleep is the best way to reduce any panic. Make a doable plan of action and start implementing it as soon as possible.

2. Don’t ignore the problem

By taking action and dealing with your sleepless nights and the reason behind them, you’ll not only start your journey to sleeping well, but also reduce the chances of them occurring again if they do stop on their own accord.

Most sleep disturbances can be resolved by changes in habits, environments, sleep hygiene or reducing rumination.

And by living against your natural circadian rhythm, you may in fact be damaging your health. So grab the situation by the horns as soon as you can.

Getting a better night’s sleep

By identifying the reason behind your lack of sleep, you can begin to work on the techniques to turn your sleep around. Whether it’s stress and anxiety, too much blue light exposure or too much caffeine intake during the day - it’s important to pinpoint the cause and work on the solution.

We’ve got a whole host of helpful articles which cover sleep techniques and improvements. So why not learn more from our blog on how to relax before bed?

If you need help monitoring your sleep and seeing if your new-found techniques are working, then try a pair of Kokoon’s sleep-monitoring Nightbuds. These science-backed, intelligent earbuds work with the MyKokoon app to help you fall asleep and stay asleep for longer, whilst providing you with valuable sleep insights. So you can monitor what wind down routines and sleep tips work best for you.

Want to find out more? Head over to our website and have a nose.

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