Answers to “Why Can’t I Sleep?” and Other Sleep Problems
Reviewed by Jennifer Martin, PhD
Google hears about everyone’s sleep problems, at all hours of the night.
And chances are, if BILLIONS of people are wondering why they can’t sleep, why they keep waking up at night, what they can do to fall asleep faster, and how long they should be sleeping, your clients are wondering, too.
In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about the sleep problems your clients are likely to struggle with the most, along with science-supported practices that can help.
In this article, we’ll try to give you some resources to do that.
If you want, read the following Q and As from top to bottom. Or, just jump to the ones that interest you the most:
Question #1. Why can’t I sleep?
Question #2. Why do I keep waking up at night?
Question #3. How much sleep do I need?
Question #4. Why do we sleep?
Question #5. What’s the best way to track sleep?
Let’s start with the top sleep question people type into Google—likely bleary-eyed, at 3 am…
Why can’t I sleep?
Technically, everyone can sleep. Stay awake long enough and sleep will absolutely find you. Our sleep drive is built into our biology.
So when someone types “why can’t I sleep?” into Google, what they’re really asking is:
“Why does it take so long for me to fall asleep?”
Usually, one of the following is going on, says Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution and The Rested Child, and co-author of Precision Nutrition’s Sleep, Stress Management, and Recovery Coaching Certification.
Answer #1: You have anxiety over not being able to sleep.
Here’s a common scenario:
You go to bed at your usual time.
Twenty minutes go by. Then an hour. Blink. Blink. Still awake.
As you toss and turn, you think things like, “Ugh, again? WHY?! Tomorrow‘s going to be a disaster! I NEED to sleep… NOW!”
Naturally, those thoughts lead to anxiety, and trigger the release of brain chemicals that keep you alert and (gulp) awake.
To break this maddening cycle, address and reframe the underlying thoughts and emotions. You’ll likely discover you have some unhelpful and maybe even unrealistic beliefs about sleep.
Rather than berating yourself for not sleeping, consider gently reminding yourself that…
▶ You’ll fall asleep eventually. Like we said earlier, all humans have an innate drive and capacity for sleep.
▶ You’re likely getting more sleep than you realize. According to Dr. Winter, most people aren’t aware of their lightest sleep phases. They think they’ve spent most of the night awake when, in fact, they slept several hours.
▶ Occasional sleep loss is normal. Especially during times of excitement, anticipation, change, or stress. For most, this is a temporary phase. Trust that your sleep will recalibrate eventually.
(For more ideas on how to break free from sleep anxiety read: How to Sleep Better When Nothing Helps You Sleep Better)
Answer #2: You have an afternoon coffee habit.
Caffeine blocks the function of adenosine, a neurochemical that makes you sleepy.
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up caffeine entirely.
Some people find that cutting back—say, having just one espresso shot instead of two—ameliorates their sleep issues.
Other clients have told us that they’re okay if they have caffeine before noon, but not after.
Answer #3: You sleep in.
It takes about 16 hours of wakefulness for enough adenosine to build up in your brain to nudge you into slumber.
So, waking up later means you probably won’t feel sleepy until later.
(In other words, do the math: Sleeping in until 10 am might mean that your brain isn’t ready to rest until about 2 am.)
It’s tempting to keep hitting snooze, especially if you slept crummy the night before, but do your best to get out of bed at a reasonable time, and you’ll set yourself up better for a reasonable bedtime.
Answer #4. You don’t get much sunlight, especially in the mornings.
Most organisms, including humans, have evolved to organize their physiological processes in response to light and dark.
Morning sunlight in particular seems to help set the body’s circadian rhythm, helping you feel tired when it gets dark in the evening.
Try to get 10 to 20 minutes of sunlight within two hours of waking up. (And yes, overcast days still count!)
Answer #5. You snuggle up to screens in the evening.
Melatonin increases sleep drive as night approaches, but it requires relative darkness to do its work.
Light from phones, tablets, televisions—also known as blue light—and even overhead incandescent lighting can disrupt this sleep-promoting hormone, making sleep elusive.
As the sun begins to lower, lower the lighting in your house too. If you can, limit screen time especially in the hour before bedtime.
5 evergreen strategies to improve sleep
Sleep hacks come and go, but these five principles of good sleep are nearly universally recommended by sleep experts and good sleepers alike:
1. Keep your sleep-wake schedule consistent.
Wake at roughly the same time each day (including weekends) and hit the sack around the same time each evening.
2. Use a pre-sleep ritual.
About 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed, get into wind-down mode. Turn off screens. Dim the lights. Relax with a bath, stretching, or time with a book. By doing the same behaviors each evening, you’ll train your brain to know it’s bedtime.
3. Avoid high-fat, high-calorie evening meals.
Consume moderately sized meals no later than 3 hours before bedtime. Eat meals higher in carbohydrates and protein rather than high-fat meals, which can worsen sleep quality in some people.
4. Avoid energizing exercise in the evening.
Schedule weight lifting and intense cardio earlier in the day. Closer to bedtime, opt for calming, gentle movements like walking or slow yoga.
5. Keep your room dark.
If possible, make your bedroom as dark as possible or consider wearing a sleep mask. That way, you reduce interference from street lights or other lights in your environment, which can inhibit melatonin.
(For more science-based advice to get more rest, read: How to Sleep Better: Your 14-Day Plan for Better Rest)
Why can’t I sleep through the night?
Lots of people wake at night—and Dr. Winter wants to tell you it’s no big deal.
Here are a couple of scenarios that often distress people, but are actually totally normal:
▶ Early waking: You’re wide awake at 5 am, a full two hours before your alarm. Even though you think you should be sleeping longer, your brain might be fully recharged and ready to slay your day.
▶ Biphasic sleep: You sleep for several hours, then wake and feel alert for 45 minutes or so, and then go back to sleep for several more hours. If that’s you, drop any anxiety over your mid-night waking; just assume it’s normal, read for a little bit, then let yourself fall back asleep when you’re ready.
For both of the above situations, if you feel rested and alert during the day, there’s no true sleep problem, says Dr. Winter.
On the other hand, if it seems as if no amount of sleep will fix how tired you feel, consider whether any of the common offenders might be interfering with your ability to sleep through the night.
What Wakes People During the Night
If you’re someone who has trouble falling asleep again after you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, it might help to prevent disruptions from happening in the first place.
Take a look at the following list of common nighttime troublemakers, and see where you have control modifying or avoiding them:
▶ Alcohol: Having a nightcap (or two) often helps people feel more relaxed—and maybe even fall asleep faster. But as alcohol metabolizes, your body experiences “rebound” arousal, causing a fitful sleep.1
▶ Caffeine: As mentioned, caffeine blocks the function of adenosine, a neurochemical that makes you sleepy. Try to avoid caffeine—not just coffee, but caffeinated soda, too—a minimum of six hours before bedtime.
▶ Intense evening exercise: A natural effect of intense exercise is an increase in cortisol, a hormone that makes us feel alert. Some people find that if they exercise vigorously too late in the evening, they still feel “pumped up” when it’s time to sleep.
▶ Sedentary lifestyle: Research shows that people who are chronically deprived of physical activity are more likely to struggle with insomnia.2 This can create a vicious cycle, because if you’ve slept poorly the night before, you might be inclined to stay in bed or on the couch the next day. Even if you’re tired, get your steps in. One study showed sleep quality was better in those who walked more.3
▶ Smoking cigarettes: Nicotine is a stimulant. So, much in the way that caffeine can jangle your nerves too close to bed, so can cigarettes (or vaping).
▶ Drinking liquids too close to bed: Have a recurring dream where you’re running around trying to find a bathroom, and every stall is locked? Avoid drinking liquids two to three hours before bed, and you’ll be less likely to be tormented in the middle of the night with a full bladder.
▶ Snoring spouse: Snoring isn’t grounds for divorce, but it’s definitely grounds for investing in a good pair of earplugs. Or maybe separate bedrooms. (And if your spouse sounds like a lawnmower, get them to ask their doc about it. Snoring is a common sign of sleep apnea.)
▶ Pets and children: Co-sleeping with pets or children sounds cozy, but if it’s disrupting your sleep, it might not be worth it. Set Rover up with a dog bed (maybe in a separate room). If kids keep coming into your bed at night, calmly walk them back to their room, and tuck them in. With consistency, most kids (and pets) learn to sleep on their own.
In addition to the above, talk to your doctor about your sleep. It might be worth getting screened for sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and other conditions that disturb sleep.
How much sleep do I need?
On average, most people need somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
But that’s an average, not a good-health edict.
“There are people who require slightly more and slightly less sleep,” says Dr. Winter. Above- and below-average sleepers fall into three main categories:
▶ Natural short sleepers feel spunky and clear-headed with just six or seven hours of shuteye.
▶ Natural long sleepers need 10 or more hours in order to feel refreshed.
▶ Children, teenagers, and many young adults need more sleep for their developing bodies and brains.
Meanwhile, others sleep 14, 17, 24 or more hours with very little interruption—and still wake feeling tired.
“If you’re one of these people, it might be an indication that there is something wrong with your sleep quality, not necessarily the quantity,” Dr. Winter says.
For example, sleep disorders like sleep apnea can disrupt sleep, causing people to sleep more hours and still wake feeling unrefreshed. These disorders require medical treatment, so mention any concerns to your doctor.
(Read more: What Happens When You Sleep Too Much?)
Why do we sleep?
Researchers haven’t figured out exactly what sleep does, but there’s one thing they’re sure of:
Sleep is important.
Every physiological process, in some way, is regulated or influenced by sleep.
Getting enough good-quality sleep:
- Improves your mood and your ability to manage your emotions
- Makes you less impulsive (which helps you make better decisions)
- Helps you learn and remember
- Improves thinking, concentration, and attention
- Keeps your brain healthy
- Helps you regulate your appetite, plus preserve and repair valuable lean tissue like muscle and bone
- Regulates blood sugar and lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides
What’s the best way to track sleep?
If you spend time reading Precision Nutrition’s content, you’ll see we’re funny about the word “best.”
That’s because the BEST advice for any one person depends on their sex, age, genetics, lifestyle, preferences, and an array of other factors.
This “no best” philosophy applies to diets, stress management techniques, exercise, and, yes, even sleep trackers.
Because there’s no one “best” way to track sleep, it’s better to simply present clients with options. Then, they can decide on the best approach—for them.
Below we’ve listed some of those options, starting with the least expensive.
Sleep tracking option #1: The sleep diary
For about a month, get your client to track:
- What time they flipped off the lights at night
- What time they got up in the morning
- Whether they woke up in the middle of the night
- If they napped during the day (and if so, for how long)
On top of that, get them to keep notes on how they feel during the day, especially during low-stress activities such as watching television or reading.
Do they feel alert? Or ready to snooze whenever they stop moving?
At the end of the month, look over the log together and see if you can spot any patterns. (For example, does a daytime nap seem to increase the likelihood of having a disrupted sleep at night? Or not?)
If a client generally feels spunky during the day, that’s a good sign they’re getting all the sleep they need.
On the other hand, if they’re nodding off during dinner, try prioritizing sleep until they’re getting seven to eight quality hours per night.
If your client is consistently struggling to fall or stay asleep—and they feel zombie-like during the day—encourage them to mention it to their doctor.
Sleep tracking option #2: Commercial sleep trackers
At-home devices aren’t always as precise as many manufacturers claim.
While technologies are improving significantly, and some devices and apps are better than others, many of them just aren’t very accurate when it comes to precisely monitoring specific stages of sleep.
They are, however, pretty good about telling you how long you slept. These trackers are especially helpful for…
▶ People struggling with insomnia
Most people aren’t aware of their lightest sleep phases. They think they’ve spent most of the night tossing when, in fact, they slept several hours.
As a result, these devices can often help folks with insomnia realize that they’re getting more sleep than they realize.
▶ Anyone who’s experimenting with a new sleep strategy
Whether you’re using a white noise machine or turning down your thermostat a few degrees, these devices can help you see whether the tactic actually led to improved sleep.
On the downside, monitoring can make some people more anxious or obsessive about their sleep… which means they get even worse sleep.
(Read more about tracking health metrics and anxiety: Are Fitness Trackers Worth It?)
Sleep tracking option #3: Sleep studies
Requested by a physician, a sleep study can help your doctor determine whether you have a health problem that’s interfering with sleep.
Home-based sleep studies are an accessible and relatively inexpensive way for physicians to test for sleep apnea, when breathing repeatedly stops and starts during the night.
To diagnose other health conditions, your physician may ask you to spend a night in a sleep lab.
How to help sleepless clients
As you might have learned from personal experience, if you tell clients about all of the horrible things that will happen if they don’t get more sleep, their sleep will likely get worse.
(Thanks, sleep anxiety.)
Another losing strategy: Pushing the same so-called magical sleep protocol on everyone.
Truth is, no ONE practice will help every single client.
That’s why, to truly benefit your clients, we recommend experimenting.
✅ Talk about a wide range of possible changes and how they might help
✅ Ask, “What are you willing to try?” Then pick 1-2 actions they’re ready, willing, and able to commit to for a period of time (two weeks is a good frame)
✅ Gather data over time. Then ask: Is this making your sleep better? Worse? The same?
Use what you learn from the above process to iterate. Eventually, your client will discover the set of practices that works best—for them.
If you’re a health and fitness pro…
Learning how to help clients manage stress and optimize sleep can massively change your clients’ results.
They’ll get “unstuck” and finally move forward—whether they want to eat better, move more, lose weight, or reclaim their health.
Plus, it’ll give you the confidence and credibility as a specialized coach who can solve the biggest problems blocking any clients’ progress.
The brand-new PN Level 1 Sleep, Stress Management, and Recovery Coaching Certification will show you how.
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