There could be many reasons why it's difficult to fall asleep at night. Assess your sleep environment and habits to see if any changes might help you sleep better or longer.

There could be many reasons why it’s difficult to fall asleep at night. Assess your sleep environment and habits to see if any changes might help you sleep better or longer.

Daylight savings has officially arrived, which means most of us are struggling with getting up in complete darkness and going to bed an hour earlier. But for many, sleep never comes easy, no matter the time of the year. For those who constantly find themselves staring at the clock in the wee hours of the night, or even worse, counting sheep, a few extra cups of coffee throughout the morning might be necessary.

“We know that how much you sleep and the quality of your sleep can have a tremendous impact on your overall health,” said David J. Earnest, Ph.D., professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, who studies circadian rhythms – the human body’s master clock that tells us when to sleep and maintains important physiological processes.

There are many reasons why you might be having restless nights, but we sat down with Earnest to find out what the most common causes are and how you can address them.

Assess your sleep environment

“If you’re finding it difficult to fall asleep, make sure that your bedroom is a conducive environment,” Earnest suggested. Your bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet. While it may not be easy, avoid placing a television or computer in your room, as the light and sound close to bedtime could make it difficult to fall asleep.  If possible, keep your cell phone in another room throughout the night.

If you live on a brightly lit street, consider investing in heavy blinds or curtains that can block the light at night. For noisy areas, white noise machines or fans can help drown out any external sound that might keep you from falling asleep or having a restful sleep.

Establish a bedtime routine

Your bedtime habits might be to blame for restless nights. If part of your wind-down after work or dinner is sitting down with a cup of coffee, or hitting the gym, you might be doing your body a disservice. Avoid consuming caffeine six to eight hours before you plan to sleep and try not to exercise at least three hours before bedtime, as they can delay sleep onset. Meals, especially with foods high in saturated fats or sugar, should be eaten at least a few hours before you plan to sleep. In addition to avoiding caffeine, exercise and late night meals, do not watch television or use your computer, tablet or phone for an hour before bed.

Try to establish a relaxing bedtime routine like reading or taking a bath to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. Keeping a regular sleep and wake schedule – even during the weekends – is important for regulating your body’s circadian rhythms.

Cut out unnecessary naps

Who doesn’t like the occasional catnap? However, if your naps last longer than an hour, they could be cutting into your sleep time. “Your internal clock regulates many of your body’s functions, including when and how much you sleep. Frequent or long naps can disrupt your internal rhythms and make it difficult to get a full and restful night’s sleep,” Earnest cautioned.

Take time to relax

“One cause of insomnia is anxiety; when the brain centers that control anxiety become over-active, people can find it difficult to fall asleep,” Earnest explained. Depression can also cause irregular sleep patterns, such as insomnia, early awakening or excessive sleep.

Sleep disorders are closely related to anxiety and depression; anxiety and depression can either be a contributing factor or result of sleep disorders. After a particularly stressful day, try to find ways to relax and calm yourself before you go to sleep. If your anxiety or depression is chronic or interfering with your daily life, talk to your physician or consider speaking to a therapist to help you manage your condition.

“We’re starting to recognize is that sleep deprivation and disorders are more prevalent than any other health disorder that affects Americans,” Earnest said. If you feel like there’s a deeper cause to your sleep woes, you may be like one in 10 Americans who suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders, including:

  • Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD) – This disorder is characterized by a tendency to go to bed later (around two or four in the morning) and to sleep until the early afternoon. This kind of disorder can interfere with a normal work or school schedule.
  • Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD) – In contrast with DSPD, ASPD is the tendency to go to bed earlier (six or eight in the afternoon) and to wake earlier than most people (around three or five in the morning). While this kind of disorder doesn’t typically interfere with a normal work or school schedule, it can pose a challenge for social activities or events that occur later in the evening.
  • Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome – This disorder is characterized by a circadian rhythm that is 25 hours or longer, which leads to sleep and wake times becoming gradually later.
  • Jet Lag – Jet lag is one of the most common, and usually non-chronic sleep disorders that occurs when your internal clock is out of synch with a new time zone. After traveling to a new time zone, people may find it difficult to fall and stay asleep during the appropriate times.
  • Shift Work – A significant portion of the workforce are shift workers. With constantly changing shifts, it can be difficult for workers to adjust to their new sleep schedules. Shift work has been associated with a higher risk of developing metabolic or cardiovascular diseases.
  • Sleep Apnea – Sleep apnea occurs when breathing temporarily stops due to a blockage of the upper airways during sleep. Most people with sleep apnea are unaware that they have it, but experience daytime sleepiness, irritability, depression and fatigue the next day, because their sleep lacks quality.
  • Narcolepsy – This disorder is characterized by extreme sleepiness during the day, usually resulting in suddenly falling asleep. It’s caused by a dysfunction in the brain mechanism that controls sleeping and waking.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) – RLS symptoms include itching, tingling or burning in the lower legs, making it difficult to become comfortable and fall asleep.

If you think you might have an underlying sleep disorder, discuss your symptoms with your primary care physician or a sleep specialist.

“When we’re pressed for time or have other obligations, sleep is usually the first thing we compromise,” Earnest said. When possible, try not to sacrifice your sleep and overall health.

Maintaining a normal bedtime and getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night can help boost your immune system, improve your mood and increase your productivity during the day. Your family – and co-workers – will appreciate a more rested (less sleep-deprived) you.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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