Bad Sleep: Common Causes and How to Reverse It
Many people suffer from too little sleep. One in three people doesn’t get enough of it according to the CDC (1). Yet, sleep is a crucial factor in human well-being. Good sleep helps maintain mental, physical and emotional health. While you snooze, the body remains remarkably active, depending on this time spent asleep to repair and heal. If you consistently get bad sleep, this article will cover common causes and strategies you need to consider to help stop it.
The benefits of sleep are numerous. Science is showing that sleep allows your brain to cleanse and detoxify itself. You can check out the graphic below to understand more about how that works. In essence, the body just won’t be healthy if you are getting bad sleep.
There are dietary and lifestyle factors that play a major role in the quality of your sleep. For faster relief, there are also supplemental strategies to promote deep sleep. This article will cover everything you need to know to optimize your sleepy time.
What is Healthy Sleep?
Sleep needs vary depending on many things, ranging from age, lifestyle and even gender (2). The recommended sleep duration for the average adult is between seven to nine hours every night. Athletes, however, may need an extra hour on average in order to allow their systems to respond to muscular breakdown.
A typical, healthy sleep cycle moves through five stages during the night. Stages one and two are both light sleep, easing you into slumber with a lowered heart rate and internal temperature. Then come stages three and four, the official deep sleep phases. Here, brainwaves slow and sleepwalking or bedwetting can occur.
The final stage is REM or rapid eye movement, and it’s just what it sounds like. During this stage, the eyes move back and forth quickly, a pattern that is thought to be related to the intense brain activity that accompanies this phase. In fact, it’s during this stage that dreams and muscle paralysis may occur.
The Importance of the Sleep Cycle
A complete sleep cycle lasts between 90-110 minutes, and as the night goes on, cycles lengthen, so most individuals go through four or five a night. This is the optimal amount of time for your body to reconstruct and go through its necessary maintenance.
These cycles are regulated by what is called the circadian rhythm. The internal clock that runs your sleep/wake patterns is kept in balance by sunlight or lack thereof. Your circadian rhythm controls the release of different amounts of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel tired, depending on the amount of daylight available. The brain perceives day as the natural time to be awake, so exposure to sunlight causes the body to release less melatonin, making you feel more energetic. This is why humans naturally get sleepy at nighttime.
What is Unhealthy Sleep?
If healthy sleep lasts around eight hours a night with four to five sleep cycles, then unhealthy sleep is any more or less time spent snoozing. While it may it seem logical that sleeping more than the recommended amount of time would only improve your health, oversleeping is nearly as harmful as sleeping too little. Sleeping too much can throw off your circadian rhythm. This can cause you to feel fatigued during the day, but awake at night.
This disturbance can not only make you feel more tired the following morning but might even lead to serious health issues like diabetes and fertility issues (3). In fact, sleeping for more than 10 hours a night has been linked to a thirty percent higher chance of dying at a young age (4).
Not getting enough rest is unhealthy for similar reasons. Cutting your body short on the typical sleep cycle can prevent it from doing its housekeeping and leave you less prepared to take on the day. While losing a few hours here and there can make you feel tired, irritable, or unable to focus well, it typically isn’t dangerous in the long-term.
Consistently losing sleep, however, whether it’s due to an inability to fall asleep or poor sleep quality, can quickly begin to affect your health. A lack of sleep overworks your body and even significantly increases your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke (5).
Causes of Poor Sleep & How to Address Them
There are many different factors that can influence sleep quality, from different health conditions to lifestyle choices.
Here are some of the most common causes of poor sleep, and how to address them in order to look after your health.
Poor Sleep Schedule
As we have discussed shortly already, our body relies on proper signals to know when to sleep. The circadian rhythm is the fluctuation between cortisol (a stimulating hormone) and melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone). This rhythm relies on a number of cues like sunlight, food, physical activity, and previous rhythm patterns.
Because of this rhythm, it is important to stay consistent with your sleep and wake schedule. This way, your hormones will follow a similar pattern each day. This will, in turn, make your sleep patterns more consistent and restorative.
- Try to go to bed within the same hour every night
- Avoid hitting the snooze button, get up at the same every day (even on weekends!)
Bad Nutrition & Blood Sugar Imbalances
Bad sleep can result in blood sugar imbalances and increase your risk of diabetes. At the same time, blood sugar imbalances can disturb sleep tremendously. When blood sugar becomes too low, the body must produce cortisol in order to bring it back up. The issue with this is that cortisol is also stimulating to the body and may wake you up or bring you into a lighter sleep phase.
If you consume a meal high in simple sugars before bed, this can result in a spike in blood sugar, followed by a subsequent crash. It is this crash that often wakes people up in the middle of the night. Consuming a source of low-glycemic carbs before bed, like sweet potato or some organic berries, can help prevent this stressful crash. Alternatively, adopting a cyclic ketogenic diet can help provide the body with a more stable energy source throughout the night, ketones.
If your diet is lacking in certain nutrients, this can be contributing to bad sleep as well. This is because certain nutrients act as cofactors in biochemical pathways that create relaxing chemicals like GABA, Serotonin, and melatonin.
The body relies on nutrients like magnesium, B Vitamins, Vitamin D, Zinc, Omega 3 fats, and amino acids (like taurine) to synthesize these relaxing chemical messengers. If your diet is lacking in these nutrients, you may not be producing the right amounts of GABA, serotonin, or melatonin.
Although screens have become an integral part of most modern lives, the blue LED light from devices can be damaging to your sleep. Present in smartphone, computer and television screens, blue light can disrupt melatonin levels because the brain confuses the phone’s artificial light with daylight (6). This can shut off melatonin production and inhibit sleep.
It’s best to turn off electronics with LED light at least two hours before bedtime and charge your phone outside of your room in case notifications wake you up. Alternatively, consider downloading a dimmer on your electronics that eliminates the blue tone in their screens as the sun goes down. If you use a nightlight in the hallway, use a bulb that emits red light which has the least effect on your circadian rhythms. Another great option is to purchase a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to wear within 2-4 hours of going to sleep such as these here.
Stress is natural. Too much of it, however, can negatively impact many aspects of your health. Chronic stress can raise your blood pressure, weaken your immune system, and even lead to long-term issues like diabetes and heart disease. Stress can also make it difficult to fall asleep, whether it be anxious thoughts keeping you up, a faster heart rate, or rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels.
In order to fall asleep while stress tries to keep you on alert, you need to find an effective way to relax. Taking time to unwind and destress is an effective way to lower your heart rate, mimicking the natural process of falling asleep. Reading, taking a magnesium bath, and journaling are all great ways to calm your mind prepare your body for bed.
Nighttime meditation has also been proven to lower stress levels, fight insomnia and improve sleep quality (7). By focusing your breath and clearing your head, you’re better able to focus on the present instead of stressful future or past events. A quick meditation routine, or even the similar practice of yoga, can help you let go of worry and relax into sleep.
Pain that persists for more than three months is considered chronic and is a reality for 11 percent of Americans (8). Disorders ranging from arthritis and fibromyalgia to endometriosis and nerve damage often cause so much pain that sufferers consistently lose sleep.
While chronic pain can be difficult to treat, finding natural ways to manage it at nighttime is crucial. Pain medication may be able to reduce the perception of pain, but it often comes along with a list of side effects. Using the anti-inflammatory strategies illustrated below can be very powerful.
If you have persistent back or neck pain, try switching up your sleeping position. A good choice is lying on your side, legs curled to your chest and a pillow between your knees. This position alleviates pressure on a sore back by opening the spaces around your vertebrae. You can also experiment with natural sleep supplements like magnesium or melatonin to ease muscle tension and reduce pain.
Other helpful anti-inflammatory supplements that can help reduce pain when used regularly include: Omega-3 Fats, Curcumin, and glutathione.
Severe snoring, headaches, fatigue, and holding your breath while asleep can all be symptoms of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects more than 22 million Americans and can be fairly serious if left untreated (9).
The most common type, obstructive sleep apnea, occurs when the throat muscles relax during sleep, causing breathing to start and stop throughout the night. Not only does this contribute to bad sleep, but these sudden drops in oxygen levels can lead to high blood pressure and even serious heart issues or stroke.
One way to discover if sleep apnea is an issue for you is to participate in a sleep study. This is where your breathing, heart rate, and neurological activity are monitored during sleep to identify potential disruptions. Many forms of sleep apnea can be improved with lifestyle strategies.
More severe forms may require the use of a special machine that keeps the airways open, such as a CPAP. Here is a helpful article to learn more about sleep apnea and strategies you can apply to get better.
Hiatal Hernia & Heart Palpitations
A hiatal hernia is when the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm. When this occurs this can cause acid reflux, breathing restrictions, and heart palpitations – all of which can contribute to bad sleep. In fact, many people with hiatal hernias report waking up in the middle of the night feeling like they are coughing or choking.
If a hiatal hernia is around long enough, it can begin to create deeper problems that also cause bad sleep. Hiatal hernias often contribute to poor digestion, chronic inflammation of the gut, predisposition to infections in the gut, leaky gut, and ultimately a chronically stimulated stress response. Healing a hiatal hernia (and digestive issues in general) is key for getting optimal sleep.
Hyperthyroidism is a disorder that occurs when your thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. It can overstimulate the nervous system and accelerate metabolism, both of which can have pretty severe symptoms. However, because thyroid function affects every organ, its symptoms can be widespread and difficult to diagnose. Common signs include sudden weight loss, profuse sweating, rapid heart rate, and anxiety. It can also cause poor sleep, causing sufferers to stay up with night sweats or racing thoughts.
The disorder is identified by blood tests that measure thyroxine levels and can be treated in a few different ways. Most cases use medication or radioiodine treatment to control the number of hormones the thyroid produces, but in some more severe cases, surgery may be required. Luckily, there are also natural ways to support the body in healing. Since hyperthyroidism is almost always related to autoimmunity, addressing the areas depicted below is very important.
A big hidden cause of bad sleep is actually gut infections. If you tend to wake up around 2-3 in the morning and also tend to have elevated blood sugar before breakfast. This is because immune activity often becomes elevated during the night which can trigger cortisol responses that stimulate the body and throw off blood sugar. Additionally, infections in the gut lead to damage to the digestive tract and chronic inflammation.
One of the best ways to test for these infections is through a functional stool analysis such as the GI MAP here. Using a lab like this can help identify pathogenic bacteria, viruses, yeast, and parasites that may be contributing to elevated immune activity at night. Working with a health coach accordingly, you can create a plan to eradicate any identified infections.
Strategies to Improve Sleep
If you regularly get bad sleep, your health will suffer the consequences. The following strategies are things you can start implementing right away to ensure you are getting the sleep you need to be on your game all the time.
Get Some Sunlight
As was discussed earlier in this article, sunlight is an important signal for the circadian rhythm. When sunlight hits our eyes in the morning, the brain signals the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. This release of cortisol then signals the release of glycogen to provide the body with an initial burst of energy to get the day going.
First thing in the morning, make it a point to get out of bed, get outside, and let some sunshine in your eyes. This is best done for 5-15 minutes.
- Get your bare feet on the ground for additional anti-inflammatory benefits
- Do not look at your phone or other blue-light emitting devices before seeing the sun
- Remove any glasses or contacts
Avoid Artificial Light
Light is one of the central stimuli that govern when we sleep. When you look at the visible light spectrum, red is at one end and violet is at the other. In general, colors closer to the violet side of the spectrum are more stimulating than those on the red side.
Artificial lighting and the light that is emitted from electronic devices is almost always heavily concentrated in the blue-light spectrum. When we receive this stimulation at the wrong times of the day such as the first thing in the morning or before bed, then this throws off the circadian rhythm and disrupts sleep.
Avoiding artificial light can be done by placing blue light filters on your devices as well as purchasing a pair of blue light blocking glasses such as these.
Blackout Your Room
This may seem commonsense after reading the previous two tips, but people tend to sleep much better in a pitch-black room. A study involving 116 people showed that being in a lit room before bedtime delayed melatonin in just about every one of the subjects (10).
The following are tips for minimizing light in your bedroom at night:
- Purchase a pair of blackout curtains
- Sleep under a blanket to cover light receptors in the skin
- Use a sleep mask
- Keep the room minimally lit leading up to bedtime
Understand Caffeine Intake
I think we all know that caffeine is best kept for the morning. It is important to know, however, how caffeine actually works in the body.
Caffeine doesn’t actually give you energy. What it does is actually block the activity of a chemical in the brain called adenosine. Adenosine is a chemical whose job it is to tell us when we are tired. Caffeine actually closely resembles adenosine. As a result, it can bind to adenosine receptor sites and prevent adenosine from telling us we’re tired. This, in turn, provides us with a perceived boost in mental and physical energy.
While caffeine has its benefits, make sure you are not causing bad sleep by following these tips:
- Performance Enhancement: Make the distinction between using caffeine as a performance booster or as a crutch to overcome chronic fatigue. If you find that you struggle to go about your day without a boost of caffeine, this is most likely a sign that you should back off and give your body the rest it needs.
- Use Early in the Day: Only consume caffeine early in the day. The half-life of caffeine is 5-8 hours which means it takes that long for half of the caffeine consumed to stop affecting your system. This means that the effects of caffeine can last 10-16 hours before fully wearing off. Limit yourself to consuming caffeine only before noon, ideally earlier!
- Small Quantities and Cycling: Consume in small doses and don’t make it a habit. The more frequently you use caffeine, the more likely your body will rely on it for energy. Try only consuming for occasional performance boosting or try cycling off from caffeine 1 out of every 4 weeks.
Balance Blood Sugar
Another vital part of getting deep and restorative sleep is ensuring your body has stable energy throughout the night. If your blood sugar is fluctuating too rapidly or becomes too low, this will likely disturb sleep as explained previously. The body must secrete the stimulating hormone cortisol to subsequently raise blood sugar.
Action Tips – You can stabilize your energy throughout the night by following these suggestions
- Consume a meal with protein, healthy fats, and a low-glycemic source of carbs (such as sweet potato) before going to bed
- Try adopting a ketogenic nutrition plan to provide stable energy from ketones
- Supplement with exogenous ketones before bed if you are prone to sleep disturbances
- Make a soothing Golden milk before bed, you can add in a tablespoon of raw honey and MCT oil for stable blood sugar throughout the night
In addition to cues like light, food, and movement, your brain makes associations between locations, activities, and certain reactions. For example, if you get in the habit of following a similar breathing routine every night before sleep, your brain will begin to associate that breathing exercise with sleep and prepare accordingly.
This same effect can be derived from following a similar personal hygiene routine every night. Ideally, you want to also keep your habits confined to a similar time each night as this will continue to reinforce your circadian rhythm and improve your sleep further. Below is a suggested list of nightly routine objectives.
DO NOT HIT SNOOZE
Trust me, I know how satisfying it is to hit the snooze button in the morning. Although it may feel satisfying in the moment, this pattern actually sets you up for drowsiness during the day and sleep problems at night. This is because once you wake up in the morning, your body begins the hormonal cascade designed to wake you up.
When you go back to sleep while this is occurring, you can disrupt your circadian rhythm substantially. Try your best to get out of bed as close to waking up as possible. The regularity of your sleep and wake cycle will become reinforced and improve over time the more you are able to do this.
Supplemental Support for Sleep
Although I don’t advocate a total reliance on supplements to help you sleep, there are some great ones that can improve a number of physiological pathways in the body and regulate sleep more effectively.
When it comes down to it, sleep is a regulatory cycle in the body. By using substances that improve the body’s ability to regulate itself, sleep can actually be improved over time and not just when the substance is being used. With that said, here are the best supplements to improve sleep quality.
I believe magnesium deficiency is a huge problem as we use magnesium to produce energy and deplete it during times of stress. There are many consequences of not taking in adequate dietary magnesium. Utilized in over 300 different body processes, it just may be one of the most important minerals in our bodies. One of the most common problems associated with magnesium deficiency is insomnia and poor sleep quality.
I typically recommend Brain Calm Magnesium clinically because it contains a form of magnesium that has been proven very effective at specifically absorbing into the brain. I hear consistent testimony about how well this magnesium calms the nerves (literally!) and can really improve sleep quality.
Adaptogens are substances that improve the body’s ability to endure stress. Traditionally, adaptogens were seen more as a performance enhancer for athletes but could they also improve sleep?
There aren’t too many studies investigating the direct impact of adaptogens on sleep. What there is, however, is research showing the ability of adaptogenic herbs to lower cortisol and improve anxiety. This could be an effective remedy for anyone who is enduring chronic stress or blood sugar imbalance that is causing an evening spike in cortisol.
The most effective herbs I have found for this purpose are ashwagandha, reishi mushroom, lemon balm. One product we use is Cortisol Defense which has clinical doses of ashwagandha and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and a compound called L-theanine which improves GABA levels to help relax our brain. These will help improve sleep quality and daily energy levels.
There are several herbs that can help to improve sleep quality. I find that for someone with severe insomnia, these herbs don’t quite do the job. In combination with other strategies, however, certain herbs can complement a sleep plan very well.
Some of my favorite herbs to improve sleep are kava, chamomile, valerian, passionflower, lavender, and lemon balm. Instead of going out and buying all of these herbs, I usually recommend this Nighty Night tea made by Traditional Medicinals that combines many of the best sleep herbs in one tea bag. Use this daily to improve sleep quality!
Melatonin is most commonly associated as being a sleep hormone. While this is true, it is also a powerful antioxidant for your cells. Following the strategies above will help ensure your brain is producing adequate amounts at nighttime. For immediate support, you can use a supplement.
It is best to look for a form that contains a bi-phasic time-release melatonin that won’t wear off in the middle of the night. I also like one that includes a specific form of Vitamin B-6 (P-5-P) which promotes your own melatonin synthesis and may improve dream recall.
Magnesium with Melatonin
As discussed earlier in this article, magnesium is an important cofactor in the synthesis of the relaxing neurotransmitter, GABA. A great way to promote GABA synthesis and melatonin simultaneously before bed is to use this Magnesium lotion which also contains melatonin.
This is especially helpful for those who have digestive issues. Just rub a pump on your abdomen, back of your neck, arms, or legs about 30 minutes before bedtime.
If you regularly get bad sleep, you now understand the common causes and solutions for this issue. Bad sleep can disrupt hormones and increase your risk of certain chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Additionally, getting bad sleep can just ruin your daily experience of life making you subject to grogginess, brain fog, and blood sugar imbalances. Luckily, implementing the strategies listed above is fairly straight-forward.
The first strategy to implement will be to regulate the light your body is exposed to in the morning and at night. This is done by getting out in the sun and blocking artificial light from certain devices at appropriate times. After this, begin to refine your night-time routine and find your optimal sleep schedule. Bad sleep may just be the limiting factor in you achieving optimal health!
If you want to work with a functional health coach, I recommend this article with tips on how to find a great coach. At my clinic, we offer long-distance functional health coaching programs. For further support with your heart health and other goals, just reach out—our fantastic coaches are here to support your journey.