Health issues related to sleeping are some of the most common complaints among people in the U.S. Over 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, and, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 30% of all U.S. adults report experiencing sleep disruption at some point during a given year. Sleep issues cost employers an estimated $18 billion each year.
Learning What Helps to Sleep Through the Night
Many things in life can cause poor sleep, such as career pressures, family responsibility, relationship stresses, and more. Not being able to sleep well can make you irritable and increase your risk of anxiety and depression.
Certain medical conditions can result in sleeplessness, including:
- Nasal or sinus allergies
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Chronic pain and lower back pain
- Hyperthyroidism or other endocrine issues
- Parkinson’s disease and other neurological issues
We cannot always control the issues that affect our ability to sleep. Still, there are behavioral changes and natural interventions to help you get a restful night’s sleep. Your diet, exercise habits, and bedtime routine can impact your ability to sleep.
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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 called our “internal clock.” Your circadian rhythm can be interrupted by jet lag or working a night shift. 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 National Sleep Foundation survey found that at least 50% of adults complained of at least one insomnia symptom a couple of times each week. One-third of survey respondents reported having one of the symptoms every night or most nights throughout the year.
Snoring occurs when the air you inhale passes over the tissues of the throat, which are relaxed during periods of sleep. Many people snore, and while the sound may be annoying for yourself and those around you, it’s typically harmless. Snoring can be a sign of a more serious sleep disorder, known as 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. Waking up throughout the night can cause daytime exhaustion and discomfort. Without treatment, 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. People with this condition move 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 that cause you to wake up.
Night Terrors or Sleepwalking
Night terrors and sleepwalking generally occur among children between the ages of 3 and 5. The experience is typically more frightening for the parents than for the children, and they usually don’t find themselves in any danger. In more extreme cases, they may leave the house or engage in another dangerous activity while asleep.
Pregnancy-Related Sleep Issues
During the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, women often experience bad nights of sleep and daytime fatigue. In the first trimester, increased bathroom trips and morning sickness can interrupt sleep. 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 is a hallmark sign of a poor night’s sleep.
- Impaired brain activity. If you don’t 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 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 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. 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 increases your risk of 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 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 every day creates consistency in your body’s sleep-wake cycle, which helps support a better night’s sleep.
If you don’t 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 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 before going to bed. 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. Don’t be fooled by the idea of a nightcap — it doesn’t 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 can also have an effect on your ability to sleep well. For those who share a bed, make sure the bed is big enough for the two of you. If possible, try to limit the number of times you end up sharing your bed with pets and children.
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. However, don’t exercise too close to your scheduled bedtime because it can boost energy levels and prevent you from falling asleep.
Avoiding Naps During the Day
Daytime naps can impact your ability to sleep well and make it harder to fall asleep. 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 interrupt 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 need one, exercise a bit, and prioritize yourself, so you don’t become so easily overwhelmed.
Improve Your Diet for a Better Night’s Sleep
Although it is true you shouldn’t eat too close to when you plan on sleeping, there are certain foods you can eat during more appropriate hours of the day that promote a good night’s sleep. These foods include:
- Walnuts, which are a good source of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid responsible for producing 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.
- 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. Passion fruit tea is also effective for some people.
- Kale and similar foods, like mustard greens and spinach, have lots of calcium. This nutrient helps support melatonin production using tryptophan.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About Sleep Medicine
Millions of Americans struggle with disorders that prevent them from getting a good night’s sleep. Better sleep can lead to better overall health, and the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center is here to help. We diagnose and treat 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. Find a provider near you.