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Sleep Troubles: Why You Can't Get To Sleep

30/06/2021 8 MIN. READ Mirko Berger
30/06/2021 8 MIN. READ Mirko Berger

Here’s the thing about staying up all night: On weekends with your friends, you’re all for it. But right now in your bed, when you have to get up early tomorrow? Not so much.

Everyone knows the feeling of lying awake at ungodly hours of the night, contemplating life after death (sorry it’s such a downer) or what’s for lunch tomorrow (hopefully less of a downer). For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, let them cast the first stone — er, we mean pillow. 

If you’ve ever found yourself exasperatedly tossing and turning in bed, you’ve probably caught yourself thinking about insomnia. And naturally, you might like to know what you can do to prevent those sleepless raccoon eyes from becoming your trademark look.

Why do I wake up at night?

First things first: Waking up at night is nothing out of the ordinary. We actually do it up to 30 times a night— mostly without even remembering it later. In fact, There might even be a logical evolutionary explanation for it.

Granted, if you’re just staring at the ceiling, it is difficult to see why waking up could have any deeper biological meaning. Yet it could’ve saved our ancestors' lives. After all, thanks to short periods of wakefulness, they could, for example, detect suspicious noises and thus decipher whether or not it was safe to stay in their surroundings.

Studies also suggest that waking up itself isn't necessarily a problem. People with and without insomnia experience this at similar rates — it’s how easily you can fall back asleep that really makes the difference.

But even if it takes you longer to call back asleep from time to time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a sleep disorder. So how do you know if you have one?

Symptoms of insomnia, the sleep disorder

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICDS), published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in collaboration with international research groups, is considered to be the key reference work for the diagnosis of sleep disorders — and according to this work, insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders.

Here are the common symptoms that are crucial for determining if you have insomnia:


  • have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep through the night
  • still feel tired after waking up 
  • can't fall asleep for a nap, even when you’re tired midday
  • feel tired and irritable during the day
  • can hardly concentrate during the day because of fatigue

... all this even though you have enough time in your schedule and everything else going for you to get a full night’s sleep.

A short-term insomnia is when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three times a week and it persists for at least four weeks.

If it lasts longer than three months, then we’re talking about chronic or long-term insomnia.

Causes of Insomnia

If a mental illness or another condition like depression or anxiety makes you more prone to develop insomnia, it’s considered to be a secondary insomnia. In some cases, mental illnesses and insomnia can reinforce one another.

Primary insomnia occurs when there aren’t any other medical conditions at play and you develop insomnia from something else, such as prolonged tension.

Do you wake up with your heart pounding?

There are a few reasons that might make your heart beat faster — sleep shouldn't be one of them. An increased heart rate at night, especially while you’re resting, possibly triggered by stress, can be quite uncomfortable.

The good news is that just because your pulse feels faster does not necessarily mean that you’re experiencing tachycardia, or a racing heart, while you sleep. The threshold for that is 150 beats per minute.

Tip: If you want to monitor your pulse as you sleep and don't have a wearable or fitness wristband, you can do it quickly and easily using apps for Android and iPhone (in night mode, of course).

If your heartbeat feels awfully fast, you can give the so-called Valsalva maneuver a try, which is also used to equalise ear pressure while you’re on a plane. To do this, hold your nose, compress your mouth, and then try to exhale slowly through your nose. This should increase the pressure in your chest and slow down your heart rate.

If your pulse still does not lower or other symptoms such as dizziness begin to appear, you should definitely pay your doctor a visit.

Alcohol to help you fall asleep?

Try to hold it together when we tell you that the consumption of alcohol — yes, even in small quantities — can cause us to lie awake longer in bed again and again.

The deceptive part? Alcohol can shorten the time it takes us to fall asleep, which makes you feel like you can sleep better. The entire first half of your sleep might even feel deeper than it would be without alcohol. So far so good. 

But that changes in the second half of the night. That’s when your sleep with alcohol is punctured with more interruptions. 

In addition, alcohol tends to make you go to the loo and reach for your water bottle more often. It causes not only an increased urge to urinate, but also a strong feeling of thirst to prevent your fluid balance from getting out of whack. Hence, that nasty hangover the next morning. 

Why do I keep waking up at 3 a.m.?

Do you find yourself waking up at 3-4 o’clock in the morning? A look at a traditional Chinese organ clock could help shed some light on this topic. It divides day and night into two-hour intervals that each activate a different organ.

If you’re waking up at night between 1 to 3 o'clock, it could be because your liver is acting up. 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.? It could be your lungs. So if you're more likely to be awake during the wee hours of the morning, it might already be helpful to reduce your alcohol and/or nicotine consumption. If, on the other hand, you tend to wake up after 3 a.m., you might want to try breathing exercises.

The theories behind the organ clock have not been scientifically proven (yet) — but it might be worth a try. 

Potential consequences of Insomnia

When sleepless nights become the norm, insomnia can not only reduce quality of life, but also lead to decreased performance at work, study or school. Last but not least, it can be dangerous, making you more vulnerable to, for example, car accidents since it takes you longer to react when you’re tired.

In the long run, insomnia may also have an impact on the psyche and behavior, in that it can promote anxiety disorders and the abuse of addictive substances. There is also some evidence that depression and insomnia could be mutually dependent, that ‘sleep-related symptoms that are present before, during, and/or after a depressive episode are potentially modifiable factors.’

As for physical effects, a Spanish study on almost 4,000 participants showed that shorter, fragmented sleep could contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, aka ‘calcified’ or ‘clogged arteries.’

In addition, sleep disorders could increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, weight gain and metabolic disorders such as type II diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Sleep disorders: What to do?

Basically, there are three pillars for treating sleep disorders: 

  • Behavioral or sleep therapy
  • Sleep hygiene
  • Medication

If it is a secondary sleep disorder (i.e. caused by a psychological or neurological illness), treating that root causal condition could bring about an improvement in insomnia symptoms.

As a rule However, the first step is usually to evaluate sleep hygiene. If improving sleep hygiene doesn’t bring about an improvement, behavior or sleep therapy typically follows. Medication can also be used, yet this should ideally be temporarily only.

If you can't sleep: Quick remedies

If you're lying awake right now, you’re probably aware that the more you want to fall asleep, the more tense you're likely to become, which in turn makes it even harder to fall asleep. So, try to accept it as it is and don't worry too much if you're awake for a few minutes longer. 

Do you set aside a while to fall asleep but then the time seems to stretch into infinity as you try to fall asleep? Before you put any more pressure on yourself, if you're already awake anyway, you might as well get up briefly. Settle into a comfortable chair or sofa for a while. Maybe listen to some relaxing music? Or turn on a small (preferably dimmed) lamp to read a few pages? 

With that change of scenery, you'll see how slumber tends to settle in naturally — and you'll probably be more excited to slip back into your cozy bed.

What helps fight insomnia? 11 rules for better sleep hygiene

The great thing about practicing good sleep hygiene? All you really need is yourself and a little motivation to follow a few simple rules:

  1. Try to go to bed every night and get up at the same time every morning, if possible.

  2. Are there things going on in your life right now that are causing a lot of mental strain? Talk about them with friends or write them down.

  3. Relaxation techniques can additionally help reduce stress. Find out what suits you best: progressive muscle relaxation, meditation — or maybe something else entirely?

  4. Create a pleasant atmosphere in your bedroom so that you feel comfortable there even before you sleep. E.g. dimmed lights, quiet music, or a warm cup of tea.

  5. A full day at your desk demands a lot on your mind, but it’s rather negligent when it comes your body. Unless it’s already really late in the evening, make sure you get some exercise.

  6. Whenever possible, try to reserve the bed for just sleeping and sex. (No wonder it's our favorite place in the house, right?) Move the Netflix binging to the sofa.

  7. Actually, there's no reason to look at the clock at night. As long as your alarm clock rings when it’s time to get up, everything else is irrelevant, and you can roll over again with peace of mind. 

  8. A comfortable room temperature and good air quality are essential for comfort. Ventilate well before bed and make sure it's not too warm. The ideal temperature in the bedroom is 16 to 19 degrees Celsius.

  9. Turn your bedroom into a dark room. Both a lower body temperature and lower levels of brightness signal to our body when it’s time to sleep. This phenomenon is closely linked to melatonin production in the brain. If you don't have curtains or shutters, a sleep mask is a must.

  10. Are you best friends with coffee? Need your afternoon pick-me-up? Don't worry, you don't have to give up your caffeine consumption completely. But at least try to avoid it (ideally) in the 6 hours before bedtime.
  11. Accept that sleeplessness happens and don't force yourself to sleep. Try to make your waking hours as calm and pleasant as possible, and then gently fall into a deep sleep.

Home remedies for sleeplessness

In addition to good sleep hygiene, a few natural home remedies might also do the trick to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

Drink tea then wait and see? Scientists observed that an active ingredient in chamomile binds to our benzodiazepine receptors. Another study concluded that ‘chamomile may have modest anxiolytic activity in patients with mild to moderate generalised anxiety disorder’ and another one claimed that ‘chamomile may have clinically meaningful antidepressant activity that occurs in addition to its previously observed anxiolytic activity.’ Grandma always said there was something to that good ‘ol chamomile — and fortunately, tea has way fewer side effects than benzos. Well then!

Stress, stress, stress — everyone likely experiences it and nobody wants it. While you should always start by addressing the root of the issue (see above re: sleep hygiene), you could see some benefits by adding magnesium to your diet, as it could stabilise mood by reducing the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream.

Other natural remedies for sleeplessness

While more research is pending, some studies suggest that CBD could improve sleep if taken at the right dosage. Is it safe? It's straightforward to use, and many people consistently report positive effects.

Our most important points in a nutshell:

  • A distinction must be made between short-term insomnia and chronic insomnia, as well as secondary and primary insomnia.
  • The 3 pillars of treatment are: sleep hygiene, sleep/behavior therapy and medication.
  • In the case of secondary sleep disorders, the underlying condition should also be treated.
  • What you can do?  Aside from sleep hygiene, home remedies could be beneficial.
  • CBD might also help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Of course, you should always consult a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.


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