After going, going, going for hours, there's nothing you want more than to plop into bed and turn off your brain. But even though your eyes have been droopy all day, as soon as your head hits the pillow, they seem to spring right back open. If you're like us, that leaves you wondering Why can't I sleep at night even when I'm tired? We asked top experts why you have trouble dozing off even when you're exhausted — plus how to get the sweet, deep shut-eye you crave.
Feeling 'wired and tired' is a common problem
Up to 30% of the US adults deal with insomnia, a sleep disorder that makes it harder to doze off and/or sleep soundly, says Thomas Bradley Raper, MD, a sleep medicine specialist with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. "So yes, it tends to be common that even when you're tired, it can be difficult to fall asleep."
The problem, which is particularly prevalent among older women, can have a number of culprits, including stress and hormone changes. So if you feel like you've been struggling to catch up with Mr. Sandman more often lately, it's not your imagination. Thankfully, you can calm that wired-and-tired feeling and get the sound sleep you need.
"There are several things that menopausal women can do to alleviate these symptoms," assures Arianna Sholes-Douglas, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN at Tula Wellness Center in Tuscon, AZ and author of The Menopause Myth. The first trick to getting more Zzz's: Understanding why you're having trouble dozing off in the first place.
"Why can't I sleep at night even when I'm tired?"
Does night after night of counting sheep have you trying to figure out Why can't I sleep at night even when I'm tired? It turns out lots of things can get in the way of sound rest, even when you're completely exhausted. Here are some of the biggest culprits, according to Dr. Raper and Dr. Sholes-Douglas.
Stress and anxiety are indeed the number-one cause of sleep trouble, confirms Dr. Raper. "It may be difficult to 'turn off your brain' due to continued thinking about tasks or worrying about the day," he explains.
And it's not just your racing brain that's keeping you up. Tension and worries also boost your body's production of the stress hormone cortisol. This increases your heart rate and breathing, causing you to feel alert instead of sleepy, according to research in the journal Sleep Science. (Click through to learn how toning your vagus nerve with cold water undoes the toll chronic stress takes on your body.)
Another common trigger behind not being able to sleep at night even when you're tired: hormone changes. "Aging and menopause can significantly impact a woman's sleep," says Dr. Sholes-Douglas. Shifting levels of the hormone estrogen can make you more sensitive to everyday stressors, leaving you wired at bedtime, she explains. And even once you do manage to nod off, you might be awoken by night sweats or the urge to urinate (also known as nocturia) that make it tough to settle back to sleep.
3. Nighttime phone use
It can be tempting to catch up on your news and social media feeds before bed (we've all done it!). But seeing everyone's pictures or scrolling the headlines "is often a source of that wired feeling" that makes it harder to settle down and sleep, Dr. Raper says. The blue light from your device can be energizing, too, leaving your mind unable to "shut down" when your head hits the pillow. In fact, research shows that exposure to blue light can reduce the duration of your sleep by 16 minutes, plus increase nighttime awakenings by as much as 69%.
4. Certain medications
Recently started on a new med? Consider checking with your doctor to see if it's the source of your sleep trouble, Dr. Raper recommends. Insomnia is known to be a side effect of nearly 250 over-the-counter and prescription drugs, including corticosteroids, cold medications and decongestants, antidepressants, and some asthma and COPD medications such as beta-agonists. (Click through to discover the meds that can make nighttime heartburn worse.)
5. A nightcap
Sure, drinking a glass of wine while you watch your favorite late-night TV show might help you feel drowsy for a little while. But once you turn out the lights, you'll likely find you have a hard time falling asleep. Plus, you're more likely to wake up throughout the night and feel tired in the morning if you enjoy an alcohol sipper too close to bed.
Why? Alcohol interrupts rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (the stage of deep sleep in which dreams occur), Dr. Raper explains. In fact, just a single nighttime drink has been shown to can significantly decrease sleep quality, according to research in JMIR Mental Health. A late-night tipple affects your body's autonomic nervous system (ANS), which helps regulate your heart rate, blood pressure and response to stress, making it difficult to nod off.
The good news: You don't need to give up vino or the occasional cocktail to nod off faster and get more REM sleep. The trick is simply sipping your drink a little earlier to avoid disrupting your evening slumber. "In general, we like to recommend no alcohol within 4 hours of bedtime," says Dr. Raper.
6. Shift work
Nurses, servers, retail workers, police officers ... there are so many demanding jobs that require work late at night, overnight, or early in the morning. So it comes as no surprise that up to 76% of people who work early morning or night shifts report trouble falling asleep, according to research published in the journal Sleep Science. The scientists explain that dozing at nontraditional hours can disrupt your body's natural sleep-wake cycle, making it harder to fall asleep when you're finally able to crawl into bed.
7. Sleep disorders
If you suddenly get the irresistible urge to start wiggling or kicking your legs when you get into bed, you could have restless leg syndrome (RLS). "It can feel like a creepy-crawly sensation and can prevent you from falling asleep," Dr. Raper explains. And risk of the sleep-sapping condition only increases with age. Johns Hopkins University research suggests the risk of developing RLS climbs by 63% in our 50s and beyond, making this a top insomnia trigger as we grow older. (Click through to learn how one woman used magnesium to cure her restless leg syndrome.)
7 easy ways to prevent restless sleep
No need to agonize over Why can't I sleep at night even when I'm tired? anymore. These simple, natural sleep strategies help you doze off fast, dodge restless sleep, and snooze soundly straight through until morning. The best part? They often start working the very first night!
1. Savor a Greek salad for dinner
A veggie-packed plate can help fight inflammation that worsens menopausal sleep sappers like stress, mood swings, and night sweats, explains Dr. Sholes-Douglas. "My favorite plant-based meal is what I call the modified Greek salad," she says. "This includes English cucumbers, red peppers, red onions, olives, red cabbage, tomatoes, and feta cheese drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar." And the more produce you eat, the lower your levels of sleep-disrupting inflammation, concluded a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Click through to learn how a drizzle of olive oil speeds weight loss, too.)
2. Stretch like a butterfly
Stretching before bedtime can calm your mind, Dr. Sholes-Douglas says. It also significantly reduces both the frequency and intensity of noctural leg cramps that make it harder to fall asleep, a study in the Journal of Physiotherapy found.
"The key to stretching before bed is to keep it slow and gentle," explains Shannon Leggett, PT, a physical therapist in New York City. "You want to signal a wind down to the nervous system." One of her favorite moves to do before bed is what's known as a supine butterfly stretch:
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
Touch the soles of your feet together and let your knees open to the sides. If it's uncomfortable, try tucking a pillow under each thigh for added support.
Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest and take several slow, deep breaths. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then relax. See if you can build up to holding the stretch for 3 to 4 minutes over the course of a few weeks.
Check out the simple how-to video below for additional guidance.
Also smart: At the end of your stretch, give your feet a quick rub. Research in Menopause found doing so helps women sleep up to an hour longer. Massaging the feet stimulates sleep-triggering nerve cells in the legs, calming wired-and-tired anxiety that blocks sleep. To do: Gently knead the soles of both feet, beginning at the heel and progressing towards each toe.
3. Snack on kiwifruit
A sweet bedtime bite can feel like a treat after the end of a hectic day. The problem? Eating sugary snacks before hitting the hay can wreak havoc on your blood sugar, making it harder to sleep soundly, Dr. Sholes-Douglas explains. Blood sugar spikes and crashes "can lead to a feeling of hunger within a few hours of consuming a meal high in simple sugars. During the night, these sugar fluctuations can affect sleep," she says.
A better bet: Snacking on sweet, juicy kiwifruit at night. A study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found folks who ate two an hour before bedtime fell asleep 40% faster and slept up to 55 minutes longer. The fruit naturally contains the sleep hormone melatonin, plus it helps the body produce soothing serotonin so you can forget your worries and sink into sleep.
4. Sip passionflower tea
You don't have to be plagued by thoughts of Why can't I sleep at night even when I'm tired? anymore. To truly quiet your mind before bed, cozy up with a cup of herbal passionflower tea. A study in Phytotherapy Research found people who drank passionflower tea before bed reported better sleep quality compared to those who didn't drink it. The cozy cuppa increases your brain's levels of the stress-busting chemical gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). This calms overactive brain cells, leaving you as relaxed as if you'd taken mood-calming medication (oxazepam), according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics. (Not a fan of passionflower? Click through to see the sleep benefits of lavender tea.)
Tip: If desired, add a pinch of ground star anise to your brew. Research in the journal Plants suggests the licorice-like seeds calm the mind and body as you slumber. Credit goes to anise's quercetin, which relaxes the mind as well as one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for sleep (benzodiazepine).
5. Indulge in a bubble bath
When it comes to nighttime stress relievers, "hot baths are my go-to," says Dr. Sholes-Douglas. "It's a signal that you are transitioning from your day to preparing for sleep." You don't need to spend a ton of time in the tub either (though you can if you want to!). Folks in one University of Texas at Austin study reported sleeping better after soaking for as little as 10 minute about 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. And a separate University of Southern California study found a short soak helps you fall asleep 36% faster. When you step out of a steamy bath, your body temperature naturally dips. This mimics the drop in core your body experiences when you sleep, lulling you to dreamland.
6. Trade your phone for a paperback
Snuggling up in bed with a paperback can help you drift off more easily, according to a review in the journal Trials. One big reason? Reading keeps you off of your phone or computer, which can boost alertness before bedtime and make it harder to fall asleep, say Dr. Sholes-Douglas and Dr. Raper. In fact, people who stopped screen time for 30 minutes before bed fell asleep faster and slept longer compared to those who used their phones up until bedtime, a study in PLOS ONE found.
7. Try an herbal sleep aid
While it's true the prescription sleep aids can help you nod off, they can come with unwelcome side effects such as dizziness, headache, dry mouth, and nausea. Before turning to an Rx, consider a natural sleep supplement. Dr. Sholes-Douglas is a fan of Eu Natural's Serenity sleep aid (Buy from Eu Natural, $9.99).
It contains a blend of several key natural ingredients that enhance your sleep.
Magnesium: Up to 48% of us experience a shortfall in this nutrient. Low levels are linked to more daytime sleepiness, snoring, and worse sleep quality. The mineral aids sleep by improving levels of soothing GABA so it's easier to doze off. (Click through to learn the best magnesium for sleep.)
Valerian root: The herb helps acts a mild sedative, plus minimizes restlessness that can cause you to toss and turn.
Chamomile: The classic soothing sipper contains a sleep-promoting compound called apigenin.
For more ways to improve your sleep:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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