Can’t Sleep? Discover Causes & Natural Solutions

Dr. Group
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Published on
If you can't sleep, herbal teas can help you fall asleep.

The United States is a sleep-deprived nation. It shows in our health as well as how we age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleep deprivation is a serious public health issue, and one in three adults don't get enough sleep.[1] Our ancestors did not have this issue, but the world has changed.

Unnatural light sources affect our natural biorhythms. Processed foods and caffeine can alter energy levels. The need to connect to social media, play online games, and other computer or phone-related activities can keep you in a state of perpetual excitement. It's time to identify these and other sleep-altering factors and explore solutions to get your sleep cycle back on track.

Why You Need Sleep

Sleep is as crucial to your well-being as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and low stress levels. When you're asleep, your body goes into a "repair and restore" mode. Without enough sleep, your ability to heal and regenerate is significantly impaired. A poor sleep environment can lead to sleep deprivation which, aside from drowsiness, can contribute to heart disease, anxiety, depression, weight gain, obesity, diabetes, increased alcohol use, and accidental injuries.[2]

The Importance of Sleep for Mental Health

Sleep is essential for your brain and mental wellness. Danish researcher Dr. Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester discovered the brain's detoxification center. She named it the glymphatic system because it clears waste from the brain the way the lymphatic system clears waste from the body.[3]

Nedergaard and her team found that the glymphatic system is most active during sleep.[4] The team also found that this system functions best during natural sleep, not under the influence of sleeping medications. So while a sleeping pill may put you to sleep, you will not experience the same benefits as if you fell asleep naturally.

What Is Insomnia?

If you regularly have difficulty falling or staying asleep, you may have a common sleep disorder known as insomnia. Many people with this condition feel like they never sleep at all. There are two main types of insomnia: secondary and primary. Although primary insomnia has no external cause and its origin is difficult to determine, secondary insomnia is caused by health issues such as asthma or an overactive thyroid.[5]

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea, or the more common variation called obstructive sleep apnea, is a condition that causes you to stop breathing or maintain shallow breathing while you sleep. A narrow neck, large tongue, or large tonsils are some causes of this condition. Sleeping on your back can also contribute to or exacerbate the inability to breathe properly. Snoring and snorting are typical symptoms of this condition. Snoring, however, is not always a sign of sleep apnea. People with this condition can stop breathing for as little as 30 seconds, or as long as a few minutes. These stop-and-start breathing patterns disrupt a good night's sleep and cause drowsiness during the day. Sleep apnea is linked to health conditions, including cardiovascular issues.

Sometimes, your brain won't send signals to your throat muscles. This can keep you from temporarily breathing, and is referred to as central sleep apnea. If you wake up repeatedly during the night, experience constant drowsiness during the day, or your partner complains of your snoring or snorting during sleep, it may be time to see your healthcare practitioner.[6]

What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

Your adrenal glands are two walnut-sized glands that sit above your kidneys. The adrenal glands help regulate a variety of bodily functions, including hormone balance, the sleep-wake cycle, and the fight-or-flight response.

When you experience stress, your adrenal glands produce the stress hormone known as cortisol. This is the same hormone released during fight-or-flight situations. Although there are times when being in this state is appropriate and beneficial, it is unnerving and frustrating when it's time to sleep. Unfortunately, many people spend way too much time in fight-or-flight mode. When the adrenals constantly produce cortisol, they become fatigued, and that sets off a cascade of negative effects. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:[7]

  • Sleeplessness
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Skin discoloration

If you suspect that adrenal fatigue is affecting you, talk to a trusted healthcare professional as there are tests that can determine its presence. Adopting a healthy, balanced diet, making good lifestyle choices, and constructively dealing with stress are among the best solutions for promoting healthy adrenal function.

Habits That Disrupt Your Sleep Cycle

Although sleep issues can have many causes, less-than-healthy lifestyle habits are among the most common. Habits that significantly upset your natural sleep cycle, also known as your circadian rhythm, include:

  • Excessive screen time from electronic devices
  • Chronic stress
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Too much caffeine
  • Not getting enough natural sunlight
  • Spending too much time indoors

Why Do I Keep Tossing and Turning When I Sleep?

If you toss and turn in your sleep, your mattress may be to blame. Tossing and turning can be the result of blood flow being cut off from the part of your body on which you're lying. To remedy this, your brain sends signals that tell your body to roll over. A new mattress may be the solution. Look for one that promotes better blood flow for your body type and sleep style. Firm mattresses have always been thought to be the best for a good night's sleep. Studies have found, however, that medium-firm mattresses are better, especially for those with lower back pain.[8] You can always ask your healthcare provider for a mattress recommendation.

Why Can't I Sleep Even Though I'm Tired?

There is nothing more frustrating than lying awake in bed, completely exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. Perhaps your mind is racing with random thoughts, or you simply can't shut down. Proactive strategies for promoting healthy sleeping patterns include:

  • Start your morning with at least 20 to 30 minutes of bright sunlight to help reset your internal clock,
  • Exercise early in the day
  • Don't consume caffeinated beverages after 12:00 p.m.
  • Meditate or record your thoughts in a journal to help clear your mind
  • Eat dinner early in the evening
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Turn off your phone, computer, and television at least two hours before bed
  • Avoid chemical sleep aids, and use safe and natural sleep remedies

If you still can't sleep, try using a white noise machine, or a white noise app. Some people find that the sound of rain or wind has a soothing effect on the mind and encourages restful sleep. You can also try sleeping naked. Aside from a better night's sleep, the benefits of this practice include weight loss, improved mood, and better sex life. These strategies may sound simple, but the simple solutions are often the most effective.

Counteract Insomnia With These Tips

Your sleep environment and the time at which you go to sleep impact your sleep quality. Lifestyle adjustments that can help you enjoy more restful sleep include:

  • Ban electronics from your bedroom. The blue light from electronics, coupled with the stress-inducing sounds of notifications and updates, is a recipe for sleeplessness.[9]
  • Meditate for 15 minutes every day. Mindfulness meditation helps calm the mind, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality.[[10]
  • Keep your bedroom cool. A temperature between 60 to 67 degrees is ideal for promoting deep, restful sleep.[11]
  • Practice earthing. Connecting directly with the earth by walking around barefoot or using an earthing device can help reduce stress and cortisol levels.[12]
  • Have more sex. Having sex can help you sleep due to the release of prolactin, the relaxation hormone.[13]
  • Stick to a bedtime routine. It is proven that going to bed at the same time every night, in the same way, will help you fall asleep faster.[14]

What Foods Should I Eat to Support a Good Night's Sleep?

There aren't many things that influence your health as much as the food you eat. Dietary choices not only affect your overall health, but they also affect your ability to get restful sleep. When it comes to choosing the best food for promoting restful sleep, there are a few things to remember. Eat foods that encourage healthier blood sugar levels and foods that support a healthy gut, and avoid foods that keep you from sleeping.

Foods That Support Healthy Blood Sugar

Having balanced blood sugar is one of several things that set you up for a good night's sleep. There are a few steps you can take to encourage normal blood sugar levels:

  • Avoid foods that contain refined sugar
  • Embrace fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir
  • Eat plenty of healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil
  • Consume complex carbohydrates like quinoa, sweet potatoes, squash, and amaranth

It's also important to consider your meal frequency. Some people who experience blood sugar crashes sleep better when they eat several small meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. Finally, if you find yourself frequently waking up at night, a small, protein-rich, plant-based snack before bed can help you avoid late night blood sugar crashes.

Foods That Support a Healthy Gut

Though we typically don't associate sleeplessness with gut health, they are very much connected. Your gut contains chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters that shuttle information between your cells. Among the most important of these neurotransmitters is serotonin. Serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, which is the master sleep hormone.[15] Foods that support a healthy gut include:

  • Cultured, probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut
  • Prebiotic-rich foods such as leeks, onions, bananas, chicory, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, and whole, gluten-free grains
  • Fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables for a healthy colon
  • Healthy fats, like coconut oil to support normal microbial balance

Foods That Keep You Awake

Some foods and beverages contain stimulating ingredients that make it especially difficult to get restful sleep. If you enjoy coffee, try avoiding that 3:00 p.m. cup and stick with a cup or two in the morning. If you have trouble falling asleep, try to avoid:

  • Caffeine, including energy drinks, especially after 12:00 p.m.
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Excitotoxins like MSG

What Are the Safest Natural Sleep Remedies?

Simply closing your eyes and going to sleep naturally is the best way to fall asleep. This method doesn't always work, however, and you may need supplemental help or a change in your sleep environment. The following are natural approaches to encourage restful sleep.

Supplements

Vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are important to many aspects of your health, including your sleep quality. Essential oils that provide these nutrients help encourage relaxation. Before reaching for a sleeping pill, try essential oils.

  • Passionflower promotes relaxation and improves sleep quality.[16, 17]
  • Chamomile, lavender, and ylang-ylang support relaxation and sleep.[18, 19]
  • Valerian quickens the time it takes to fall asleep and improves overall sleep quality.[20]
  • Magnesium is called "the relaxation mineral" because it encourages a good night's rest and improves sleep quality.[21]
  • Melatonin helps reset your circadian rhythm.
  • Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha and maca help your body adapt to stress.

Your Sleep Checklist

The next time you enter your bedroom, scan it for anything that could disturb your sleep. The goal is to turn your room into an environment that's optimized for sleeping. Is it dark enough? Is anything making noise? Is the temperature cool and comfortable? Are there any bright lights staring you in the face?[5]

In addition to having an environment that's conducive to sleep, it's also important to prepare yourself mentally. Give yourself a moment to repeat a positive affirmation before you close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, and let go of any negative energy or tension as you exhale. These actions will help you experience the restful sleep you desire.

How Can I Fall Back Asleep If I Wake Up?

It's inevitable, however, that even if you follow a healthy, balanced, organic diet, manage stress effectively, exercise regularly, and construct a sleep-friendly environment, you will occasionally wake up before you're ready. This interruption can be due to a loud noise, a phone call, or even an unpleasant dream. If closing your eyes and trying to fall asleep naturally doesn't help, one of the best remedies is to turn on a soft lamp and read. Drinking a cup of chamomile tea may also help.

Your Story

What natural remedies help you fall asleep? Have you used a supplement, changed your diet, or used another strategy to improve sleep patterns? Tell us your story in the comments section below.

References (21)
  1. "1 In 3 adults don’t get enough sleep." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. cdc.gov. 2016. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  2. Colten H. "Extent and health consequences of chronic sleep loss and sleep disorders." Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 1 Jan. 1970. Accessed 8 Jan 2018.
  3. "Scientists discover previously unknown cleansing system in brain." University of Rochester Medical Center. rochester.edu. 15 August 2012. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  4. Xie L, et al. "Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain." American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science. 2013:342( 6156), 373-377. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  5. National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. "Insomnia." Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  6. "Obstructive sleep apnea - adults." U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Dec. 2017. Accessed 8 Jan 2018.
  7. Nippoldt T. "Adrenal fatigue: what causes it?" Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.12 Apr. 2017. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  8. Kovacs F, et al. "Effect of firmness of mattress on chronic non-specific low-back pain: randomised, double-blind, controlled, multicentre trial." Lancet. 2003;362(9396), 1599-604. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  9. "Sleep disorders: in depth." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. nih.gov. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
  10. Ong J, et al. "A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia." Sleep. 2014;37(9), 1553-63. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
  11. Kräuchi K, et al. "Sleep on a high heat capacity mattress increases conductive body heat loss and slow wave sleep." Physiol Behav. 2018;185: 23-30. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
  12. Ghaly M, et al. "The Biologic effects of grounding the human body during sleep as measured by cortisol levels and subjective reporting of sleep, pain, and stress." J Altern Complement Med. 2004;10(5), 767-76. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
  13. Lastella M. "Can sex be repositioned as a sleep therapy?" University of Australia. cqu.edu.au. 1 Nov. 2016. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
  14. Urbanek J, et al. "Epidemiology of objectively measured bedtime and chronotype in US adolescents and adults: NHANES 2003-2006." Chronobiol Int. 2017;(28), 1-19. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
  15. Hadhazy A. "Think twice: how the gut's ‘second brain’ influences mood and well-being." Scientific American.12 Feb. 2010. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  16. Krenn L. "[Passion llower (passiflora incarnata L.)--a reliable herbal sedative]." Wien Med Wochenschr. 2002;152(15-16), 404-6. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  17. Ngan A, et al. "A double-lind, placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of passiflora incarnata (passionflower) herbal tea on subjective sleep quality." Phytother Res. 2011;25(8), 1153-9. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  18. Srivastava J, et al. "Chamomile: a herbal medicine of the past with bright future." Mol Med Report. 2010;3(6), 895–901. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  19. Wheatley, D. "Medicinal plants for insomnia: a review of their pharmacology, efficacy and tolerability." J Psychopharmacol. 2005;19(4), 414-21. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.
  20. Donath F, et al. "Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality." Pharmacopsychiatry. 2000;33(2), 47-53. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
  21. Chollet D, et al. "Magnesium involvement in sleep: genetic and nutritional models." Behav Genet. 2001;31(5), 413-25. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

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