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When your body or mind won't let you sleep, it can be pretty disastrous. Here we explore the topic of insomnia and suggest a few things you can try to catch those much-needed ZZZs.
*can't sleep*, won't sleep

Lay in bed for hours, can’t sleep? You’ve tried it all, from hot milky drinks to soothing sounds, eye masks to block out the light and chucking your snoring partner out of the room. But you’re still lying their staring at the ceiling getting more and more frustrated with yourself. As sleep experts, we’ve heard it a million times – I want to sleep but my body won’t let me, I want to sleep but my brain won’t stop talking to itself, I’m exhausted but I just can’t seem to drop off. For most of us, the problem of insomnia resolves itself after a night or two of irritating tossing and turning, but what if a lack of sleep seems to be becoming a fact of your life? What’s causing it? What needs to change? Is there a way to force your poor, overwrought brain and body to sleep, even when they’re fighting you? 

why can’t I sleep? 

Insomnia is incredibly common, thought to affect around one in three people here in the UK (1) and it can manifest in a whole variety of different, but equally annoying, ways. While some people find it difficult to fall asleep at night, others might wake up repeatedly or wake and find it impossible to drop off again. Some folks, meanwhile, might awaken in the early hours and never get back to sleep, curtailing their rest by several hours. Despite what you might have heard about the ‘good eight hours’, each of us is different and we all have different sleep needs. So if you’re someone capable of thriving on six hours of sleep you probably needn’t worry. Likewise, some of us need a full nine or ten to feel fully refreshed, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Feeling that you never get enough sleep and you’re ready to drop throughout the day? That’s less normal and not getting enough sleep could well be the cause. 

An inability to sleep, however that might show itself, can be down to any number of things. Illnesses as wide ranging as heart problems and depression can affect sleep, while jet lag and shift work can contribute to a body clock that’s out of whack. And then, of course, there’s sleep disorders that require the input of a doctor. However, if none of those are ringing bells, there are three more very common, and very fixable, reasons that you might be asking yourself ‘why can’t I sleep at night even when I’m tired?’ 

how anxiety and stress affect sleep 

Stress and anxiety can affect every part of our lives, not least sleep. If you’re struggling with the day-to-day there’s a very good chance that your sleep schedule will be disrupted too. In fact, for many people, trouble sleeping is their first indication that something’s not quite right. 

In many cases, stress is short term, caused by a sudden stressor. In these cases, your insomnia may just right itself in just a few days. However, for those going through major upheaval, such as bereavement, the breakdown of a relationship or job dissatisfaction, stress-induced insomnia can linger. And while not all of those who experience stress will find it difficult to sleep, people with underlying anxiety issues are much more likely to find themselves suffering sleep issues. In addition, lack of sleep can become itself a cause of anxiety, further exacerbating your feelings of stress. That’s why, if you’re struggling to sleep on a regular basis, it’s advisable to get in touch with your doctor. 

why what you drink could be messing with your sleep schedule 

Those little choices you make every day can seem insignificant but, in fact, they could be just what’s making it tough for you to get the sleep you need. Your caffeine intake, for example, might be affecting your ability to get all forty winks. Some people are especially sensitive to caffeine, meaning that even if they curtail their intake hours before bed, they could still experience insomnia. In addition, those with a caffeine sensitivity are likely to experience jitteriness, a racing heart, headaches and feelings of anxiety. 

Drinking alcohol can also impact sleep, though you might be fooled into thinking otherwise. While you’ll probably conk out pretty quick smart after a snifter or two, the quality of sleep you’ll experience when tipsy just isn’t as good. Experts reckon that even a small glass of wine can reduce sleep quality by 9.3% and that more than one drink might reduce sleep quality by a massive 39.2% (2). With that in mind, we’d hate to think what an ill-advised Saturday night binge can do. 

can’t sleep? your bedroom could be all wrong 

That nightly sleep stress might not necessarily have anything to do with you, your brain or your body and what you’re putting in it. Consider your surroundings. Is light getting in through those gauzy curtains? Is your mattress a little lumpy or squeaky of spring? Are you contending with the noise of clanking pipes or a neighbour revving their car at 5am? If there’s no physical explanation for your insomnia take a good look around at your bedroom set up and consider whether it’s time to invest in a new mattress, hang blackout blinds or download a white noise app. Simple change could be all you need to sleep peacefully again. 

I can’t sleep! what happens if you don’t get enough sleep? 

Those nights spent lying in bed wishing you could get some proper shut eyes aren’t just frustrating, they can impact you in a whole host of different ways. Not only can your mental wellbeing be messed with, but insomnia also quickly takes a physical toll too. Whatever form your insomnia takes, whether you just can’t drift off or you wake up repeatedly throughout the night, the health implications of a long-term lack of sleep are the same. 

lack of sleep and your wellbeing 

While it’s well recognised that sleeplessness or interrupted sleep can be a symptom of depression, anxiety and low mood, it’s becoming increasingly clear to health professionals that things can work the other way too (3). Without enough sleep you’ll inevitably feel exhausted during the day, which commonly makes sufferers impatient and prone to emotional outbursts. Additionally, sleep deprivation can result in anxiety and low mood, exacerbate stress and even cause feelings of paranoia. If you’re not sleeping well, you might also experience what’s known as microsleep (4) episodes in which you very briefly nod off without realising – an annoyance when you’re at your desk, embarrassing in social situations and potentially deadly behind the wheel. 

how insomnia affects your health 

Lack of sleep can put you at risk of a variety of complications, which is why experts are so keen on you getting your full eight hours. Linked to obesity, sleep deprivation can mess with the system that tells you that you’re full, leading to accidental overindulgence. Not getting enough sleep might also make you too tired to exercise and is associated with glucose intolerance too, causing your body to release less insulin (which lowers your blood sugar) after meals. As well as raising your risk of extra poundage, insomnia might also increase your risk of heart disease by hiking your blood pressure and upping the levels of chemicals linked to inflammation. Finally, if you’re not sleeping your body doesn’t have the opportunity to replenish the antibodies and cytokines needed for immunity, leaving you wide open to colds, flu and other illnesses and infections. 

sleep deprivation and your daily life 

A couple of nights of bad sleep isn’t the end of the world for most of us, but in the long term sleep deprivation can cause serious problems which can make day-to-day functioning a real pain in the rear. Snappiness, spaciness and low mood can put pressure on your relationships. Meanwhile difficulty focusing, reduced problem solving capabilities and forgetfulness might impact your ability to do your job. Then there’s the increased risk of accidents due to tiredness and the lack of coordination and balance that those who aren’t sleeping properly are prone to. Even your sex life can be affected, with lack of sleep linked to low libido, particularly in men, who require a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted sleep for testosterone production to take place. 

what to do if you can’t sleep 

It’s all well and good, us know-it-alls telling you ‘you need to sleep’, but for many people it just isn’t that easy. If you find you’re not able to sleep at night, even when you’re tired, there are a number of things you can try to give yourself a fighting chance of getting back into a good sleep routine. While none are guaranteed, the right combination will almost certainly work for most people. And if you’ve tried everything to no avail it may be time to consult your GP, who can prescribe medication for short term relief or carry out tests to determine if there’s an underlying issue causing your never-ending wakefulness. 

optimise your sleep schedule 

Sticking to a regular schedule of sleep is a must for anyone prone to bouts of insomnia. If you aren’t sleeping you may be tempted to treat yourself to weekend lie ins or to take naps during the afternoon, but doing so really can throw your body clock out of whack. The result? More problems getting to sleep when bedtime rolls around. Waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, Monday to Sunday, may not be fun, but it can really help your body and mind to get into the habit of sleeping when you most need to. 

improve your habits 

There are many little habits that can upset your ability to sleep. To help you start sleeping better, it’s advisable to avoid indulging in certain vices and behaviours, especially in the run up to bedtime. For example, experts advise avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, especially later in the day. They also suggest avoiding eating meals, especially if they’re heavy or spicy, close to the time when you’ll want to turn in. Another habit that might disrupt your sleeping schedule is looking at the blue light of your mobile phone or laptop right before bed. You can improve your chances of a good night’s sleep right from the time you wake up too, by making sure you expose yourself to sunlight and by getting plenty of exercise every day. 

make relaxation a part of your everyday routine 

It can be hard to find the time to relax when your plate is positively heaving with tasks. That said, relaxation can help you to sleep better, and better sleep means improved performance, whatever it is you need to get done. A nice, warm bath is a classic pre-sleep recommendation, helping ready you for rest, while swapping out scrolling through Twitter with a glass of vino for a good book and a cup of chamomile tea is equally conducive to sleep. Practicing relaxation techniques such as yogic breathing, meditation and gratitude journaling, whether before bed or throughout the course of the day, can help you to get into the habit of letting go of your worries and clearing your mind, in turn making getting to sleep easier. 

create a sleep sanctuary 

Is your bedroom part office, part laundry, part dumping ground? Having your whole life there by your bed might be making it difficult to find the path to the Land of Nod. If insomnia is a problem, you may benefit from removing sources of stress and clutter from the space around you. In addition, ensuring that you’re sleeping on a mattress that’s just right for you and with soft, comfortable bedding that’s the right size and weight is a must for a perfect night of restful sleep. Lastly, the ideal temperature for sleep is thought to be somewhere between 15.6 and 20°C so it’s worth checking your thermostat, and perhaps even cracking or closing windows if you’re too hot or too cold at night.