- Sleep loss can affect health and daytime function, and one in three Americans don't get enough rest.
- Stress, travel, health concerns, some medications, and age-related changes can all cause insomnia.
- A nightly routine, comfortable bedroom, and less evening blue light can help you fall asleep faster.
Have a hard time falling asleep? You're in pretty good company. One in three Americans don't sleep enough, and 70 million live with chronic sleep issues like insomnia.
Acute or chronic insomnia can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up at the right time. This common sleep issue can have a number of causes.
Here are some of the most common causes, along with a few strategies to help improve your rest.
The key to a better night's sleep lies in understanding the cause of your insomnia.
Short-term insomnia, which might last a few days to a few weeks, often happens due to temporary life stress or a traumatic event.
"When we experience stress in our lives, particularly when it's over a long period, it can lead to insomnia," says Katherine Hall, a sleep psychologist at Somnus Therapy.
Stress can leave your mind and body on high alert, ready to jump into action. Of course, this isn't conducive to falling asleep.
Many people have trouble falling asleep in a new environment, like a hotel or friend's house. This tendency to sleep poorly in a new setting is called the first-night effect.
Researchers theorize that the first-night effect happens as a protective mechanism to help you stay safe while you rest.
Even in a familiar environment, long flights and jet lag can mess up your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep.
Eating anything late at night goes against your body's circadian rhythm, so late-night snacking can make insomnia more likely.
In particular, foods high in fat or protein may cause trouble sleeping. This is because these foods take a long time to digest, which can contribute to acid reflux or an upset stomach, at bedtime and while you sleep.
Aged cheeses, salami, pepperoni, and other foods containing tyramine can also cause insomnia since tyramine triggers the release of norepinephrine and stimulates your brain. What's more, tyramine can trigger migraines, which could also keep you lying awake.
High-intensity exercise just before bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep.
As you wind down in the evening, your body temperature drops to signal your brain that it's time to rest. But aerobic exercise increases your brain's activity level and raises your body's core temperature, essentially waking you right back up.
Experts suggest keeping your pre-bedtime physical activity light or moderate — a walk, yoga, or stretches generally won't mess with your sleep.
5. Medical and mental health conditions
Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder could also make it harder to fall asleep, Hall says.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also cause trouble with sleep.
Some research suggests, in fact, that half of all insomnia cases relate to anxiety, depression, or psychological stress.
Physical conditions that can contribute to insomnia include:
- Heart conditions
- Respiratory conditions, including COPD and asthma
- Chronic pain
- Hormone issues, such as an overactive thyroid
- Joint and muscle issues, such as arthritis
- Genital or urinary issues, including an enlarged prostate or urinary incontinence
- Neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease
Certain prescription medications, recreational drugs, caffeine, and nicotine can also lead to insomnia.
Medications that can lead to insomnia include:
- Epilepsy medication, particularly felbamate
- Asthma medications including salbutamol, salmeterol, and theophylline
- Blood pressure medications, particularly beta-blockers
- Steroid medications
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- CNS stimulants for ADHD and narcolepsy, including methylphenidate and amphetamine-based medications like Adderall
7. Sleep disorders
"Conditions like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome also perpetuate insomnia," says Dr. Nilong Vyas, a medical doctor at Sleepless in NOLA and medical review expert at Sleep Foundation.
- Restless leg syndrome causes an almost uncontrollable desire to move your legs, causing up to 60% of people with the condition to struggle with insomnia, especially when it comes to falling asleep.
- Obstructive sleep apnea, which causes you to periodically stop breathing throughout the night, also causes insomnia in 38% of people with the condition.
8. Age-related changes in sleep
Sleep tends to become less restful as you age, and you might find yourself more sensitive to noise or environmental changes.
"People over age 65 experience less slow-wave, or deep sleep, so they're more likely to be woken from their rest," Hall says.
Children and teenagers, who need more sleep than other age groups, also often struggle with insomnia. One national study found that 72% of high school students and 57% of middle school students didn't get enough sleep on school nights.
9. Poor sleep hygiene
Good sleep hygiene practices, like a consistent nighttime routine and calming environment, can help you feel rested.
On the other hand, poor sleep hygiene can easily keep you from getting the quality sleep you need.
Vyas says that poor sleep hygiene often involves inconsistent sleep and wake times, or consuming stimulating substances like alcohol or caffeine before bedtime.
What to do about it
Adequate sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind, so it's crucial for adults to find a way to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
These three expert tips can help you fall asleep faster.
1. Establish a routine
Hall notes that consistency results in more restful and restorative sleep. "You should keep your bedtime and wake time as consistent as possible. Yes, even on weekends!" Hall says.
Setting your bedtime early enough to allow for at least seven hours of sleep can help you establish healthier sleeping habits and feel less rushed in the evenings.
That said, if you put yourself to bed before you feel sleepy and have trouble falling asleep within 15 or 20 minutes, it's best to get out of bed and do something restful, like reading, in dim light until you feel ready to fall asleep.
2. Limit screen time
Hall suggests the blurred line between work and rest often contributes to insomnia – especially if you work from home.
"It's tempting to check that inbox or respond to one more email, but it can add up. Just one hour of screen time can delay melatonin release by 3 hours," Hall says.
Even if your screen time isn't work-related, you may want to consider removing TVs, computers, and smartphones from your bedroom and turning off electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime — disconnecting can promote a better night's sleep.
3. Keep it cool
A too-warm room can cause restlessness, so experts recommend keeping your bedroom between 60 °F and 67 °F.
One 2021 study suggests keeping your sleep environment at a comfortable temperature can improve your sleep quality. Other research indicates that even your bedding and clothing play a role in restorative sleep.
Hall notes that sleeping naked is great for regulating your temperature while you sleep. "The slight drop in body temperature from sleeping naked slows our heart rate, breathing rate, and digestion – getting our bodies into the perfect rhythm for optimal sleep," Hall says.
Could it be a sleep disorder?
Vyas suggests talking with your clinician if you experience insomnia at least three times a week for three months. "This is considered chronic insomnia and may need therapy or medication," Vyas says.
Everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes, but chronic insomnia may indicate a sleep disorder.
Signs of a sleep disorder include:
- Frequently needing over 30 minutes to fall asleep at night
- Feeling tired during the day even after sleeping 7 hours the night before
- Noticing a reduced ability to perform your usual daytime activities
- Memory issues
- Struggling to control your emotions during the day
"Your primary care provider can make the right referrals, whether it's for a sleep study, sleep center, or even an ENT," says Vyas.
A specialist can diagnose and recommend treatment for your sleep disorders, such as light therapy, medication, a CPAP machine, and more.
Professional treatment for sleep issues
If your sleeplessness persists, a good next step involves connecting with a doctor, especially if sleep issues begin to affect your waking life.
"If you frequently struggle to stay awake or fall asleep during the daytime without intending to, you should consider visiting your doctor right away," Hall says.
Unchecked insomnia can lead to chronic sleep deprivation and cause:
- Decreased performance at work and school
- Slower reaction times and a higher risk of car accidents
- Mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety
- Increased risk of long-term conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease
Your clinician may recommend:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the first line of treatment for both acute and chronic insomnia
- Short-term use of melatonin or over-the-counter sleep aids
- Prescription sleeping medications
Getting more sleep often means getting treatment for the reason behind your insomnia, whether that's stress, travel, or poor sleep hygiene.
"Many people assume if you've experienced insomnia, you will always have it, but that's not always the case," Vyas says.
What works for one person might not work for you, so it's a good idea to test out more than one strategy for insomnia. A consistent evening routine, comfortable bedroom temperature, and guidance from a trained sleep specialist can help you get the quality rest you need and deserve.