Although in recent times I have been sleeping a little better, over the years I have suffered from, at times, incredibly severe insomnia. But it’s not just the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, tossing and turning, snoring and sleepwalking are all behaviours of people struggling to get quality sleep.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, you need to read on. I’ve collated five common reasons why you struggle to get to sleep at night. Can you relate? Is there a sleep tip you wish you had known sooner?
1. Your bedroom setting is affecting your sleep
Not too hot and not too cold, Goldilocks
Nothing can be more tempting in the middle of winter than to crank up the heating, throw on the layers, and jump into bed.
But did you know a sleeping environment that is ‘too warm’ can negatively influence your sleep? Since moving to a cooler climate, my sleep has definitely improved, but not only does your room temperature affect your sleep, your mattress does, too. An uncomfortable mattress can have you tossing and turning, while covers and sheets can also affect your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Trying to sleep in a room that is too hot or too cold can affect the quality of REM sleep you receive.
Having said all that though, there is no ‘optimum’ sleeping temperature, as we are all have various preferences. What you can do, however, is take a close look at your bedding and thermostat. If your partner doesn’t object too much you might try adjusting it a few degrees up or down for a couple of nights and then test the impact. How quickly did you fall asleep, how well did you feel you slept, and how did you feel during the day. And the same goes for your bedding. Maybe try bedding and blankets that are lighter weight and measure the impact on the behaviours above.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises you to keep your room cool, quiet and dark – just like a cave.
It’s sometimes frustrating being woken up in the morning, not by leaf blowers or garbage trucks, but by sunlight.
Another glorious day is beaming through those sheer curtains, but it’s Sunday morning – you didn’t need to be woken up at 6am!
A light-blocking blind can be used to savour those weekend lie-ins, while a sheer curtain overlay can be used for privacy during the day, or opened up to let in all that lovely sunshine.
When travelling especially, you have little control over the brightness of your room. You could look for hotels with blackout curtains, but a simple alternative is to buy a cheap eye mask to wear at night. A soft material free from decorations is surprisingly comfortable to wear overnight.
It’s also important to start preparing your body for sleep even before you’ve stepped into the bedroom. Avoid bright ceiling lights and opt for dimmer lamps in the family room when you’re relaxing in the evening.
This might be something a little more out of your control, but there’s no doubt noise – whether it’s the distant muffle of a television or a party next door – can affect your ability to fall asleep. It can also stress you out, as you get frustrated, waiting for the moment you either fall asleep or the noise ends.
Start on the internet or get in touch with your local police station to learn more about the laws and regulations around noise disturbances.
A white noise machine can also be a saving grace. I picked a white noise ‘playlist’ on a flight recently and was really surprised at how easily I managed to get a solid couple of hours worth of sleep, simply by blocking out the muffled noise around me. You could also try noise-cancelling headphones. A friend of mine bought me a pair a few years ago and they’ve been one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
2. You’re glued to your devices
Bright light from laptops and smartphones
The standard white light emitted from these devices is referred to as ‘blue light’. Blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that tells our bodies that it is time to sleep. (You can read more about melatonin, blue light and the circadian rhythm in this blog post.)
Most of us have heard how damaging this light is for our sleep, but how many people are prepared to switch their phone off when before they go to bed?
If, like me, you haven’t been brave enough to break the technology habit, perhaps more technology could help. Recently, Apple has introduced ‘Night Shift’ mode to the iPhone, a feature that switches the phone from its usual blue light to a yellow-tinged light. (Android has a similar feature.)
Its purpose is to reduce the amount of blue light the screen emits, with the hopes that it will be less of a strain on eyes and users can sleep better. The jury’s still out on how effective it is, but it’s probably a good feature, nevertheless, even just to reduce strain and brightness on tired eyes.
Your best bet, however, is to power down devices at least an hour before bed and keep them out of the bedroom, and good luck with that!
If you rely on an alarm clock to wake you up in the morning, you might be suffering during the night thanks to the bright light emitted from those big red digital numbers.
Opt for an alarm clock or radio a dimmable feature and turn the clock away at night so you can’t see the time. This is also a big help when you can’t sleep, as there’s nothing worse then getting stressed as the minutes tick by. You’re still awake, calculating how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now, and it reduces by every toss and turn.
3. You’re forcing yourself to sleep
Are you tossing and turning, switching from side to stomach to back, unable to find a comfortable position to sleep in? Does your brain feel wide awake, even when your body feels fatigued?
You’re not alone. And the worst thing you can do at this point is to remain in bed, and try force your brain and body into falling asleep. Instead, what you’re doing is actually training your brain to realise that bed isn’t just for sleep.
If after 15-20 minutes – but make it approximate as you shouldn’t be checking the clock – you’re still feeling restless, you should hop out of bed and do a low-impact activity, like:
- Reading a mundane book or magazine
- Gently stretching to relax your mind and body
- Drinking herbal tea
- Thinking about everything you did that day – even the boring stuff
- Putting on some gentle music
Do all of these outside the bedroom, but keep them low-impact and keep the lights low – you don’t want to confuse your body into thinking that it’s now time to wake up.
4. You have a sleep disorder (even if you don’t know it yet)
One of the worst causes of disrupted sleep is due to an undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorder. Insomnia and sleep apnea are two of the most common. We briefly break down each below.
If you struggle to sleep at night, or it takes you a long time to nod off, you should be tested for insomnia. There are a number of short-term remedies you can incorporate almost immediately into your nightly routine, including avoiding naps during the day and going to bed only when you feel sleepy.
The first thing you can do is look at your current sleep patterns, habits and problems. A doctor or sleep specialist will look at these and can provide both short- and long-term solutions and advice.
Sleep apnea can be scary: it’s a sleep disorder where the walls of the throat close momentarily during sleep, causing a blockage of airflow that can stop breathing.
Those who suffer from sleep apnea are normally roused by the brain when it realises oxygen flow has been impeded. Sufferers give a gasp or snort then can drift off back to sleep, often without even realising they’ve woken up. This can happen hundreds of times a night.
Better Health estimates 5% of Australians suffer from sleep apnea. It is more common in men than women.
5. You have a disruptive partner
Snoring, tossing and turning, or the irrational need to have the radio on all night are some of the common disturbances that come from our partners.
As mentioned above, sleep apnea can occur without the sufferer even realising he or she has stopped breathing. It’s another story for their partner, where periodic snorts and gags can abruptly wake you and puncture a hole in your restful sleep schedule.
Common reasons you and your partner may lock horns overnight include:
Your feet are always cold, they’re always hot… perhaps it’s time to consider separate blankets in bed.
Night owl vs. early bird
Sometimes our jobs have more say over this than us, and it’s likely we’re hitting the hay and facing the day at different times. We need to be respectful of that by causing as little disturbance as possible for our partners.
Sleep walking and talking
At first it’s hilarious, listening to your partner mumble about frogs or superheroes, but now you notice how it’s affecting your sleep more than theirs. Alcohol, stress and working right before bed can trigger these night performances.
They cry, they have nightmares, they get sick. As they age, the night-time requests reduce, but there will still be an impact on your sleep. If you are lucky enough to be able to take night-time duties in turn, perhaps you and your partner can halve the effect by giving each other nights off. I know of people who do it in shifts. One takes care of any disturbance before 1am and the other takes over from there.
A dentist can fit you or your partner with a dental guard to stop that dreadful sound.
Snoring is most common in men who are overweight. Alcohol also increases the risk of snoring as it relaxes the airways. The old tennis-ball-on-the-back trick can be tested to stop your partner rolling onto his back, snoring’s prime position.
If you need more guidance, speak to a doctor or sleep specialist.