Last Updated: May 24, 2018.
The way you sleep is directly responsible for how you feel when you are awake. The amount of undisturbed sleep you get affects your mental health, physical health, emotional health and the function your brain. To say that sleep is important is an understatement!
Five Common Factors Contributing To Sleep Problems
Your diet has a profound impact on your sleep patterns. Certain food and drink and chemical compounds found in food and drink can be responsible for keeping you up at night.
Over the past few decades the average American’s diet has changed drastically. American’s consume roughly 3,600 calories daily which is almost 800 calories more than the national average in 1961 (7). Our food has become saturated with vegetable oil, alcohol, artificial sweeteners and sugar which have all had an adverse affect on the health of the average American.
A study involving nearly 5000 participants found a clear association between a poor diet high in calories and participants who slept for very short periods of time every night (8).
So how and why does your diet affect your sleep? Or more specifically, how does a bad diet negatively impact your sleep?
The most well known food based sleep robbing culprit is caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and is widely consumed for it’s ability to keep people awake and alert. Consuming caffeine rich food and drink such as chocolate, coffee and sodas late in the afternoon can keep you from falling asleep at night.
Acidic and spicy foods have also been found to inhibit healthy sleep as it can trigger heartburn (9). Foods high in protien and fats are also not recommended close to bedtime as they can be difficult for the body to break down and digest which can cause you to lose sleep (10).
If you are having trouble sleeping through the night you may have an underlying medical condition (often times undiagnosed).
Those suffering from mental health issues often struggle with sleep. Generalised anxiety disorder can cause feelings of worry that make it difficult to relax and rest. People with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia experience manic episodes of which not being able to sleep is a common symptom. Up to 90 percent of people struggling with severe depression will battle with insomnia as a result (11).
Physical medical conditions also interrupt sleep. Diabetes can cause night sweats and frequent urination which is disruptive to sleep. Cardiovascular disease can cause chest pains and an irregular heartbeat during sleep. Congestive heart failure inhibits the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body which results in fluid buildup around the lungs when in a laying down position, this causes disrupted sleep (12).
A kidney disease prevents the kidneys from properly filtering and expelling waste present in our blood which may cause restless leg syndrome which can disturb sleep. People suffering from asthma may also experience sleep disturbances as airway constriction and other symptoms tend to worsen at night.
Neurological disorders are also to blame for a poor sleep cycle. Epilepsy, brain tumors, dementia, parkinson’s disease and severe headaches are all examples of neurological issues that have symptoms not conducive to getting enough sleep.
The environment in which you sleep every night is perhaps the most important factor in getting a good night’s sleep. If your sleep environment is too loud, bright, constantly being disturbed and of an uncomfortable temperature, you are almost certain to suffer from sleep loss.
Travelling often and continuously sleeping in a new and unfamiliar environment has a similar effect on sleep patterns. Many mammals have perfected the art of staying partly vigilant of their environment whilst also gaining a successful stretch of sleep but humans are not one of them.
There is a scientifically recognised phenomenon called the “first-night effect” where upon sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, your brain does not enter as deep a sleep as it usually do in a familiar environment (13). This is a form of defense against unknown dangers and during the “first-night effect” you are more likely to awaken due to changes in the new environment (sounds etc).
We certainly are living in the electronic age. We are constantly plugged in to Facebook, twitter, Instagram and more. We are permanently accessible to others and others are permanently accessible to us. Scrolling through social media on your smartphone may even be a pre bedtime ritual but all that screen time is having a troubling effect on your sleep cycle.
Electronic devices like smartphones, Tvs and laptops not only keep up from falling asleep as we should but are also a source of continuous sleep disturbances. Research has shown that using any electronic device before going to sleep as a negative impact on the amount and quality of sleep that will be had that night.
Our smartphones and tablets all have light up screens. When the photoreceptors in our eyes are exposed to light it sends signals to our brains telling it that light equals day time. If your brain thinks it is day time you are likely to have issues falling asleep (14).
The light emitted from screens also inhibit the production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is in control of your circadian rhythm, also knows as your sleep and wake cycle. Lower levels of melatonin in your body makes it much more difficult to fall asleep at night (15).
Electronic devices stimulates your brain. When your brain is stimulated, your neurons begin firing more rapidly and the electrical activity within your brain begins to increase resulting in feeling more awake. Playing an interactive game or speaking to someone about something important to you can stimulate various hormones and increase your rate of breathing and heart beat (16).
Having an electronic device next to our bed or in your room as you sleep allows for the potential of multiple alerts and sleep interruptions. Any text message, email or call could wake you up.
Many different medications (prescribed medications for chronic conditions to over the counter) come with various side effects one of which is often insomnia. In fact some medications actually contain caffeine, the central nervous system stimulator.
While it is important to remember that not all medication affects everyone the same way, most of these can either make your drowsy during the day time or can leave you feeling restless at night.
Beta-blockers are drugs usually prescribed for heart disease related issues. They can be taken to treat arrhythmias, elevated blood pressure, angina and abnormal heart rhythm. Beta-blockers have been observed to increase the chances of having nightmares, insomnia and restless sleep (17).
If you are taking medication for ADHD you may find it difficult to sleep as these medicines act as a stimulant, keeping the brain alert. Many asthma related medications contain chemicals related to caffeine. Anti smoking medication can also cause sleep issues as they contain traces of nicotine which are released into the blood at all hours (nicotine acts as stimulant much like caffeine).
Alpha-blockers are medications that keep smaller blood vessels open and relax muscle walls, usually prescribed to treat a myriad of conditions including Raynaud’s disease, hypertension and benign prostatic hyperplasia. Alpha-blockers have been directly linked to a decrease in REM sleep (known as rapid eye movement sleep, this a stage of deep sleep in which dreaming usually takes place) (18).
Corticosteroids are a group of medications used to lower inflammation levels in the body. Corticosteroids keep you up at night because they stimulate the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands work to ready the body for hyperarousal (also know as the fight-or-flight response) in which our brains and bodies perceive a threat and decide on which action to take.
Statins are prescribed to those suffering from high levels of cholesterol. A side effect of statins is pains in the muscles which cause discomfort and keep you awake at night.
The above examples are only some of the medications that can cause insomnia, nightmares and restless sleep. It is important to speak thoroughly with a doctor about the side effects your medication can have on your sleep cycle.
Ten Steps To Improving Your Sleep Cycle
Now that you know a bit more about the factors and disorders that hinder your sleep, what can you do to most effectively eliminate these causes and get your sleep cycle back on track?
Many people immediately turn to medication to get more sleep, but there are other options (less expensive and no medically induced side effects) that can be considered and tried first.
Get To Know Your Sleep Habits
Sleep habits are also called “sleep hygiene”. Your sleep habits or sleep hygiene encapsulates everything from the time you go to sleep, how many times you wake up during the night and when you get up and more (19).
While your sleep habits are learned during childhood, your daily routines as an adult have a huge impact on them. How much coffee do you drink? Do you work out? Do you nap often? Do you use electronics before bed? All these actions are factors in your sleep hygiene.
Before you can begin to change unhealthy sleep habits you need to understand and track them, this way you can identify your problems and work on eliminating them. With today’s technology (various applications for your smartphone etc) we can not only keep count of how often we wake during the night but certain apps are even able to track how long we spend in various stages of sleep.
Get Some Exercise
Exercise is well known to be good for your overall health. Benefits of exercise include benefits such as losing or maintaining weight, improved cardiovascular health, the release of endorphins. decreasing your body’s susceptibility to chronic diseases, and of course, better sleep. Your mood, quality of sleep and vitality can all be improved through regular exercise.
So why does exercise help you sleep? One theory is that it is because exercise alters the body’s temperature. When you workout your temperature rises and when your workout is over it begins to drop. This post-exercise temperature drop encourages the body and mind to fall asleep (20). Exercise is also effective in promoting sleep as it reduces feelings of stress and anxiety and physically tires you out (21).
While exercise at any time is good, studies have shown that exercising in the afternoon is better for achieving a good night’s sleep than exercising in the morning (23).
Studies also suggest that not only does regular exercise promote better sleep, but healthier sleep improves your exercise (24). Sleep boosts your mental health and your mood which makes you more confident and helps with motivation to exercise. Studies have found that university athletes all performed better when their sleep cycles improved.
Whilst exercise is a great non medical alternative to a better night’s sleep, it does not happen in one day. Research shows that exercise is most effective at increasing better sleep after consistent exercise over a few weeks (25).
Purge Your Room Of And Turn Off Your Devices
Up to 90 percent of adults in America ranging from ages 18 to 29 go to sleep every night with their smartphones next to them. As previously mentioned, one of the reasons that electronic devices are so disruptive to your sleep is because of the light emitted from the screens. When you are exposed to light your brain is being signalled that the day has begun and goes about reducing sleep inducing hormones and begins to release ones that help you rev up for the day (26).
Leave and charge your smartphone outside of your bedroom. If your smartphone the vibration and or lighting up of the screen can still rouse you from sleep. Removing your TV from your bedroom can also vastly improve your sleep. When you feel restless it is tempting to turn on the TV instead of taking the time to try to fall back asleep.
Banning electronic devices from the bedroom also afford you time to reflect on your day and meditate which is also known to improve sleep.
Studies have also shown that there has been a rise in the incidents of “sleep texting”, a phenomenon born born out of our seeming reliance on modern technology. Sleep texting is much like sleep walking or talking and could result in some awkward, confusion or embarrassing situations (27).
Change Your Diet
The food and drinks you consume are what fuels your body and dictates how you feel and perform throughout the day as well as how you sleep at night. Foods high in sugar and saturated fats, drinks with caffeine and alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle.
While dietary influences on sleep can be very person specific (28), there certain foods that negatively impact sleep in the majority and certain foods that positively impact sleep in the majority.
A few foods that may help you fall and stay asleep are;
- Jasmine rice; people who say don’t eat carbohydrates before bed are probably more concerned with their waistline than their sleep! Jasmine rice sits very high up on the glycemic index, meaning that it is very slowly digested by the body and will not result in a blood sugar spike.
- Cherries; melatonin is a chemical which controls your body’s sleep patterns and it is naturally occurring in cherries.
- Walnuts; tryptophan is an amino acid found in walnuts that helps the body produce melatonin and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that maintains mood balance).
- Bananas; this fruit is rich in potassium and magnesium, both of which act as muscle relaxants which is good for physically relaxing and falling asleep.
- Lettuce; lettuce contains lactucarium, a natural sedative that helps you stay asleep.
- Tuna; tuna is high in vitamin B6, another aid in your body’s production of melatonin and serotonin.
- Fortified cereals; the carbohydrates and calcium present in fortified cereals are what makes it a good choice for a pre bedtime meal (29).
Other ways in which you can change your diet to increase the amount and quality of sleep you get is to make sure that you do not swing back and forth from eating a very low calorie diet to eating a very high calorie diet and so on (30). When you go to such extremes with your caloric intake you can become deficient in many important nutrients and minerals that aid healthy sleep.
Also be sure to eat small meals often, this continuous healthy eating maintains the correct balance of neurotransmitters and hormones, perfect for a healthy sleep cycle, in the brain and body.
Avoid Napping During The Day
When you are constantly tired from tossing and turning all night, an afternoon nap can sound quite appealing but often times naps can do more harm than good. Whilst you may feel temporarily refreshed, naps can actually cause insomnia.
It is fairly normal to begin to feel sluggish and tired in the afternoon when you circadian rhythm (a 24 hour cycle influenced by temperature and sunlight that regulates your sleep cycle) begins to lull, but sleeping for prolonged periods of time in the late afternoon (closer to the usual time you go to sleep) can disrupt your usual sleep cycle. It is recommended to not nap after 3pm latest (31) so as to avoid sleep deprivation at night.
If you absolutely feel that you cannot make it through the day without a nap, take naps that are between 10-15 minutes only (32).
Establish And Follow A Routine
Following a sleep routine, although important, does not happen quickly. Some people may find it difficult in the beginning but you can actually train yourself to have a better night’s sleep.
One way to get out of your erratic sleep cycle is to just be consistent. Choose a time to go to bed and make sure that you are in bed, powered down with the lights off at that time every night. Weekends can be more tricky as social lives inevitably interfere but try to be more or less consistent.
Another key part of keeping a sleep routine is waking up at the same time every morning. It is estimated that nearly 60 percent of American adults reach for the snooze button at least once every morning. As tempting as this might be, try your hardest to resist! (33).
An important part of your routine should be powering down all of your electronic devices about 90 minutes before turning off your lights to go to sleep. This will clear your mind from distractions.
Keep A Quiet, Cool And Dark Sleeping Environment
We have already explored how light can disrupt healthy sleeping patterns and keep you awake or rouse you from sleep, but just like light, so can the temperature of the room you are trying to sleep in as well as the sounds in and around the room you are trying to sleep in.
The ideal temperature to fall asleep in is about 60 to 67 degrees fahrenheit. When begin to fall asleep your body temperature drops slightly. When the temperature begins to climb again you will become more uncomfortable and eventually wake up (34).
Sleeping comfortably during the Summer nights can be difficult as you need to keep the room, bed and your body cool. Various ways to keep your bed and body cool during a warm night include;
- Filling a hot water bottle with ice water
- Apply ice packs to pressure points in your body like ankles, wrists, the back of the knees, your neck and groin
- Rinsing off in a cold shower before bed time
- If it is extraordinarily hot, sleeping on the floor may be much cooler
- It may sound silly but dunking feet into iced water whenever you are feeling too hot
- Sleeping on cotton sheets in place of silk sheets (35)
To keep your room quiet some people benefit greatly from utilising white noise machines or ear plugs. Apart from banning electronics from the bedroom, another way to keep your sleeping space comfortably dark is by using a sleeping mask or blackout curtains.
Explore Different Sleep Positions
Depending on what sleep disorder you may suffer from, there is most probably a sleep position that could help ease the accompanying symptoms.
Over 60 percent of American adults fall asleep on their sides while about 15 percent sleep on their stomachs and about 15 percent on their backs. The position you fall asleep in can actually affect the amount and quality of sleep you may get each night.
Sleeping on your back (particularly without a pillow) is a good position not only for undisturbed sleep but also for your cosmetic and internal health (36). Although, if you happen to suffer from sleep apnea or excessive snoring it is best to avoid sleeping on your back.
Sleeping on your side is especially encouraged for a restful night during pregnancy as this position may ease acid reflux and heartburn. Sleeping on your stomach is most healthy for those suffering from sleep apnea as it relieves many of the symptoms (37).
Limit Your Liquid Intake Closer To Bedtime
Water and green tea are both very good for you so while you may tend to drink more in the name of health, be sure not to drink too much before bedtime.
Some teas may be higher in caffeine than you may think which will contribute to keeping you up and alcohol inhibits sleep as the actions your body takes to metabolize the alcohol can mess with your stage of REM sleep (38).
Drinking a lot of water before bed is also not recommended as it increases the amount of times you will need to go to the bathroom to alleviate your bladder throughout the night (39).
Try Not To Worry Too Much About Falling Asleep
This may be one of the most difficult factors to control when trying to better your sleep cycle. When you are worried about your insomnia, maybe thinking about how tired you will be the next day or how many hours of sleep you can get if you fall asleep right now.
Feeling stressed about your sleep is actually one of the factors keeping you awake! Studies have directly linked worried thought about a lack of sleep to a physical inability to fall asleep (40).
So how can you break out of this sleep debilitating cycle? Some of the most effective ways to relieve yourself from anxious thoughts surrounding sleep is to keep a sleep journal, get prescribed medical aids and sleep therapy (41).
Five Suggested Products To Improve Your Sleep
While there are many natural ways to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep, like the ones listed above, there are also thousands upon thousands of sleep aids available to you. Below we are going to talk about five sleep aids we have selected and what they can do for you.
White Noise Machine
If, like so many other Americans, you struggle to fall asleep because the distraction from environmental noise you may benefit greatly from a white noise machine. White noise works more as a kind of anti-noise, blocking out sounds of traffic or perhaps sounds of people speaking or watching TV in the next room.
White noise machines can simulate sounds ranging from rain, storms, jungle environments and static electricity. So whilst the sounds emitted from the white noise machine will not enhance your sleep, it may help you fall asleep.
Memory Foam Pillows With Built In Cooling Gel
Memory foam was actually first engineered for the seats of NASA airplane seats. Memory foam is soft and absorbent and responds to the pressure and heat that comes from your body which makes these mattresses and pillows extremely comfortable. When you add in cooling gel infused within the foam, you get a pillow with a cooler, comfy cushion for your head.
A gel-infused memory foam pillow can maximize the circulation of air into and out of the pillow. The cooling temperature makes it easy to stay asleep as high temperatures tend to be uncomfortable.
Studies have proven that memory foam pillows can indeed improve the quality of sleep.
One of the pricier sleep aids available on today’s market, the Muse headband boasts some impressive abilities.
This electronic headband product actively monitors the meditation activity happening in your brain in real time. It can tell if your mind wanders from meditation and help to bring your focus back. You can also program your Muse headband to keep track of your sleep and meditation milestone which offers rewards for more regular sleep practice.
By monitoring your brain signals, the Muse headband can help guide you towards a stable night’s sleep.
Blackout curtains are essentially a more comfortable alternative to wearing a sleeping eye mask. Blackout curtains actually date back to WWII in which they were used by British citizens to conceal lights in houses and buildings from Nazi warplanes in order to protect themselves from bombings.
Blackout curtains eliminate all external light from your sleeping environment while simultaneously keeping the room cool during the summer. Some blackout curtains can even aid in blocking out noise. This may be especially useful if you get the biggest portion of your sleep during the day.
During winter blackout curtains also keep heat inside the room, making your sleep environment more comfortable and saving energy by minimizing the need for turning on the heater.
The Sleep Tracker is a device with an app and sensor that allows you to sleep smarter and more consistently. It collects data of your sleep patterns including when you go to sleep, when you wake up, and how well you sleep throughout the night. It comes with a blanket that allows for smart temperature control settings so you won’t wake up from feeling too cold or hot during the night.
The app combined with integration features allow for a smart home and smart sleep lifestyle. You can manage bed warming right before sleep and control which side you warm your bed (in case your partner doesn’t want their bed heated). In addition, you can control light settings and use smart alarms to better improve your sleep cycle.
Why Is Sleep So important?
To understand why sleep is so important, we need to understand how sleep works.
The Four Different Stages Of Sleep
- NREM stage 1; during the first stage of sleep you shut your eyes and make the conscious decision to go to sleep. During this stage your heartbeat regulates and your breathing becomes slower. The first stage of sleep lasts up to 10 minutes and is incredibly light. You can easily be fully woken and be coherent during this time.
- NREM stage 2; during the second stage of sleep your muscle and brain activity begins to slow down and various other metabolic processes begin to slow down. While this stage is considered the beginning of actual sleep, you can still be woken very quickly. We spend most of our night’s sleep in this stage.
- NREM stage 3; during the third stage of sleep, also known as “slow wave sleep” or “delta sleep”, our brain waves becomes slowed and large. This stage usually occurs after about 45 minutes. It is harder to wake up during this stage of sleep and if you do you might feel confused or disoriented for a moment.
- REM sleep; the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep is the deepest and it is during this stage that you have your most vivid dreams. Your breathing and heart rate may speed up and become irregular during this stage.
Some Disadvantages Of An Unhealthy Sleep Cycle
- Your productivity takes a hit; people who get less sleep are more likely to be less productive during the day, this could result in being less attentive during meetings or lectures and missing important information. Sleep is also vital to the process of retaining new information.
- Your health and safety is put at risk; when you are sleep deprived your reaction times are impaired which could make tasks like driving or operating heavy machinery dangerous to yourself and those around you.
- Your physical health is negatively impacted; a lack of healthy sleep has been directly linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and strokes. When you are sleep deprived you are also more likely to suffer from obesity as sleep manages the delicate balance of hormones responsible for our feelings of hunger.
- Being low on sleep increases the chances of developing diabetes; about 10 percent of adults in America are diabetic. Sleep directly affects how our bodies react to insulin and those who do not get enough sleep are more likely to have higher levels of sugar in the blood.
- A lack of sleep has a major effect on your mood; insufficient sleep has been identified as a cause of depression, risk-taking behaviour and depression. Teenagers require more sleep than adults as their brains are still developing. A lack of sleep effects teenager’s moods more aggressively. Sleep deprived teenagers tend to be unmotivated, impulsive, depressed, stressed and experience more mood swings (1).
Some Advantages Of A Healthy Sleep Cycle
- It increases your lifespan; your body actually repairs and heals itself while you are sleeping and increased sleep is linked to decreased health issues. A study carried out on a group of women over the age of 50 found that more deaths occurred in the participants who got 5 or less than 5 hours of sleep a night.
- More sleep equals less pain; a lack of sleep can result in a lowered pain threshold. More sleep also lowers levels of inflammation within the body. Inflammation can cause serious damage to healthy tissue and organs and losing sleep can awaken the cellular pathway responsible for inflammation.
- Getting enough sleep strengthens your immune system; a study investigating the link between sleep and immunity monitored the sleep of 150 participants for 2 weeks, after which they were exposed to a common cold virus. Results showed that participants who slept for 7 or less than 7 hours a night were 3 times more likely to get sick than participants who were getting 8 or more than 8 hours of sleep.
- More sleep results in a better memory; every night your brain consolidates memories you have created that day as well as processing general information from the day. A lack of sleep may result in memory loss as well as the creation of false memories. Multiple studies have all confirmed that sleep is absolutely vital to the retaining of memories.
- Better sleep results in a better sex life; sleep restores healthy testosterone levels in men, a hormone which has a direct affect on both men and women’s’ libidos. Not getting enough sleep can also result in erectile dysfunction (2).
Sleep Statistics In The United States
It is predicted that up to 40 percent of American adults do not get enough sleep (with 30 percent getting less than 6 hours of sleep every night). Interestingly the amount of adults getting the recommended amount of sleep has dropped from over 80 percent to under 60 percent in the last 70 years (3), this can likely be attributed to changes in the modern diet and the introduction of new technology like smart phones.
With nearly 9 million Americans taking prescribed sleep aiding medication, The United States is one of the leading sleep aid consuming countries in the West, with women and people over 80 years of age taking the most. Even more troubling, the number of sleeping pill related emergency-room visits have also skyrocketed in recent years, almost doubling from 22,000 per year to 42,000 (taking sleeping pills without prescriptions or mixing with other medications) (4).
More and more Americans are also being diagnosed with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which your breathing becomes shallow or interrupted (5).
A lack of sleep is also responsible for over 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 motor vehicle accident related deaths each year (6).
Our Final Thoughts
In the modern fast paced lives we all lead, filled with deadlines, notifications and stress we can really overlook the importance of a full night’s sleep without even really noticing. To perform at your optimum ability and get the most out of your waking hours you need to be proactive when it comes to your sleep hygiene. We hope the above information and recommendations can keep you do just that.