Enough Sleep: Why Is It Such a Struggle?

Struggling for Sleep

Is there anything more coveted than a good night’s sleep?

I think not!


We all know that sleep is vital to good health, but why? It may surprise you to learn that scientists actually don’t know why our bodies need sleep, though they have a few theories.  Some believe that inactivity during the dark helped to ensure survival and save energy for our ancestors. Others argue that sleep is a time of repair and restoration for the cells of the body. Finally, some believe that brain function – our ability to learn and remember – is intimately tied to our need for sleep. While all of these claims may be true, finding solid evidence as to why we sleep remains hard to attain.


Health & Sleep

We all know what it feels like desperately need sleep. Ugh. Obviously getting enough z’s is tied to our health. Did you know that sleep deprivation can decrease mental and physical performance similar to having a 0.10% blood alcohol level [1]? Yikes! When either quantity and/or quality of sleep is compromised, the following health conditions may arise:


  • Obesity [2]
  • Diabetes [3, 4, 5]
  • Hypertension [6]
  • Cardiovascular disease [7]
  • Impaired immunity [8, 9]


You can see how sleep deprivation can really derail your overall health. Have you ever tried to change your diet, only to face trouble with snacking and carbohydrate cravings? Not getting enough sleep can contribute to these behaviors [10]! It’s no wonder that one of the first things I work on with my clients is sleep.


Enough Sleep: Quality vs. Quantity

Most people need 7 – 8 hours of sleep to feel fully rested, though this varies by the individual. Say you go to bed at 11pm and wake at 6am. That’s 7 hours, so you should be golden, right? Maybe. As a practitioner, I might ask whether you wake in the night, or if you feel rested in the morning. Where sleep is concerned, quality is as important as quantity.

Finding quality sleep is something that eludes many people, for a variety of reasons from physiology to nutrition to lifestyle. I certainly understand the struggle, but this thought always give me pause: We’ve practiced sleeping since infancy – shouldn’t we be pros by now?


Fostering Better Sleep

1 – Establish a routine

When my kids were infants, everything I read seemed to be about crafting the perfect sleep environment for them. The room should be dark, the crib mattress firm, the sheets soft, and the pajamas breathable. As the kids grew into toddlers, routine became a matter of survival. We established that 7pm was time for brushing teeth, 7:05 was a bedtime story, and 7:15 was for goodnight kisses, star projectors on the ceiling, and lights-out. To deviate from this plan even by 30 minutes was asking for trouble. The funny thing is, all of those practices apply to adults as well. Sure, we might have given up our favorite lovey and star projector, but those other things? Yup, if we establish a toddler routine for ourselves (with big-person bedtimes), we’d support our own sleep patterns.


2 – Avoid stimulants (caffeine, sugar, alcohol, tobacco)

As with all of these recommendations, this depends on the individual. There are those people who can drink half a pot of coffee after dinner and sleep like babies. There are also those of us who toss and turn if we have coffee past 10am. The way we metabolize stimulants can vary from person to person, so it’s important to pay attention to how foods (and beverages) influence us. Broadly speaking, avoiding stimulants within 4 hours of bed is a smart decision. If you’re struggling to pinpoint the cause of your insomnia, try cutting out all of these items for 10 to 14 days and see how your sleeping patterns change. Try #4 instead!

Another stimulant worth noting comes from our devices rather than our food, drinks and drugs: blue light. When the sun goes down and darkness encroaches, our bodies begin to increase melatonin levels, which help us to fall asleep. Blue light from our phones, tvs, tablets and computer monitors are calibrated to daylight, and staring at them after sundown hijacks our natural melatonin production. Use a blue light filter app, a physical filter, or amber glasses to reduce this effect, but also remember that devices themselves are stimulants. It’s best to institute a screen shutdown time 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed.


3 – Take a close look at diet

Good sleep and blood sugar regulation are closely connected. Eating a heavy meal, fried food, or foods rich in sugar can all interfere with sleep, especially if the meal is close (within 2 hours) to bedtime. At the same time, people who eat lightly, have certain medical conditions, or metabolize food very quickly (like my 11-year-old son) might require a light, protein-rich snack before bed in order to sleep well. Food requirements are very different for everyone, but eating a diet rich in whole grains, colorful vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats is beneficial for sleep.


Factors to influence sleep

4 – Be physically active

Exercise is a wonderful way to promote sleep, though it’s usually the last thing a sleep-deprived person wants to do. Physical activity, even at light or moderate levels, reduce stress and have a positive impact on sleep. Just try not to do it within 3 hours of bedtime.


5 – Create a tea habit

Herbal teas are a caffeine-free way to have that warm drink before bed. Not only is this a relaxing part of a bedtime routine, but some herbs are known for supporting good sleep. Lemon balm is a calming herb that has a light, lemony flavor and makes a tasty tea. It’s commonly used to combat poor sleep, is very safe, and is often one of the first things I recommend for clients who have trouble catching z’s.


6 – Consider magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that has over 300 functions in the body, yet more than 50% of Americans fail to get enough through food alone [11]. Many people who experience trouble sleeping have insufficient levels of magnesium. Eating dark, leafy greens like spinach and swiss chard, dark chocolate, avocado, figs, pumpkin seeds or almonds are all excellent ways to incorporate magnesium into your diet. Magnesium supplements can be tricky, as high doses can cause diarrhea, so I don’t typically suggesting supplementing magnesium on it’s own. Instead, soaking in an Epsom salt bath (another great idea for a bedtime routine) is an effective way to increase magnesium levels. Epsom salt contains magnesium, which is absorbed transdermally – therefore bypassing the gastrointestinal side effects.


7 – Don’t Stress

Okay, maybe that’s not realistic. Instead, let’s talk about ways to avoid stressing when you should be sleeping. Starting a bedtime meditation practice can be very effective, as can keeping a journal – the idea is to relinquish your thoughts to the page so that they’re not bouncing around in your head. Some people find sound machines or recorded meditations, like yoga nidra, very helpful for drifting off. Or, maybe exercise and an Epsom salt bath are just the tickets to a good night’s sleep.


8 – See your doctor

If you’ve tried all of these strategies and you’re still struggling with sleep, it’s probably time to see a healthcare professional. There are many causes of poor sleep, including undiagnosed sleep apnea, nutrient deficiencies, neurotransmitter imbalances, hormonal imbalance, and some medications. It’s always best to rule out any medical conditions and seek the root cause of your sleep problems. Often, once the cause is discovered, all it takes is a few minor lifestyle and diet changes to sleep like a baby once again.


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