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Difficulty sleeping through the night: Why can’t I sleep?

03/05/2021 10 MIN. READ Mirko Berger
03/05/2021 10 MIN. READ Mirko Berger

Staying up all night with your friends on the weekend is totally fun, right? But lying in your bed well into the wee hours of the morning unable to sleep, especially when you need to function fully the next day? Not so much fun.

Most of us have been there. Sometimes we find ourselves awake at an ungodly hour pondering the question of life after death (you’re welcome) or thinking obsessively about what we’re going to eat for lunch tomorrow (hopefully less dramatic). Let he or she who’s never experienced this cast the first stone … or pillow.

But if you’re the type of person who’s tossed and turned in bed in an exasperated attempt to get to sleep, you’ll definitely appreciate our excursion into the subject of insomnia. We’ll let you know what you can do to prevent those deep rings under your eyes from becoming your new trademark.

Why can’t I sleep?

  1. Why do I wake up in the middle of the night?
  2. Symptoms of sleeping difficulties that suggest an actual sleep disorder
  3. Causes of insomnia
  4. Do you wake up with a pounding heart?
  5. Alcohol before bed
  6. The potential effects of sleeplessness
  7. Sleep disorders: How can they be beat?
  8. When you just can’t sleep: immediate relief
  9. How to combat sleep disorders? 11 rules for better sleep hygiene
  10. Home remedies for sleep problems
  11. Other natural remedies for sleeplessness

Why do I wake up in the middle of the night?

The most important thing right away: never forget that waking up at night is totally normal. In fact, we do it up to 30 times each night, usually without ever remembering it. In fact, there might even be a logical evolutionary reason for it.

Of course, if you’re lying in bed right now, staring at the ceiling, wondering when you’re finally going to fall asleep, it’s difficult to accept that there might be some deeper meaning to waking up several times during the night. Still, the phenomenon probably saved the lives of our forefathers. In those short phases of being awake, our ancestors were able to check their surroundings and determine whether everything was still safe, for example, by checking out any suspicious noises.

Some studies even suggest that waking up is not the problem per se. Indeed, people with and without insomnia do it equally as often. The bigger issue is rather how easy it is to fall asleep again after that.

If you need more time to fall asleep every once in a while, rest assured, this is no cause for concern. But if it keeps happening, how do we know when a person is starting to suffer from an actual sleep disorder?

Symptoms of sleeping difficulties that suggest an actual sleep disorder

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in collaboration with international research groups is the standard work for defining problems associated with sleep. According to the tome, sleeplessness is one of the most common sleeping disorders.

Determining symptoms involves asking yourself:

Do you ...

-    have difficulties falling and staying asleep

-    still feel tired after waking up

-    also find it difficult to fall asleep during a nap in the afternoon, even though you’re tired

-    feel tired and irritable during the day

-    find it difficult to concentrate during the day because of fatigue

… even though the conditions and opportunities for you to have a good sleep are on hand?

The term short-term insomnia is used to describe a situation in which a person experiences these difficulties in falling and staying asleep at least three times a week over the course of at least four weeks.

The term chronic insomnia or long-term insomnia is used when this is the case for longer than three months.

Causes of insomnia

When a person’s sleeplessness is caused by an organic or mental illness, we use the term “secondary insomnia”. There are also some specific mental illnesses that can exacerbate insomnia, and vice versa.

When there is no organic or mental illness at the root of a person’s sleeplessness, then we speak of a primary insomnia. It can be caused by a number of factors, including a prolonged period of stress.

Do you wake up with a pounding heart?

There are a couple of reasons why your heart might start racing, but sleep shouldn’t be one of them. Especially in a state of rest, an increased heart rate in the middle of the night – possibly triggered by stress – can be a very uncomfortable experience.  

The good news first: just because you feel your heart beating really fast, doesn’t automatically mean you have an abnormal heart rate or “tachycardia”. In order for that to be the case, your pulse would have to exceed 150.

Tip: These days, if you want to check your pulse and you don’t have a fitness wristband, there are a number of fast and easy apps for Android und iPhone (use them in night mode, of course).

If your heart feels like its beating uncomfortably fast, you can also always try the so-called Valsalva manoeuvre. It’s the same manoeuvre that’s used to equalise the air pressure in your body on an airplane: just pinch your nose shut, close your mouth and expel air out as if blowing up a balloon. This is designed to increase the pressure in your chest as a way of slowing down your heartbeat.

If your pulse still doesn’t slow down, and if you start noticing other symptoms such as dizziness, you should, of course, see a doctor.

Alcohol before bed

We’re going to have to be strong now, because it’s unfortunately true: consuming alcohol can also cause us to lie around awake longer at night. And, yes, this even applies to alcohol consumption in smaller quantities.

Why do some of us think the opposite? Well, it’s true that alcohol can reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep and therefore give you the initial impression that you might be able to sleep better. It’s even possible that the first half of your night’s sleep will be deeper than it would be without alcohol. So far, so good.

But things change in the second half of your sleep. After that point, if you still have alcohol in your system, your sleep is going to be characterised by more interruptions.  

Also, drinking alcohol usually makes you go to the bathroom more often, most often with a detour through the kitchen. Indeed, alcohol not only increases your need to urinate, it also gives you a whopping thirst as a way of preventing your fluid balance from getting out of whack. Hence that parched throat most of us have after an evening of drinking alcohol.

The potential effects of sleeplessness

Do you always wake up at around 3 or 4 am? A glance at the Chinese Body Clock[3]  might shed some light on the subject. This clock divides the day and night into two-hour intervals and designates an organ that is thought to be particularly active during each of these periods.

According to the clock, waking up at night between 1 and 3 am is associated with the activity of your liver. Between 3 and 5 am, on the other hand, is associated with the functioning of your lungs. If you tend to wake up before 3 am, it might therefore be helpful to reduce your alcohol and/or nicotine consumption. On the other hand, if you tend to wake up after 3 am, you should make sure to air out your sleeping area thoroughly before going to sleep.  

Although the mechanisms of the Chinese Body Clock have yet to be proven scientifically, they’re definitely worth a try.

Sleep disorders: How can they be beat?

If sleepless nights start to become a regular part of your night-time experience, you should be aware that sleeplessness can lead not only to a reduction in your quality of life, but also to poor performance at work, university or school. And, last but not least, it can also slow down your reaction time at the steering wheel, which can lead to an increased risk of accidents.

Over the long term, sleeplessness can also have an effect on your mental state and overall behaviour, seeing as it can promote anxiety disorders and lead to the abuse of addictive substances. There is also evidence that depression and sleeplessness might be mutually reinforcing.

As for the physical effects of sleeplessness, a recent Spanish study suggested that shorter, fragmented sleep can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, which is more commonly referred to as “calcified arteries”.

Sleep disorders can even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain and metabolic disorders, such as Type II diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Sleep disorders: How can they be beat?

There are three basic pillars involved in the treatment of sleep disorders:  

  •   Behavioural and sleep therapy
  •   Sleep hygiene
  •   Medication

When dealing with a secondary sleep disorder – that is, one caused by a mental or neurological illness – treating the disorder can contribute to an improvement in the person’s overall health.

As a rule, however, the first step is always sleepy hygiene. If improving your sleep hygiene doesn’t produce the desired effect, then the next step should be behavioural or sleep therapy. Certain forms of medication can also be used – ideally, however, you should use medication only on a temporary basis.

When you just can’t sleep: immediate relief

If you’re lying awake right now, there’s one thing you should accept above all else: the more you try to fall asleep, the less likely you’re going to succeed. Instead, try just accepting it for what it is and not worrying about staying awake a few minutes longer.

But what if your sleeping problems persist and seem to stretch into eternity? Before you start putting pressure on yourself, seeing as you’re already awake, you might try getting up out of bed briefly. Make yourself comfortable in a relaxing armchair or on the sofa for a while. Maybe listen to some relaxing music? Or turn on a small lamp (dimmed, if possible) and read a few pages in a book.

You might just notice that you get tired again all on your own, and before you know it, you’ll be looking forward to slipping back into your cosy bed again.

How to combat sleep disorders? 11 rules for better sleep hygiene

What’s the best thing about sleep hygiene? In order to get better at it, all you really need is yourself and some motivation to follow a few simple rules.

  • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, if possible.
  • Are there any things causing you to feel psychological stress at the moment? Talk to friends about them and/or write them down.
  • Relaxation techniques can also help to reduce stress. Try them on and find out what works best for you: progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or something completely different?
  • Make sure to create a pleasant atmosphere in your bedroom so that you feel comfortable there before you go to sleep. You can use things like dimmed lights, quiet music or a warm cup of tea.
  • If possible, the only things you should be doing in your bed are sleeping and having sex. (No wonder sex is our favourite sport, right?) Try to make sure you do all your binge-watching on the couch and not in bed.
  • If you think about it, there’s no real reason to even look at your clock at night. As long as there’s not an alarm going off at this very moment, everything else is irrelevant, so just turn over onto your other side and relax with full peace of mind.
  • A comfortable room temperature and good air quality are essential for a good sleep. You should air out your room thoroughly before you go to bed, and also make sure it’s not too warm. The ideal temperature in your bedroom at night is 16 to 19 degrees Celsius.
  • Transform your bedroom into a dark room. Next to our body temperature, it’s the degree of brightness we experience that signals to our bodies that it’s either time to sleep to time to wake up. This is because our sleep is very closely linked to melatonin production. If you don’t have curtains or shutters, you should consider getting yourself a sleeping mask to cover your eyes.
  •  Is coffee your best friend? Does espresso keep you going throughout the afternoon? There’s no problem with that, you don’t have to give up your morning Joe. But you should at least try to avoid consuming caffeine 3 to 4 hours before going to sleep.
  •  Accept being awake for what it is, namely being awake. Don’t try to force yourself to fall asleep. Simply try to make your waking hours as comfortable as possible, and then let yourself gently fall into a deep sleep.

Home remedies for sleep problems

In addition to tweaking your sleep hygiene, there are a couple of home remedies that might help you fall asleep and stay asleep:

Keep calm and have a cuppa tea? Scientist have found evidence that one of the active ingredients in chamomile can dock onto our benzodiazepine receptors, which means that it’s possible that chamomile tea can have a positive effect on anxiety disorders and depression. Your grandma already knew that, I bet. Plus, luckily, chamomile tea is also considerably less harmful than benzos, so drink up!

Stress, stress, stress – nobody wants it, but we all have it. While you should always start by tackling the original cause of your sleep issues (see sleep hygiene), one other possibility is to try taking some magnesium. According to a study, magnesium might be able to significantly reduce the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in your blood.

Other natural remedies for sleeplessness

While there’s more research pending, some studies suggest that CBD – in the right dosage – can lead to improved sleep. What’s for sure is that using CBD is super easy, with users reporting time and again about positive effects.

A brief overview of the essentials:

-    There’s an important distinction between short-term sleeplessness and chronic insomnia.

-    The 3 pillars for the treatment of sleep issues are: sleep hygiene, sleep therapy/behavioural therapy, and medication.

-    In the case of secondary sleep disorders, you should always also treat the underlying disease too.

-    What can you do? In addition to improving your sleep hygiene, you can try some home remedies.

-    It’s possible that CBD can also help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

-    Of course, if your symptoms persist, you should always consult a doctor.

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