Why Can't You Sleep?
What's keeping you up at night-and should you worry?
-By Sam Mittelsteadt
WHEN IT COME TO SLEEP HOURS, most of us are
always looking for more-not just quantity
but quality, too. If you find yourself wound up about the right
way to wind down, it might be time to relax! Let's check off a few
things that might help you rest assured.
- IS SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON?
Stress at work or home can be an obvious culprit-who hasn't lain
in bed at night pondering an earlier event?-but conditions such as
depression, cardiac issues and diabetes also can lead to poor
sleep. Certain medications, supplements and even vitamins have been
linked to sleep loss, too, which is why it's wise to consult a
physician if you've had trouble falling asleep for more than two
- DID YOU EXERCISE TODAY?
Daily physical activity ranging from light walking to intense
weightlifting can help alleviate stress and relieve insomnia, but
studies don't agree whether invigorating evening exercise could
hinder restfulness when it's time to sack out. The American Academy
of Sleep Medicine suggests keeping a six-hour window between
exercise and sleep, just in case. But those who have to hit the gym
after work can take comfort: "In surveys and
experiments, most people have not had disturbed sleep following
exercise, even ending 30 minutes before bedtime,"
says Sean Youngstedt, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise
science at the University of South Carolina.
- ARE YOU INADVERTENTLY MAKING IT WORSE?
"We often think if we haven't done something well-even
sleep!-then we haven't tried hard enough," says
Christina Smith McCrae, Ph.D., president of the Society of
Behavioral Sleep Medicine."But when people try to
sleep, that interferes with the sleep process
itself." Anxiety about not sleeping well the night
before can lead a person to lie awake night after night, worrying
about whether she'll be able to fall asleep. At that point, the
insomnia "is no longer tied to any stress that started
it," McCrae says. "It's become a problem
in its own right."
- DO YOU REALLY NEED TO TOTALLY UNPLUG?
An end-of-day ritual or routine can help both mind and body relax
and prepare for bed, according to the sleep academy, but it may not
be necessary to block TV viewing or online browsing before bedtime.
(During a recent study, older teens fell asleep only 7½ minutes
after playing nearly an hour's worth of the action-packed online
role-playing war game Call of Duty IV.) Sure, some of us can't fall
asleep when a TV is on because our brains can't tune out the noise,
but others can nod off midprogram. Nobody falls asleep the same
way; no universal routine works across the board. But if you're
having trouble sleeping, it never hurts to experiment with some
changes, like nixing caffeine in the evening, swapping out a book
for pre-bedtime TV or taking a warm bath before bed.
- IS MORE ALWAYS BETTER?
We always hear about getting your eight hours, but "there
are 'long sleepers' and 'short sleepers," says McCrae.
"It's about the best total sleeptime for
you," she says. Circadian rhythm varies from person
to person-and over a lifetime, the amount of sleep we need tends to
decrease. (Or we'd all still be out for roughly 16 hours a day,
like newborns.) McCrae also stresses that the best sleep is
consolidated into a single block, without repeated or long
awakenings. That means no lying in bed for 10 hours, knowing that
you'll toss and turn for two before finally dropping off.
"You can set the conditions for sleep to occur, but you
can't make yourself sleep," she says.