Insomnia, also know as “I can’t sleep at night” syndrome, is one of the most frustrating states of being on the planet.
Experts estimate it’s the #1 health-related problem in America. In fact, 75% of Americans say they experience sleep troubles each week, and the number of prescriptions written for sleeping pills continues to rise as the years progress.
Unfortunately, the consequences of not getting enough sleep are more than just a few extra yawns the next day. Long term sleep deprivation is linked to significant health problems, including viral infections, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, weight issues, depression and anxiety, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, and early mortality.
It’s also been shown to cause chronic, low-grade inflammation, which is known to be the root cause of virtually all modern disease.6
And probably not as surprising, sleep deprivation is linked to increased junk food cravings, as well as a “striking” increase in overall calorie intake.8 Speaking from experience, these calories usually come from foods high in refined grains and sugar – making a bad situation worse.
The takeaway? Without sufficient sleep, you cannot be healthy.
5 Reasons You Can’t Sleep at Night
While the reasons why people can’t sleep can vary, sleep problems are progressively becoming more prevalent, suggesting that modern advancements play a role in the root cause. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to bad sleep unless you revert back to living like a caveman, it simply means you need to adjust your lifestyle to consciously live in a way that will facilitate proper sleeping patterns.
With the appropriate changes, not only will you make drastic improvements to your health, you’ll also experience enhanced memory and mental clarity, improved athletic performance, increased stress tolerance, better weight management, and improved immune function.
Ready to get to sleep? Here are 5 reasons you can’t sleep at night, and what to do about it.
1. Your Circadian Rhythm is in a Funk.
Your circadian rhythm is your internal “clock” that governs when you should be awake and when you should be asleep. These “rhythms” are controlled by a “master clock” in the brain, which receives cues from external factors such as changes in temperature and light.
Two important hormones that are part of our circadian rhythms are cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol is our “awake” hormone, which rapidly rises in the morning to give us energy, and melatonin is a hormone produced in response to darkness to prepare our body for sleep. (See graph here.)
Because cortisol is also our master “stress” hormone, when we experience chronic stress because of work, family issues, or unresolved food intolerances, cortisol is significantly elevated. High cortisol can suppress melatonin production, leaving us lying awake at night with an overactive mind. When sleep does finally occur, elevated cortisol can disrupt normal sleep cycles, causing poor and unrestful sleep. (And straight up grumpiness, which is always fun for Mr. Coconuts.)
In addition to stress, circadian rhythms can become disrupted by regularly staying up late. Exposing your body to stimulants after dark such as Facebook, a scary movie or sugar suppresses melatonin production, and can lead to long-term issues such as difficultly initiating or staying asleep, headaches and daytime sleepiness. Circadian rhythms can also be disrupted by nighttime or shift work, jet lag, and pregnancy.
If you commonly struggle getting out of bed, feel excessively tired in the morning, experience afternoon energy crashes, or have increased alertness late at night, it’s likely your circadian rhythm is in a funk.
What to do about it:
Get outside and expose yourself to the sun during the day, especially during sunrise. Going for a walk in the morning light will help “reset” your rhythms. Engage in exercise during the day, which has been shown to support melatonin production. Avoid strenuous activity or exercise in the late afternoon, which can have the opposite effect.
Keep your house warmer during the day (above 75°F) and chilly at night (below 65°F), and consider taking a cold shower before bed to reduce your core body temperature. Avoid caffeinated beverages after 12pm as they stimulate cortisol production. When you drink caffeinated beverages, it takes five hours for half of the caffeine to be removed from the body. Even if you don’t “feel” it affecting you, your body does.
Instead of waking up to the stressful sound of an alarm clock, switch to a light alarm to wake you up, which can be especially helpful in the wintertime.
If you are under a lot of stress, or you are easily worried or prone to anxiety, you must prioritize managing your stress levels. (Yeah, working on that one too.) Consider managing your stress through prayer, yoga, going for a walk, listening to some good music or scheduling a visit with a friend to “let it all out.” I also highly recommend supplementing with magnesium and/or soaking in an Epsom Salt bath before bed, which can help with anxiety and promote relaxation.
2. You Have Blood Sugar Issues.
The way your body manages the carbohydrate you eat plays a big role in how well you sleep. Carbohydrate is broken down into glucose in the body, and is absorbed through the small intestine into the bloodstream. Glucose in the bloodstream (also known as “blood sugar”) is tightly regulated, mostly because it’s responsible for fueling certain functions in the body.
The chief regulator of glucose, the pancreas, secretes the hormone insulin to remove glucose from the bloodstream and store it into cells, as well as the hormone glucagon to “release” stored glucose when blood sugar drops in between meals.
If you eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, your body is receiving large glucose “hits” on regular intervals. The body sees massive spikes in blood sugar as an emergency, and quickly sends a large amount of insulin to remove the overabundance of glucose from the bloodstream. This emergency reaction causes blood sugar levels to drop too low, which then leaves us feeling shaky and fatigued. As a result, our “back up” forces, the adrenal glands, release cortisol to create energy from stored glucose and muscle tissue.
So, what in the world does this have to do with sleep? At night, our body needs to burn fat in order to supply us with a steady stream of energy. When you consume a diet high in refined carbohydrates, your body has a hard time “shifting” to fat burning from constant sugar burning. When this happens, cortisol is secreted in the middle of the night to raise blood sugar, which can cause you to wake up at random times throughout the night feeling restless or hungry. Eating sugar before bed can have the same effect.
In addition, a diet that includes large glucose bombs is seen by the body as a stressor, and creates multiple opportunities for cortisol to be elevated. This can disrupt circadian rhythms by suppressing melatonin production, causing you to be wired (but tired) when you want to go to sleep.
What to do about it:
Kick the refined grains and sugar to the curb. Adjust your diet so that you are getting more of your calories from fat which will stabilize your energy and allow your body to adapt to burning fat for fuel. (Download my Fats & Oils Guide to know which fats you should be eating.)
Consume whole foods, including quality protein like grass-fed meats and a variety of vegetables, which will help stabilize blood sugar. As you begin to manage blood sugar more appropriately, avoid “snacking” or “grazing” on food and stick with 2-3 solid meals a day.
3. You’re on Blue Light Overload at Night
One of the main regulators of the “master clock” in our brain is light. Sensors in our eyes perceive changes in light, and communicate these changes to the brain. Although light comes in many wavelengths, it’s the short wavelength or blue light that signifies “daytime” to our master clock.
Blue light, especially from the sun, is incredibly important for us during the day because it boosts attention, reaction times and mood.9 But, this same blue light is disastrous for us at night because of its ability to suppress melatonin production.
Unfortunately, modern light bulbs and electronic devices such as laptops, TVs, phones and tablets are blue light powerhouses. In order to produce “white” light, they emit light at short wavelengths, and exposure to these light sources after dark suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration. As you might have guessed, this can lead to insomnia, sleep disturbances and disrupted circadian rhythms.
What to do about it:
After sunset, do your best to turn off all overhead lighting, and stick with lower-level lamps that produce dim lighting. Forgo using your phone or tablet as a reading device in bed – a condition coined “iPad insomnia.” Stick with real, hardcover books for nighttime reading.
If you’d like to continue working on electronic devices after dark, wear these sexy amber-tinted glasses that block out blue light. Studies show that wearing amber-tinted glasses improves sleep quality and supports melatonin production by blocking the effects of blue light. You can also download to computer program f.lux, which will reduce your blue light exposure by adapting the color of your screen to the time of day.
4. You Have Lights and Electronics in the Bedroom
While you may think keeping a digital alarm clock or cell phone beside your bed at night isn’t any harm, it may be what is keeping you from getting the deep sleep you deserve.
Your body can detect even the smallest amount of light through your eyelids when you sleep, whether from street lights or a button on the TV. Studies show exposure to low nighttime lighting during sleep can suppress melatonin production, leading to circadian rhythm disruption.16
Your sleep can also be disrupted by Electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which are areas of energy that surround electronic devices. According to World Health Organization (WHO), EMFs affect us because our bodies have their own electric and biochemical functions, and exposure to outside EMFs can interact with our own – especially at rest. While the research isn’t conclusive (yet), some people report improvements in sleep quality when EMFs are removed or reduced.
EMFs are produced by any electric devices, including in-the-home staples such as microwaves, hairdryers, and the biggest offender – wireless internet (WiFi.)
What to do about it:
To block out all disrupting light, install black out curtains or shades – or use a combination of both. Close your bedroom door, and put a towel at the bottom if light seeps in. Put a piece of black electrical tape over tiny lights that can’t be turned off. If you’re a light sleeper, use a white noise maker, turbo fan, or ear plugs to block out audio interruptions, and a sleep mask to block out any major changes in light.
Get rid of as many electronic devices from the bedroom as you can, including alarm clocks and charging cell phones. If you have WiFi in your house, experiment with turning it off at night to see how it affects you.
5. You Have Low Stomach Acid
Stomach acid, also know as hydrochloric acid (HCL), is the acid our stomach produces to digest food so nutrients are absorbed further downstream in the small intestine. Adequate stomach acid is crucial for protein, which is digested by specific enzymes in the stomach that are activated by HCL.
Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are the building blocks for enzymes, antibodies, neurotransmitters, and many hormones. An “essential” amino acids that we must get from the food we consume, L-tryptophan, is the precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is then synthesized into melatonin in the pineal gland in the brain. Without proper digestion of L-tryptophan, we don’t have the necessary precursors for melatonin.
Other nutrients linked to melatonin synthesis, including B vitamins, magnesium and zinc also require an acidic environment in the stomach to be properly absorbed. Deficiencies in these nutrients has been linked to lower melatonin levels.16
In addition to digesting the food we eat, stomach acid kill parasites, bacteria and virus that enter the stomach. When stomach acid is low, large, undigested food particles and pathogens end up moving “downstream” into the small intestine. This can lead to a variety of issues, including gut inflammation and intestinal permeability.
Because cortisol serves to shut down inflammation, chronic intestinal inflammation equates to chronic cortisol output, which can lead to melatonin suppression and disrupted circadian rhythms.
What to do about it:
Stomach acid is most commonly suppressed by stress, and eating while stressed. Before you consume a meal, take 4-5 deep breaths and relax. Avoid eating rushed or while on-the-go. Always chew your food thoroughly (20-30 chews per bite), and try to be the last one to finish if eating with friends or family. The slower, the better.
To naturally support stomach acid, put 1 tsp raw, apple cider vinegar in 1/2 cup warm water and drink before each meal. You can also use digestive aids such as bitters, which help stimulate stomach acid. The most effective way to support low stomach acid is to take supplemental hydrochloric acid with pepsin. While this is an effective solution, it’s best to figure out your dose in concert with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, as too much can irritate the stomach lining.
If you suffer from other conditions related to low stomach acid including stomach ulcers, heartburn, GERD or asthma, read this book.
Have you found resolution to your sleep issues? Let me know about your experiences below!