Do you spend hours tossing and turning in bed at night?
It may be because your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is out of whack. Made up of 20,000 nerve cells, your SCN controls the body’s circadian rhythm, also known as your internal body clock. The circadian rhythm helps maintain a proper sleep schedule by controlling when you feel relaxed and ready for bed.
If you’re one of 70 million Americans who have insomnia, sleep deprivation is bound to affect your quality of life.
But don’t worry, there are things you can do to improve your sleeping patterns. This article covers everything you need to know about restless sleep: why it happens, how it affects you, and how you can sleep better.
Why Is It Difficult To Fall Asleep?
Difficulty falling asleep can be due to several factors. Understanding which factor is obstructing your sleep can help you make the changes you need to enjoy a more restful slumber.
Here are some of the main reasons for restless sleep:
Anxiety can ruin your physical and mental health as well as contribute to tossing and turning at night.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 31.1% of American adults will struggle with an anxiety-related disorder at some point in their lives.
Anxiety and sleep are often interconnected. Many individuals follow a vicious cycle of insufficient sleep due to anxiety, which further fuels their anxiety, making the situation worse.
There are different types of anxiety disorders that can hinder restful sleep:
- Many people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) experience difficulty falling asleep as they find themselves ruminating over their problems at night. In addition, they may also be restless while asleep, or have stressful dreams or nightmares.
- Those with panic disorders may be prone to nightmares and panic attacks at night that could severely disrupt their sleep.
- People with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might spend hours at night thinking about issues, thereby finding it difficult to fall asleep.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can lead to hypervigilance and debilitating anxiety where sufferers may feel constantly on edge and unable to relax. In such situations, their fight or flight response may be triggered at the tiniest sound or movement, and they can remain constantly hyper-aware of their surroundings.
Stress is known as the silent killer — and for good reason. There’s no escaping stress. An inability to manage it can lead to restless sleep and an inability to fall asleep.
Stress triggers a response in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) where hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. This causes an increased heart rate and can make it impossible to fall asleep. In fact, 43% of individuals aged 13 to 64 reportedly suffer from issues that include insomnia due to stress.
Stress and sleep are thus linked. It can cause individuals to remain awake into the wee hours of the morning as they think and worry about their problems.
Caffeine, a psychoactive drug, is a major central nervous system stimulant that increases heart rate and blood pressure. Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors and increases dopamine, noradrenaline, and glutamate in the cardiovascular system. This increases anxiety and causes a fight or flight response that can keep you up at night.
Caffeine-induced anxiety disorders can thus ruin your sleep schedule, and be detrimental to your health and wellness.
Overstimulation From Noise and Digital Screens
Melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, naturally increases in the dark and decreases in the light. This is the body’s way of knowing that it’s time to sleep when the sun sets.
However, with the progress and breakthroughs in technology, light is available at our fingertips with a click of a button. From phone screens to LED bulbs, our natural circadian rhythm is affected by this constant exposure to brightness which leads to insomnia.
This is especially true for those who use their phones or tablets at night. The blue light from digital screens disrupts natural melatonin production and the body’s sleep schedule, causing them to toss and turn in bed for hours.
Noise can also affect your sleep as it impacts heart rate and blood pressure. Even if you’re accustomed to ignoring certain noises, your body will react to them, making it difficult to fall asleep even if you’re tired.
Your environment and level of comfort affect your ability to relax and rest. Some factors that can make you uncomfortable and prevent restful sleep are:
- Your body temperature
- The temperature in your room and humidity
- The quality of your bed sheets, pillows, and mattress and the support your pillows and mattress provide
- Illnesses and health conditions like allergies, sinusitis, congestion
The symptoms of acid reflux can make it hard to get proper restful sleep. A person with acid reflux can experience heartburn, a burning sensation that results from stomach acid traveling upwards towards a person’s throat. Though it has a higher chance of happening after consuming a heavy meal, it can also happen while a person is trying to sleep or is already asleep.
The discomfort from acid reflux may be so severe that the sufferer can be roused from slumber choking, coughing, or feeling acute chest pain.
Edema is a health condition characterized by swelling in the body caused by too much fluids being trapped within the tissues. While any part of the body can become inflamed, the swelling usually happens in a person’s limbs (ankles, legs, feet, arms, and hands).
In many cases, edema gets worse towards the end of the day but the swelling subsides at night. Sometimes, however, the inflammation does not go away before bedtime and the discomfort and pain from it persists.
Interestingly, sleep apnea can also give rise to edema since the former can interfere with breathing and lead to less oxygen in the blood. These two factors are known for triggering inflammation.
Types of Sleep Disorders
There are sleep disorders that can impair your ability to fall asleep or prevent you from feeling rested the next day.
While occasional lack of sleep can be an issue, you could be suffering from a sleep disorder if:
- You find it difficult to fall asleep often.
- You are tired during the day despite sleeping for seven hours or more the previous night.
- Your cognitive functions are impaired when you try to perform regular daytime activities.
Over 100 million Americans are unable to get an adequate amount of sleep due to sleep disorders. There are around 80 different sleep disorders but the most common ones are:
Around 15% to 30% of males and 10% to 30% of females suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is a potentially serious condition where an individual’s breathing stops and starts suddenly and repeatedly.
Between 10% and 30% of adults and 30% to 48% of older adults struggle with chronic insomnia.
Insomnia causes difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or going back to sleep after waking up too early.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Five to 10% of adults and 2% to 4% of children suffer from restless leg syndrome (RLS), a condition that causes individuals to have an uncontrollable urge to move their legs. This is usually due to an unpleasant sensation that is temporarily eased by the movement. It typically occurs in the evening or at night when people lie down to sleep.
Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder that affects around 135,000 to 200,000 individuals across the US.
It is characterized by sudden bouts of sleep, and overwhelming drowsiness during the day. Narcoleptic individuals find it difficult to stay awake for long periods, which can hinder regular functioning.
It may also cause sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and changes in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Each of these disorders can lead to sleep deprivation, which can have dire effects on the physical, mental, and emotional health of an individual.
Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation
A consistent lack of restful sleep will eventually take its toll. Here are some of the most common side effects of sleep deprivation:
- Mood swings
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Reduced libido
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Weight gain/obesity
- Compromised immune system and respiratory disorders
- Hormonal imbalances
- Reduced memory and learning capabilities
- Lower fertility
- Diabetes or insulin resistance
- Depression and anxiety
How To Improve Your Sleep
Getting your circadian rhythm in order and addressing the main causes of sleep deprivation are essential for restful sleep.
When looking to improve sleep, it’s important to examine your sleep hygiene. In a nutshell, sleep hygiene refers to habits that help promote healthy and restful sleep. This includes your activities during the day, the conditions of your sleeping area, and even your diet.
Some ways to improve your natural body clock and sleep hygiene include:
- Increase exposure to bright lights during the day
- Decrease exposure to blue light and digital screens in the evening before bed
- Use dim lights at night and create a comfortable, cozy environment to make your body relax
- Meditate for five to ten minutes during the day to improve your mental health
- Address any mental health issues you may be facing through therapy
- Reduce unnecessary stress
- Lower your caffeine intake
- Avoid napping during the day
- Try to have a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking up
- Avoid alcohol
- Maintain a comfortable temperature in your room
- Take a relaxing and soothing bath after a long day before bedtime
- Do yoga or stretches to relax and calm the body
- Ensure that your mattress and pillows are comfortable
- Exercise during the day
- Avoid drinking liquids before bed and have an early dinner
- Minimize sugar and caffeine, consume more food that promotes better sleep (examples: almonds, milk, walnuts)
- Rule out sleep disorders or treat them accordingly
- Consult a doctor
Be Patient on Your Journey To Restful Sleep
Tossing and turning at night, waking up constantly, and having poor sleep quality can be frustrating.
However, the first step to addressing your sleeping problem is examining your habits, sleeping experience, and bedroom for any factors that may be contributing to your insomnia. Is your bedroom too warm or cold? Are your pillows and mattress providing the right amount of support? Do you find yourself worrying about the next day? Are you manifesting any of the symptoms from the sleeping disorders we mentioned?
Once you know what might be standing in the way of restful sleep, you can identify the steps you need to take to address it. This may be as simple as getting new pillows or may entail talking to a therapist or healthcare practitioner.
Whatever the solution, be patient with yourself and don’t be discouraged if your first attempt to resolve your insomnia is unsuccessful. Sometimes it takes time and a combination of different things before you see progress.
While the journey to good sleep may not be as straightforward as you’d like, the benefits of eventually achieving good rest are all worth it.