Have problems going to sleep, waking in the middle of the night, or waking early? Not to make light of true medical conditions but most of the reasons you can’t sleep (and there are thousands) boil down to three top causes, from which spring almost all the others. Here’s what they are and what to do about them without going on sleeping pills or needing expensive sleeping equipment.
#1 – What You’re Eating & When
Sleep is a neurological process based on chemical levels rising and falling in our bodies. Any number of things can upset this rhythm. Mostly though we sabotage a good night’s rest by our eating and drinking habits. In addition to this, poor eating habits can lead to illnesses and diseases that will also impact the quality of your sleep.
Bathroom call. The simplest example of this self-sabotage is drinking something right before bed. Likely you’ll have to pee at some point and that full bladder will wake you up. But that’s the easiest and most obvious reason for waking up.
3 a.m. blues. Foods and drink come packed with energy that take time to digest. When the energy kicks in hours later, you may not need to go to the bathroom but you’ll certainly be wide awake.
Sugar rush, caffeine kick, and carb craving. The types of food we eat will also impact our sleep. Eating sugar doesn’t just mean munching a chocolate bar or popping skittles. It’s in your desserts, your drinks, and your meals. It’s also a carb and carbs, especially the refined ones we love in bread and pasta, come with a roller coaster of insulin spikes, lows and cravings. Like caffeine, which also keeps us awake, sugar and refined carbs will sabotage our sleep with their energy spikes and lows, but are also linked to various illnesses and diseases that will also ruin your sleep. With gluten-sensitivities and autoimmune diseases everywhere, cut out sugar and refined carbs or at least try eating them only for breakfast and lunch to see if that helps. Your sleep may be out of whack due to your diet. Many people have cured their sleeping disorders (myself included) by cleaning up their eating habits.
Key Tips for Food & Drink
- Nothing to eat or drink after 8pm – This allows your metabolism to work on schedule without interruptions that will wake you up. It also keeps the midnight run to the bathroom less likely to happen. So no late dinners, night caps or late night snacks.
- No caffeine after 3pm.
- Cut down on sugar and refined carbs and refrain from heavy meals at dinner. Your body doesn’t need the energy load.
- Switch to a whole foods diet. The healthiest populations in the world eat a diet that’s two-thirds or more fruit, veggies, beans, pulses, whole grains, seeds and nuts. They don’t eat packaged, frozen or fast food meals except rarely. If you ever visit a Mediterranean country, you’ll see that what people actually eat at home isn’t a lot of pasta. It’s tons of fresh produce, nuts and seeds, seafood, beans and pulses with a little pasta now and again.
#2 – Noise
This may sound obvious but actually isn’t. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably surrounded by noise. Your refrigerator hums, the heating or cooling switches on and off, a neighbor’s dog barks once or a car starts up or drives by. Some of these things you won’t consciously notice so you won’t always know what woke you up out of the blue.
I had this problem living on a busy street in DC but also in quieter locals when my apartment clicked and hummed as the various systems turned off and on. You may not notice but your brain does.
- Invest in earplugs. You can get them cheap and they are worth every penny. Find the right size. Like ear buds, you might have some discomfort at first but you’ll adjust.
I wore these in party-at-all-hours Bangkok and Chiang Mai and slept soundly every night despite my hotel rooms sometimes being right next to night clubs. Earplugs save me and countless others from the random house noises of refrigerators, heating and cooling systems, busy neighbors, nocturnal pets, and the stress of my alert mind telling me I should wake up because a chipmunk ran across the roof. They also kept me from murdering my aunt who snored like a chainsaw during a trip to Italy for 10 days (we shared a room).
- Noise-cancellation devices. Many people keep a television or music playing to drown out other sounds at night. Personally I find this too disruptive to a good night’s rest – plus the changing volume and tempo can also disturb your rest. Playing a consistent white noise is the way to go, even if it’s as simple as turning on a fan or vent to drown out most everything else.
Bottom line: Buy the buds or use white noise. Sleep deeper and more consistently as a result.
#3 – Your Brain Won’t Shut Up
There are a number of reasons our minds spin and won’t quiet down enough to let us sleep.
We are what we eat. Surprisingly, diet is a large part of this. Check out the food and drink tips above but going further with diet, understand that the foods you eat impact your mood and anxiety levels.
This was a real eye-opener for me and one of the main reasons I switched to a whole foods diet. Sugar and refined carbs are highly linked to increased anxiety and swings in mood. When I cut them out, my moods evened out, my funks disappeared, and my neuroticism dropped. Now, when I indulge in sugary foods or those with flour like breads and pasta, my body starts responding with more anxiety, worry and funks which only increase the longer I keep eating these foods. Once I take them away, I go back to an even keel. Many people experience this mood shift.
If you’re dubious, just give a kid candy and watch them change into crazy monsters. That’s the obvious example but other foods impact us just as negatively in more subtle ways. Food is chemistry and it affects our mind and emotions.
Anxious by default. Another reason we can’t sleep has to do with our internal monologues about our fears and dreams. When you’ve cleaned up your diet and still have a spinning mind before bed or wake up worrying or unable to stop thinking, the next place to look is at how you’ve trained your mind.
Trained your brain? What am I talking about? We’re born with a default personality. Some of us are worrywarts and some are happy-go-lucky. Guess who sleeps better? This default gets ingrained over the years or gets shifted by what we see and hear (watch the nightly news and you’ll be convinced the world is ending). We don’t train our minds to notice our thoughts, let alone train it to handle all the incoming messages from others and society.
The way to calm the mind and get a good night sleep? Meditation and mindfulness practice. These teach us how to handle our emotions, notice our thoughts, calm down rather than add fuel to our thoughts, and learn how to let go of the things we can’t change or control, and move forward with more peace and happiness. Sound good? The bonus is that you’ll also sleep better.
Start Sleeping Better Now
You can go to pricy clinics to get a sleep disorder diagnosis and some pills or a sleeping device that doesn’t solve the underlying problem or you can take care of 99% of sleep problems by eating a whole foods diet, cancelling out noise, and training your mind to be more peaceful and happy – all of which will improve the quality and health of your life.
We are a convenience culture that wants quick fixes but good health – including sleep – isn’t built on convenience. It’s based on proper nutrition, not on processed food which makes up 66% of the American diet. Good sleep is also based on a quiet environment that in our whirring society of smart homes, busy neighborhoods, and constant movement our more pastoral minds interpret as threats necessitating the need to wake up. Good sleep is also built on a calm and peaceful mind that depends on good diet and putting a leash on our active minds that have more and more to react to and worry over everyday.
If your default isn’t healthy and isn’t working, look to these three causes and their solutions. And have a good night’s rest consistently.
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