I Cant Sleep!
I’m lying in bed after a hard day. I’ve got another hard day waiting for me tomorrow and I NEED to sleep. So why am I not sleeping yet?
I check the bright, blue numbers on my alarm clock; 11:30 PM. Have I really been in bed for an hour? Huh, feels like 4 hours.
I’ve got so many things to do tomorrow. Maybe if I run through them in my mind again I’ll be able to sleep . . . Nope, that didn’t work. I wish someone would just knock me out!
Does this sound familiar? If so, you probably have insomnia. Do you want to learn how to fix insomnia? Keep reading.
Do I have a disorder?
An estimated 50-70 million US adults suffer from a sleep-related disorder. But just because you are falling asleep during staff meetings doesn’t necessarily mean you have a sleep disorder.
Many of us deprive ourselves of sleep voluntarily. Maybe you pulled an all-nighter to get your English paper done. Or perhaps you and your buddies are on the fifth “last game” of Call of Duty when you notice that the sun’s starting to rise.
Whatever the reason, Americans typically don’t prioritize sleep and it’s killing us.
In a Center for Disease Control survey, 43.7% of 18-25 year-olds reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once per month. The National Department of Transportation estimates that drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually in the US.
So whether you want to sleep but you can’t or you should sleep and you won’t, it sounds like America could use a little shuteye.
Why Do I Need Sleep?
What’s the big deal with sleep, anyway? I mean, you’re a high-speed, game-changing force of nature. Ain’t nobody got time for sleep! Here are a few reasons you should MAKE time for sleep.
Sleep consolidates memory and learning
Have you ever been told to “sleep on it” when you have a hard decision to make. It’s good advice. Most people will find that unrelenting problems tend to relent after a good night’s rest.
Being sleepy is as impairing as being drunk
Sure, pulling an all-nighter doesn’t typically lower inhibitions and make ugly people look hot, but it can slow down your brain’s effectiveness just like alcohol does. In fact, just one night without sleep is as impairing as having 0.05% blood alcohol concentration.
Sleep is essential for body maintenance
All those squats you do at your local CrossFit dungeon won’t do squat for your fitness if you don’t get good sleep.
Your muscles don’t grow in the gym, they grow in the bedroom. Once asleep, the brain cleans out metabolites and neurotoxins, triggers the release of growth hormone, synthesizes proteins, and accelerates tissue repair.
Sleep loss makes you fat
When you go without sleep your brain releases hormones that make you crave high-calorie foods, the rational part of your brain becomes less active, you become less sensitive to insulin, and inflammation increases all over the body.
University of Colorado researchers found that people who were sleep deprived could gain as much as 2 pounds in just a few days.
Insomnia makes you depressed
Insomnia can lead to depression and depression can lead to insomnia. If you don’t get enough sleep you practically lose the ability to regulate your emotions.
You know this if you’ve ever had to deal with the living nightmare that is an overtired 2-year-old? Adults get cranky without enough sleep, too. It’s just adult-sized crankiness.
What’s Making it So Hard to Sleep Well?
Now you know sleep is important. Sweet. But how can you get the best sleep possible? Well, here are five factors to consider:
Do you have a medical condition that could be affecting your sleep? Conditions like hyperthyroidism, heartburn, diabetes, kidney disease, and musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., arthritis, fybromyalgia) are particularly disruptive to sleep. Or maybe you have a broken leg . . . It’s hard to sleep with a broken leg.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (where you stop breathing multiple times per night without waking up or realizing it) is another condition that affects sleep. By some estimates, up to 10% of US men suffer from some form of sleep apnea. If you snore a lot or your bed partner has witnessed you stop breathing or gasp for air while sleeping, then you should ask your doctor about getting a sleep study.
Are you taking any medications? Most conscientious doctors will warn you if your prescription could cause insomnia. But did you know that many over-the-counter drugs can degrade sleep quality?
Do you work a swing or night shift? Changes in your sleep schedule caused by shift work will wreak havoc on your sleep quality.
Not only are night and swing shift workers deprived of sufficient exposure to natural light (a key factor in sleep cycle regulation), but frequent shift changes sends mixed signals to your brain about when it should release the sleepy vs the wakey brain juices.
Are you stressed out? When your thoughts race about to-do lists, regrets, perceived injustices, or your crappy job your brain can’t switch into sleep mode.
Sometimes people get stuck worrying that they’re not sleeping, which triggers the sympathetic nervous system to initiate its “freak out” protocol. This makes it nearly impossible to fall asleep and the cycle continues.
Do you eat garbage? Foods that cause gas, bloating, and indigestion are going to frighten away the Sandman. The Sandman also doesn’t like alcohol. Sure, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that makes you drowsy, but it also interferes with the brain’s ability to achieve restorative sleep.
Also, and I hope this isn’t a surprise to many of you, but very few humans can consume copious amounts of caffeine and then sleep like babies.
Your morning joe or lunchtime Diet Coke might not make a huge difference. If you are pounding energy drinks, drinking multiple cups of coffee, shotgunning Mt. Dew, or downing more than 5-hours worth of 5-Hour Energy, then you’re asking for trouble.
So tell me how to fix insomnia!
Learning how to fix insomnia takes good information, patience, and consistency. I’ve struggled with insomnia most of my life and these tips have made a big difference.
Make sure you go to bed and get up at consistent times EVERY day
The body responds remarkably well to routine. After about 2 weeks of this schedule you probably won’t even have to set your alarm clock anymore.
Optimize bedroom conditions
Your bedroom needs to be dark, cool, and quiet. It can be difficult to make the bedroom environment perfect (e.g., my idea of “cool” throws my wife into hypothermia), but small improvements are better than none.
Use your bed for sleep and sex only
You want to train your brain to shut down as soon as you get into bed. You just confuse it by reading, watching TV, blogging, texting, and surfing the web in bed.
If light reading is part of your relaxing bedtime routine, then do it on the couch and crawl into bed as soon as you feel sleepy. Sex is the only non-sleep activity the bed should be used for.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and strenuous exercise too close to bedtime
I know that some of you are thinking, “a glass of wine in the evenings helps me sleep.”
If it’s working for you then keep it up. Just understand that while alcohol can promote sleepiness, it disrupts the sleep cycle as it is metabolized, which typically results in non-restorative sleep.
Avoid naps during the day
You only have so much sleep debt to pay the Sandman. If you pay it all back during the day then you won’t have any to pay when bedtime rolls around.
Avoid heavy meals near bedtime
This is especially important if you eat stuff that gives you gas, is very spicy, or is high in fat. A busy stomach can make for a sleepless night.
That racing mind is not helping you sleep. If you can’t shut it down after 20-30 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring or soothing.
You could stretch, meditate, take a hot shower, or read (nothing too exciting). Some people find it helpful to write their worrisome thoughts down so they can dismiss them while they’re in bed.
I should point out that chronic, uncontrolled worry can be a sign of a more serious psychiatric condition and is usually worth talking to a professional about. You can learn more about anxiety here and more about getting professional help here.
That’s a lot of info. Where do I start?
I usually have my clients start by tracking their sleep. Like Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Track your sleep for a week using this sleep log. Keep tracking it while you implement the tips above and let me know how it goes. Sweet dreams!