7 Reasons You Had a Sleepless Night

If you're still struggling to catch enough shut-eye, one or more of these sleep stealers may be to blame.

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Why can’t you sleep?

Another sleepless night and yet you eat well, exercise regularly, avoid caffeine and screen time before bed… and have made your room a Pinterest picture of a good night’s sleep. So what’s to blame?

We’ll get to that shortly. First, here’s why not sleeping well is a bad thing: It is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health conditions. “There is also mood disturbance, often depression,” says Eva Libman, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in Montreal. “Cognitive function and performance are impaired. And if there is a pain condition, it is exacerbated by inadequate sleep.”

Getting enough quality sleep has a restorative effect and can even clear the brain of toxins, as a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York and NYU Langone Medical Center identified. According to the study, published in the journal Science, “the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.” This “brainwashing” also removes beta-amyloid, a peptide that can accumulate, forming plaque on nerve cells. Notes Libman, this is associated with the development of dementia. To avoid the risk of dementia, cut back on this daily habit.

Read on for the most common sleep stealers and how to best fight them.

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Your kids

“Parenting can be costly to our sleep hygiene,” says James MacFarlane, director of education at MedSleep clinics across Canada and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He notes that according to a 2005 Statistics Canada survey, respondents with one child under the age of 15 at home slept an average of 17 minutes less than their childless counterparts; those with at least two children under the age of 15 slept 25 minutes less.

Rates of sleep also vary depending on age. According to a 2010 Statistics Canada survey, among Canadians age 15 and older, 15- to 24-year-olds reported the most amount of daily sleep (eight hours, 59 minutes), whereas those age 35 to 44 reported the least (seven hours, 57 minutes). But some people are “short sleepers” and require just five to six hours of sleep per night; others are “long sleepers” and require nine to 10 hours a night. The amount of sleep required is individual and should be based on the number of hours you need to feel you are functioning at your best during the day, explains Libman.

While getting rid of your kids is not a practical solution to getting more sleep, making sure they get on a good sleep routine and managing other sleepless night culprits can help ensure that the precious hours you do get are as fulfilling and restful as they can be. If you’re looking for more solutions, these sleep-inducing products are worth a try.

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Your job

“Work can come with a signi­ficant cost,” says MacFarlane. Long hours, commutes and 24/7 expectations, not to mention shift work, can all cut into precious downtime and result in a sleepless night.

If you are dealing with a stressful job or negative work environment, the sleep loss could be exponential. “Working in a ‘toxic’ environment may lead to frustration and despair, which can have an impact on the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Libman.

For anyone whose sleep/wake cycle is out of synch, Libman recommends a combination of melatonin (found in the vitamin section in pharmacies), and bright light exposure during work hours, to help them adjust it. “Melatonin is a hormone that the body produces nat­urally that signals sleep time is coming,” says Libman, who recommends taking a small dose (three milligrams) several hours before your normal bedtime, which is when your body should produce it naturally. (Here’s what happens to your body when you take it.) Melatonin does not make you sleep, but rather helps promote sleep onset. Libman suggests consulting a sleep specialist to find out the proper timing of melatonin for you. She also recommends getting a dose of bright light exposure — preferably a half-hour — upon waking up to help you feel more alert. Special lamps, originally developed to treat seasonal affective disorder, that deliver the right kind of UV-protected light exposure (look for 10,000 lux [a measure of light intensity]) are available at electronics retailers. Place the lamp on the table during breakfast (follow the manufacturer’s directions; it is usually placed 12 to 14 inches away from your face).

Libman cautions that bright light exposure should be limited in the late afternoon and evening. She even recommends wearing sunglasses in the late part of the day so as not to interfere with the production of natural melatonin (which is inhibited by light exposure). She notes that, when it comes to screen time in the evening, TV is a better choice than a computer; the bright light from a computer screen close to your face can suppress mela­tonin. If you don’t want to give up your computer before bed, Libman suggests using digital protection glasses. “They counteract the blue lightwaves, which are most alerting.” Here’s exactly how blue light can affect your sleep.

Then there’s shift work, when work schedules conflict with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, forcing people to work and keep awake when tired, and sleep when alert; this often results in poor sleep quality. If you are trying to invert the sleep/wake cycle, the bright light should be administered during the night, explains Libman.

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Many medications have either stimulating or sedating effects, says Libman, who explains that some stimulating antidepressants such as Prozac can interfere with sleep, and should therefore be taken in the morning.

“In general, you should try to time these medications appropriately,” says Libman. In many cases, it may be advisable to take them earlier in the day if you find they keep you awake at night. Check with your doctor.

Here’s the best time of day to take each of your dietary supplements.

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Stress & anxiety

“Stress almost always interferes with sleep,” says MacFarlane, who adds that “chronic stress causes hyper-arousal, which is not compatible with satisfactory sleep.” Similarly, anxiety can also interfere with sleep and result in a sleepless night, he says.

“People don’t realize that their daytime life has an important impact on their nighttime sleep quality,” says Libman. “If stress, tension and worries are not dealt with effectively, sleep quality is likely to be compromised if you are already predisposed to poor-quality sleep.” She recommends taking a half-hour near the end of the day to make a list of what is on your mind — problems, as well as solutions and timelines for addressing them — then set it aside. When these thoughts emerge at night, remind yourself that you have dealt with them and there is a plan for each, then refocus on preparing for sleep.

Also remember that getting regular exercise can help to deal with stress and tension, and it can help to dissipate those excess stress hormones. Just don’t leave it too late in the day; that may make you too energized to sleep. Plus, check out how many calories you can burn while sleeping.

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Chronic pain

MacFarlane lists chronic pain conditions among the top things that can affect sleep. Libman notes that not only will pain make it harder to drift off and affect the quality of your sleep, it is also likely to wake you up through the night, even if you don’t notice it. And if you have a sleepless night, you will experience pain more acutely the next day, she says. “It’s a bad cycle.”

While “it’s extremely important to have good pain medication,” says Libman, MacFarlane cautions that narcotic medications can also disrupt sleep by suppressing respir­ation. Examples of these types of narcotics include oxycodone, methadone and morphine. In these cases, talk with your doctor to see if you can achieve relief with a lighter dose at night.

Be sure you’re not missing these silent signs of sleep apnea.

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An allergy will interfere with breathing, which disrupts sleep. It is important to treat the allergy with medication, says Libman, adding that you can also provide a more comfortable environment in your bedroom by using an air purifier, for example. “If blocked nasal passages are interfering with sleep, try nose strips to open the nasal airway,” she says.

MacFarlane adds that if there is increased airway congestion at night, it might indicate local allergens, such as feathers, pets or dust mites. “This is usually worse during winter months, when windows are closed,” he says. “Nasal steroid sprays or antihistamines can significantly improve sleep quality.” He suggests avoiding a down or feather duvet or pillows, buying a good-quality pillow protector and mattress cover, and removing wall-to-wall carpeting. Also, wash bedding weekly in hot water, to protect against dust mites. And if you live in one of these six cities in Canada, you may want to take extra precautions for your allergies.

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Food & drink

“If someone is prone to insomnia, we usually suggest limiting caffeine in the latter part of the afternoon,” says Libman. “Alcohol close to bedtime may have first a sedative and then an alerting effect.” No particular foods have been identified as harmful to sleep in general, she says. Still, there are individual differences: If a person perceives a food as “difficult to digest” (e.g., foods that are high in fat, or contain caffeine) or has a physio­logical condition such as gastric reflux, this may cause nocturnal discomfort and interfere with sleep and result in a sleepless night. In such cases, avoiding the trigger is the best solution.

As for whether certain foods help you sleep, Libman says there are some, such as warm milk, that are believed to have a small effect. “This is because milk contains some of the precursors to tryptophan, which has some soporific effect,” she says. However, any food a person finds soothing and that takes away feelings of hunger will help in falling asleep, says Libman. Next, read up on 12 habits that could be ruining your sleep.

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