If you’re vying for sweet slumber, here are some of most common biological, physical, and mental/emotional issues that might be keeping you awake.
Stress and anxiety
Whether it’s 10pm or 3am, stress keeps the brain in an active state. That’s because anxiety interrupts the mechanisms controlling the nervous system.
When our bodies drift into Lala Land, the brain switches off the sympathetic nervous system -home of the “fight or flight” response – and control is handed off to the parasympathetic nervous system , the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” center.
The switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic is a crucial step in sleep and relaxation, because the parasympathetic nervous system calms things down by relaxing heart rate, blood pressure, and muscles.
The brain doesn’t differentiate between stress over work or relationships, and stress over life-and-death survival, so any kind of worries or anxieties will keep the sympathetic nervous system running. Thus, resisting any and all desires for faster sleep.
What you can do about stress
So, how can stress and and anxieties be conquered? Well, the ironic answer is stop stressing out over sleep. Arguing with your brain over all the reasons you need more sleep and reminding it of all the precious rest that’s been lost may seem like a great way to shut the brain up, but we all know that never works.
Instead, focus on feeling good so that the brain can switch off the parasympathetic nervous system. Put the mind’s ADHD tendencies by using focused breathing techniques, muscle relaxations, or imagining happy and elaborate “what-ifs.” You can also use Sleep Junkie mind tricks like telling your brain that you’re staying awake as late as possible (because a brain that’s focused on not sleeping won’t be focusing on anti-sleep stressors).
Circadian rhythm disruptions
Our body runs on a biological clock that’s mostly based on night and day. When daylight hits the eyes, the light provokes the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) within the brain to shut off melatonin production. Likewise, lack of light triggers the SCN to kick up the melatonin.
The connection between the cycle of night and day ends up creating a biological schedule for things like hormone production, blood pressure, and body temperature (our circadian rhythms).
When we’re “on schedule” with day and night, our bodies develop a natural biological flow that promotes regular and restorative sleep behavior. Jumble it up with a night job, a trip abroad, or bright lighting, and the circadian cycle can fall out of rhythm.
What you can do about circadian rhythm disruptions
Sleep trouble or not, having a solid night routine is just smart. Hot tea, warm baths, and pleasing essential oils are great ways to wind down, but the benefits go beyond relaxation. Do them regularly, and they basically become cues that tell your body bedtime is near, and it’s time to wind down.
But if herbs, diffusers, and bathing at dusk aren’t your cup of tea, a change in lighting may be enough to help. Because our circadian rhythms are based on night and day, dimming the lights will tell the SCN that melatonin production is next on the bio-schedule.
White and blue light mimics sunlight, so bright lighting should be avoided whether it’s from a florescent bulb, a TV, or a phone. If you really want to go all-out with your sleep accessories, consider getting red lightbulbs or Himalayan salt lamps for evening lighting.
Call it gastroesophageal reflux disease, acid reflux, or severe heartburn; 15 million Americans are suffering stomach acid problems and loss of zzz’s. GERD can be a symptom of a physical issue like hiatal hernia (when the stomach is wedged up into the diaphragm), or a faulty gastroesophageal valve, but sometimes there isn’t a physical problem to blame.
The conventional approach to keeping stomach acids down and out of the esophagus, is to prescribe medication like proton pump inhibitors, histamine blockers, motility agents, and so on. The good news is that these meds reduce acid, but prescription relief only lasts so long because stomach acid suppression doesn’t actually treat GERD; it only alleviates it. That means that nights of deep sleep are only temporary.
Poor diet has a strong connection with acid reflux, so dietary changes are one way to get the stomach (and body) some rest. GERD-contributing factors include soda, coffee, alcohol, salty and fatty foods, tobacco, aspirin, and late-night meals, so nixing those behaviors can help bring balance to the belly.
Natural GERD help can be found in fresh or powdered ginger, licorice root, slippery elm, fresh fruits and veggies, apple cider vinegar, and natural chewing gums (for the protective benefits of saliva). Severe GERD symptoms caused by hiatal hernia or a compromised valve may warrant surgery.
Generally, doctors will perform a laparoscopic anti-reflux surgery, but there’s a newer non-invasive TIF (Transoral Incisionless Fundoplication) procedure that can save the costs and complications of cutting, anesthesia, and recovery time.
It’s obvious that aches and pains will keep us awake at night, but this one comes with a double whammy because pain has a connection with higher stress levels, which has a connection with higher blood pressure.
All of these things together can make it seem impossible to get comfortable and relax into sleep. Add in sudden pains or a constant dull ache, and staying asleep will be as easy as falling asleep.
Chronic pains stem from more serious ailments, but pains that come from sore muscles, menstrual cramps, injuries, headaches, or painful joints have natural remedies. A majority of pains deal with some sort of inflammation.
What you can do about pain
Enhancing circulation helps the body flush out the inflammatory agents, so the circulation suggestions can help. In addition, you can eat more magnesium for it’s benefits with muscle pain and nerve pain. Anti-inflammatory essential oils like chamomile, marjoram, rosemary, and lavender can be applied to painful spots with a carrier oil for powerful relief. Rosemary essential oil can also be used to relieve headaches or migraines.
Restless Leg Syndrome
It may sound like some made-up disorder, but the 15% of Americans living with Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) will attest that it’s as real as it is annoying. The symptoms vary, but to sum up medical overviews with my own experience, I’d say it’s best described as a nagging sensation in the legs that makes absolutely impossible to keep still.
Running a midnight marathon sounds more relaxing than laying in bed. The irresistible urge to kick, stretch, and move around is unbearable, and it can have people tossing and turning their way across a mattress in search of some magical semi-comfortable position.
There’s no official word on the cause, but studies do show a strong connection with underlying varicose veins (compromised valves), peripheral neuropathy (problems in the nerves that send signals between the brain and spinal cord), and iron deficiency of the brain.
What you can do about RLS
Based on what science has discovered, nutrition is a key player in treating RLS. Iron has shown to be a strong ally in cutting down RLS, and it may be responsible for restless legs being so much more common with women (ie. pregnancy and menstruation).
Natural electrolytes calcium, potassium, and Magnesium are dietary musts because of the role the minerals have in muscle function, with Magnesium perhaps being most important. And because of the RLS connection to varicose veins, it’s a good idea to get circulation up to par. Exercise, stretching or yoga, massage, circulation-enhancing essential oils, and heat (like a hot bath with magnesium-rich epsom salt)
Ash Stevens is a mother, writer, and a wannabe shaman. She loves health, gardening, simplicity, culture, chocolate, and sarcasm. If she isn’t writing or talking family and relationships on her blog, then she’s surely playing badminton with the kids.