Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 70 million adults in the United States have sleep disturbances. The causes of insomnia are varied and often baffling, ranging from low blood sugar and hormonal changes to sleep apnea and diet sodas. Ten snooze-killing culprits:
- Stress. Job-related tension, family troubles, financial woes, and other daytime stresses can lead to nighttime worries and wakefulness. Several days of sleeping poorly can lead to psychophysiological insomnia, a condition marked by excessive worrying about not getting enough sleep—which, of course, makes sleep even more elusive
- Nutrition. Deficiencies in key nutrients can lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. Certain amino acids, like tryptophan, act as precursors to serotonin and other neurotransmitters that are crucial for slowing nerve impulses and calming the brain. B6 is essential in the production of serotonin, and other B vitamins are also key in balancing neurotransmitter production. A lack of magnesium—key in relaxing muscles—is associated with insomnia, and calcium is important in the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep cycles.
- Sleep apnea is a chronic, often serious, condition that affects millions of people. It’s marked by pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep; pauses in breathing may last from a few seconds to more than
a minute, and can occur as many as 30 times or more per hour. If oxygen levels drop because breathing is shallow or interrupted, the brain is triggered to wake up—so the overall quality of sleep is dramatically affected. Because it’s associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and high blood pressure, it’s more than an inconvenience. It often goes undiagnosed; check with your doctor if you suspect you have it.
- Hormonal shifts. Women are three times more likely than men to have disturbed sleep patterns, and hormonal shifts may be one reason. When hormone levels surge or drop during pregnancy, menstrual cycles, or menopause, sleep can be dramatically affected. What’s worse, a lack of sleep in turn impacts hormones, creating a vicious and hard-to-break cycle. And nighttime hot flashes associated with menopause can make sleep even harder.
- Caffeine consumption. Our favorite legal drug can seriously impact quantity and quality of sleep—and the effects can be dramatic.
In some studies, 200 mg of caffeine—about the amount in a 16-ounce cup of coffee—led to two hours less sleep and more than double the amount of night wakings. What’s more, the effects of caffeine linger in the blood for five to seven hours, so your late-afternoon latte may dramatically impact your sleep. (But good news for night owls: a recent study found that morning people who drink caffeine during the day are more likely than late risers to be affected by nighttime waking.)
- Alcohol is initially stimulating and then sedating, so depending on when it’s consumed, a glass of wine can make it easier or harder to fall asleep. But in either case, drinking alcohol does encourage nighttime waking. As the effects of alcohol wear off, sleep may become lighter and more fragmented; even if you don’t remember waking up, the restorative properties of sleep may be lacking.
- Pain. Arthritis, backaches, or other types of physical pain can lead to nighttime restlessness and waking. In one survey, two-thirds of people who experience chronic pain reported low-quality sleep. Medications used to treat pain can exacerbate the problem by interrupting sleep cycles.
- Sleep environment. If your bedroom is too warm, poorly ventilated, loud, or your mattress is uncomfortable, your sleep may suffer. Ambient light from street lamps or night lights can also interfere with shut-eye; melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle is produced in total darkness, and even the ambient light from a bedside alarm clock can disrupt its production. And poor sleep hygiene—too much screen time, arguing, or exercise before bed—can make it even harder to snooze soundly.
- Excitotoxins. Aspartame, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are considered excitotoxins, a class of chemicals that overstimulate neurons, causing them to fire rapidly and ultimately die. This effect is especially pronounced in the parts of the brain that control sleep cycles. MSG occurs naturally in foods like seaweed, mushrooms, and grains, but in such small amounts that the effects are inconsequential; larger quantities are found in processed foods.
- Blood sugar. If your blood sugar is unstable, you’ll likely wake at least once in the middle of the night as your body becomes mildly hypoglycemic and your brain calls out for energy. High-carb bedtime snacks are one of the main culprits, but even a sugary dessert can impact blood sugar and interrupt sleep. Spicy, oily, or heavy meals can also upset slumber.
So What Can You Do?
No matter the cause for your sleeplessness, it’s essential to find a cure: lack of sleep is related to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, accelerated aging, inflammation, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and depression. What’s more, chronic lack of sleep feeds on itself; as you become more exhausted, it’s ever harder to fall asleep.
If you’re battling insomnia, there’s hope. First, get a checkup to rule out sleep apnea or serious vitamin deficiencies, and consult with a holistic practitioner to address hormonal imbalances. Then practice good sleep hygiene: avoid excessive caffeine, alcohol consumption, or screen time before bedtime; keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet; and limit nighttime snacking to small amounts of high-protein food. And look for these natural ways to sleep more soundly, all night long:
Melatonin is most commonly used for jet lag and adjusting sleep-wake cycles in people working night shifts, and to treat insomnia. Some studies suggest it’s also effective in treating insomnia related to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Melatonin is best used as a liquid or in sublingual tablets, so the hormone is absorbed directly into the body.
L-theanine, a compound found in tea, has a calming effect on the brain; studies suggest that it’s readily absorbed in large quantities, crosses the blood-brain barrier, gets into the brain quickly, and impacts levels of the amino acids affecting serotonin and other neurotransmitters. You’ll find it in single formula tablets and capsules, and in combination with other sleep-inducing nutrients.
L-tryptophan is an amino acid that occurs naturally in turkey, milk, and eggs; it’s essential in making serotonin, and can help shorten the length of time it takes to fall asleep. Because it’s essential in serotonin production, it may be most effective in easing insomnia that’s related to low brain serotonin levels. Look for it in combination formulas with herbs and calcium or magnesium, or use as a single supplement.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is made by the body from tryptophan as an intermediate step in making serotonin. It’s most commonly used to treat depression, and may be effective in treating insomnia that’s secondary to mood disorders.
Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system, and is thought to improve sleep by decreasing the release of cortisol. It also works with calcium, to help muscles contract and then relax. Best for sleep: magnesium tablets or capsules alone, or in combination with herbs.
Flower essences, made by infusing spring water with various flowers, are safe, gentle, and excellent for children. The most common remedies are Cherry Plum (for relaxing and letting go), Impatiens (for releasing tension), and White Chestnut (for relaxing the mind). Use them individually or in combination formulas.
Homeopathic remedies, like flower essences, are safe and gentle enough for children. Some common homeopathics for sleeplessness are Aconitum napellus (for worry or fear), belladonna (restlessness), Coffea cruda (for nervousness and excitability), Hyoscyamus niger (trouble falling asleep), and passiflora (wakefulness). They’re best taken in formulas that combine a number of different remedies.
Valerian root is used to calm the nervous system and promote slumber. Studies suggest it shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, and improves sleep quality. Because it becomes more effective over time, it’s best to take it every night for a few weeks. You’ll find valerian as a single supplement, or with other sleep-inducing herbs like hops, lemon balm, passionflower, chamomile, skullcap, and oatstraw.
OUR PRODUCT PICKS!
NEW CHAPTER Zyflamend Nighttime blends herbs known to ease pain and promote relaxation including valerian root to support deep, restful sleep.
GAIA HERBS Sound Sleep blends herbal extracts including hops, passionflower, and valerian to help you fall asleep quickly.
NATROL Sleep ’n Restore combines melatonin and valerian along with antioxidants to help you awake renewed and recharged.
HYLAND’S Insomnia is a homeopathic formula indicated for natural relief of insomnia due to stress, worry, or grief.
THE VITAMIN SHOPPE Advanced Sleep Formula has it all—5-HTP, melatonin, L-theanine, and valerian, plus hops and passionflower.