Sleeping on the bus

Health issues related to sleeping are some of the most common complaints among people in the US. There are 40 million people living in the US with a chronic sleep disorder, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, 30 percent of all American adults report experiencing sleep disruption at some point during a given year. Sleep issues cost employers in the US an estimated $18 billion each year.

Learning What Helps to Sleep Through the Night

There are so many things in life that can cause people to sleep poorly, including career pressures, family responsibility, relationship stresses and illness. Not being able to sleep well can cause you to experience bad moods and irritability, and it can even go so far as to spark anxiety, depression and drug use.

Certain medical conditions are also implicated in sleeplessness, including:

  • Nasal or sinus allergies
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Chronic pain and low back pain
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Hyperthyroidism or other endocrine issues
  • Parkinson’s disease and other neurological issues

We cannot always control the issues that affect our ability to sleep, but there are certainly behavioral changes and natural interventions to help you get that elusive restful night’s sleep. The way you eat, the way you move and your feelings can all have an effect on your ability to sleep. There are ways to sleep better, you just need to try a few things and see what works best for you.

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Sleeping Disorders: Knowing What’s Behind the Issues

First, it is important to try and understand what’s happening to cause your sleeplessness. There are many different classifications of sleep disorders, and they can affect all people of all ages. The different types of sleeping disorders include:

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

The circadian refers to the body’s natural propensity to sleep at night and be awake during the day — also referred to as our “internal clock.” Disorders relating to circadian rhythm include jet lag, working the night shift and having your body try to adjust, and delayed sleep phase syndrome — which means you sleep too late and fall asleep too early. If you know your circadian rhythm is off, try making a concerted effort to adjust your sleeping habits as a way to improve sleep.


Insomnia is among the most common reasons for sleeping issues. Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Not being able to fall asleep
  • Waking up several times during the night
  • Waking up early in the morning and being unable to fall back asleep despite feeling tired
  • Waking up generally unrefreshed

A survey from the National Sleep Foundation found that at least 50 percent of adults complained of at least one insomnia symptom at least a couple of times each week, while one-third of people report having one of the symptoms every night or most nights throughout the year. Women generally experience these symptoms more often than men do. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents report experiencing symptoms of insomnia more frequently than their counterparts without children do.


Snoring occurs when the air you inhale passes over the tissues of the throat, which, during periods of sleep, are relaxed. A lot of people snore, and the sound is obviously annoying for yourself and those around you, but the problem is most serious when it is a sign of sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea happens when the upper airway is either completely or almost completely blocked. This can interrupt breathing for short bits of time, which inevitably will wake you up. This can cause daytime exhaustion and discomfort, and if the condition is not treated, you could end up with increased blood pressure and a higher risk for stroke or heart attack.


Narcolepsy is a disorder of the brain that causes extreme sleepiness during the day. Interestingly, most people with narcolepsy have no family history of the disorder.

Restless Leg Syndrome

People who have restless leg syndrome experience pain and discomfort in their legs and feet during the night — which they try to assuage by moving their legs and feet in excessive and rhythmic patterns. Unsurprisingly, this can disturb sleep. The condition tends to affect middle-aged to older people.


Most people have experienced nightmares during their lifetime, but some people have them more than others do. Nightmares occur when you have vivid, scary dreams during the REM cycle of sleep that cause you to wake up.

Night Terrors or Sleep Walking

Night terrors and sleep walking generally occur among children between the ages of 3 and 5. The experience is typically more frightening for the parents than it is for the children, and the children usually do not find themselves in any danger. In more extreme cases, they may leave the house or engage in another dangerous activity while still being asleep.

Pregnancy-Related Sleep Issues

During the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, women often experience bad nights of sleep and daytime fatigue. Earlier on, this is normally due to increased bathroom trips and morning sickness, while sleeplessness later on in pregnancy can be due to physical discomfort and vivid dreams.

A Poor Night’s Sleep: Effects on the Body

Not sleeping well can wreak havoc on your body, with effects ranging from mild to life threatening. Poor sleeping habits can cause:

  • Yawning — Yawning excessively is a hallmark sign of a poor night’s sleep.
  • Impaired brain activity — If you do not sleep well, you most likely will not have the energy to go about your day. Your thought processes will be slower, and your ability to work will likely suffer.
  • Cold and flu — Your immune defenses against both bacteria and viruses like influenza or a cold are weaker when you don’t sleep enough.
  • Weight gain — Getting a poor night’s sleep can actually increase your appetite, while your brain is slower to alert you when you are full. Not sleeping enough also affects whether or not you are motivated to exercise.
  • Depression and general moodiness — The long-term effects of not getting enough sleep also include anxiety and, in extreme cases, suicidal ideation.
  • Memory issues — Your short-term memory can be negatively affected by lack of sleep, and even your long-term memories could become more difficult to remember and process.
  • Accidental death — Not sleeping well can affect your attention and energy, which can increase the likelihood of accidental death of all causes because you’re also more accident prone.
  • Heart disease — Sleep deprivation has been associated with hypertension, heart disease or other chronic cardiovascular issues.
  • High blood pressure – For people with hypertension, even just one night of bad sleep can increase blood pressure for an entire day.

Things To Help You Sleep Through The Night: Lifestyle Changes

There are behavioral changes you should definitely try before pursuing pharmacological options. Things to try can include:

Creating a Sleep Schedule and Sticking to It

Getting up and going to bed at the same time creates consistency in your body’s sleep-wake cycle, which helps support a better night’s sleep. If you do not fall asleep within the first 15 minutes of laying down on a given night, however, you should consider getting up and engaging in a relaxing activity, like reading. This will stop you from stressing out over not being able to sleep, which in the end could be what keeps you awake for longer.

Being Conscious of the Foods You Eat and Beverages You Drink

Most people say you shouldn’t eat a large meal within 3 hours of going to sleep. Eating a large meal can make you feel uncomfortable, which inevitably will disturb your sleep. Food also gives you energy, which directly works against the pursuit of sleep. Not to mention, you’ll also likely have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

It is particularly important to avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the hours prior to sleeping. Both nicotine and caffeine act as stimulants and take a long time to wear off. Meanwhile, alcohol can end up disturbing your sleep later in the night. Do not be fooled by the idea of a nightcap — it doesn’t really work.

Devising a Sleeping Ritual and Adhering to It

Engaging in relaxing activities like taking a shower, listening to soothing music, or reading a book with the lights dimmed can help your body get primed for sleep. You should avoid watching TV or staring at your phone because the brightness will keep you alert. Your body will begin to recognize the transition from being fully awake to winding down.

Setting the Scene with Comfort in Mind

It should come as no surprise that the quality of your mattress and pillows along with personal tastes on firmness can also have a huge effect on your ability to sleep well. For those who share a bed, make sure the bed is actually big enough for the two of you and try to limit the amount of times you end up sharing with pets and children. If need be, you may have to sleep in your own room.

As far as environment is concerned, rooms that are cool, dark and quiet are normally the best suited for restful sleeping. You can create this environment by using a sleep mask, some earplugs and room-darkening shades if necessary.

Making Sure to Include Exercise in Your Daily Routine

Regular exercise promotes healthier bodies in general, but it can also do wonders for your ability to sleep. You can fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. Do not exercise too close to your scheduled bedtime, however, because it can boost energy levels and prevent you from falling asleep.

Avoiding Naps During the Day

If you are a daytime napper, unfortunately you are going to have to give the habit up if you want to sleep better at night. If you absolutely must nap during the day, try to keep it to no more than 30 minutes during midafternoon at the latest.

The exception to this lifestyle advice is if you work a night shift. In this case, you should invest in some darkening shades to ensure the sun does not interrupt your sleep or mess up your internal clock.

Keeping Your Stress to a Minimum

It’s natural for your sleep to suffer when you feel like you have too much to do and too many things to think about, but you have to find an effective way to manage stress. Take a break when you feel you need one, exercise a bit, and prioritize yourself so you don’t become so easily overwhelmed.

How Can I Have a Better Night’s Sleep? Improve Your Diet, For One

Although it is true you shouldn’t eat too close to when you plan on sleeping, there are actually certain foods you can eat during more appropriate hours of the day that provide ways to sleep better. These foods include:

  • Walnuts, which are a good source of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid responsible for producing both serotonin and melatonin, which support your sleep-wake cycles. Other foods that serve as a good source of tryptophan include hummus, shrimp, lobster and other crustaceans.
  • Almonds, which are a good source of magnesium. Magnesium levels can affect the quality of your sleep.
  • Cheese and crackers. Dairy products help support sleep because of the tryptophan. The crackers are really just to make it a mini-meal.
  • Lettuce, which has sedative properties in its lactucarium.
  • Pretzels, which have a high glycemic index that incites a spike in your blood sugar and insulin and helps lessen the amount of time needed to fall asleep. Rice has a similar effect.
  • Tuna, and other fish like salmon and halibut, are high in vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 helps promote the production of melatonin and serotonin.
  • Cherry juice, especially juices made with tart cherries, help support the production of melatonin and can curb insomnia.
  • Cereal with milk, due to the combination of carbohydrates and calcium.
  • Chamomile tea, which helps to reduce stress — a major factor in insomnia symptoms. This is due to the glycine content. Passion fruit tea is also effective for some people.
  • Kale and similar foods, like mustard greens and spinach, have lots of calcium, which helps support melatonin production using tryptophan.


About Sleep Medicine

Getting a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of living a healthy life. But that’s a problem for millions of Americans dealing with sleep deprivation. The UPMC Sleep Medicine Center diagnoses and treats numerous sleep conditions or disorders. We also provide help to people suffering from lack of sleep because of other health problems. We recognize a lack of sleep can cause problems during other times of the day, including alertness, memory, and health immunity. We hold sleep studies and lead clinical trials, all in the name of helping you sleep.