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Why Can't I Fall Asleep?

Learn how the brain, body, and environment can stop a person from enjoying a full night of rest.

How the mind, body, and environment affect one's ability to sleep.

There is actually no simple method that will guarantee a full night of restful slumber. No magical pill exists that works perfectly every time without any side effects. There is no special form of meditation or secret remedy that can immediately cause a person to enter into all necessary stages of sleep.

Instead of looking for quick fixes or shortcuts to R.E.M. sleep, it is far better to understand what is required to achieve seven hours of slumber. There are a handful of primary factors that affect most everyone’s ability to fall asleep. Beyond that, each person can consider smaller details that are unique to them (such as the specifics of their schedule, or whether or not music relaxes them or tends to make them more alert). It is important for each person to become an expert in recognizing what their body needs in order to relax.

The three primary factors that impact sleep are: 1) the mind’s ability to relax and disconnect from conscious thought 2) the body’s ability to achieve a comfortable position in which to rest, and 3) the suitability of the surrounding environment. If even one of these isn’t achieved, a person may fail to find rest. Or, once asleep, they will be easily awoken, and then have trouble drifting back off to slumber. In any case, precious hours of sleep will be lost.

Mind won’t relax

It’s possible to be enjoying the most comfortable mattress on the planet, in a room set to the perfect temperature, yet to be entirely unable to sleep because one’s mind simply won’t stop cycling through information. Whether or not the thoughts remain fixated on a single thing, or if they jump around to different scenarios, if the mind will not relax, sleep will be difficult to achieve. There are several different examples / occasions that can make it difficult for the mind to settle down:

  • Racing thoughts. When the brain continues to rapidly move from one thought to the next, it can create feelings of restlessness and anxiety, which is the exact opposite of what is required in order to drift off to sleep.

  • Stressful day. It can be particularly difficult to relax and unwind after a stressful day. If a person’s heart has been pounding and their body nearly saturated with adrenaline as the result of a hectic day, additional steps may need to be taken in order to relax. A person can try taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, reading a relaxing book, or cuddling with their pet dog in order to help them slow down and prepare for rest.

  • Reliving moments from earlier in the day. It’s easy to fixate on an event or situation that happened a few hours earlier and is still fresh in one’s memory. Sometimes people relive conversations, wondering what they could or should have said differently. Other times, they consider circumstances and how they could have gone differently. Sometimes they think about an event that occurred while driving, or during their work day. While it’s perfectly natural to think about what happened during the day, it can become a problem if a person becomes so preoccupied with an earlier situation that their mind refuses to let them go to sleep. Occasionally, it becomes necessary to make the mind think in a completely new direction. This helps the brain to rest and recharge.

  • Concerns about tomorrow. A particularly distressful combination can occur when 1) it’s late at night and 2) the brain is overly focused on what is expected to happen tomorrow. If the imagination becomes too engaged, the mind will keep going through possible situations and outcomes. This can cause anxiety until the person’s thoughts are able to drift to something more relaxing.

  • Temperature is too hot. When the thermometer reaches certain levels, many people have difficulty sleeping. Heat can excite nerve pathways, causing the brain to continually cycle through thoughts and memories. This can make it very difficult for the mind to relax. Some individuals are especially sensitive to heat and may need to have their pillowcase cooled in order to help them fall asleep more quickly.

  • Saw something disturbing on TV. It’s usually best to avoid watching movies, video streams, or television programs that cause the heart rate to increase just before going to bed. If someone is particularly sensitive to watching violent / horror films, they should probably limit how often they watch these types of shows, especially if it is affecting their sleep.

  • Suddenly remembering something. While drifting off to sleep, a person may suddenly remember something they need to do the following day. If this causes difficulty returning to sleep, jot down a reminder on a piece of paper. This will enable the brain to relax and not continually worry about remembering. Try not to type the reminder into a phone or mobile device, because turning on the device may cause distraction and further wakefulness.

It isn’t sufficient to have only the mind to be at ease. The body continually sends sensory information to the brain through a network involving millions of tiny nerve cells. Unless the body is comfortable, a person will have difficulty relaxing to the point of sleep.

Body is uncomfortable

  • Unable to lie on side. Sometimes pain in the shoulder, back, or hip can make it difficult to lie on one side. For example, if a person’s right hip is sore, they may be forced to lay on their left side, rather than their right. If they are unable to switch positions during the night, they may have difficulty getting comfortable.

  • Muscles sore. Overuse of the muscles (such as from doing yard work or heavy lifting) can make it difficult to get comfortable in bed. Warming up and stretching before bending and lifting can reduce damage to the muscles. Use of ice can soothe muscle discomfort.

  • Digestive issues. Eating too late at night or experiencing heartburn can make it uncomfortable to lie down. Lying down on one’s left side can sometimes relieve heartburn. Being mindful of what is eaten and at what time can greatly reduce digestive problems that occur at night.

  • Pain in the arms and hands. Repetitive use injuries (also called repetitive stress / repetitive motion injuries) such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can cause burning or tingling pain in the hand, arm, and wrist. This type of injury is often associated with incorrect posture while typing or using an instrument. This pain often worsens at night. Texter’s thumb pain is another type of repetitive use injury that can affect the thumb and wrist. Sleeping on one’s side while bending the elbow and wrist can slow the healing process and worsen the symptoms.

Chiropractic treatment is a natural and effective method of helping the skeleton, joints, and nerves of the body. People who begin seeing a chiropractor while they are still young, often receive more benefit from chiropractic treatment because their skeleton remains symmetrical and in proper alignment. Chiropractors are often able to help people with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Texter’s thumb pain, and certain types of joint pain. If a person is uncomfortable while lying on their mattress, they should consult with a chiropractor to find out why.

Environment isn’t calming

  • Light. Many people are sensitive to light while sleeping. Some may require the use of thick curtains to reduce the amount of sunlight entering the room. Light sources in adjacent rooms may need to be dimmed. A comfortable sleep mask can be used to eliminate all sources of light.

  • Mattress. The mattress should be supportive, yet comfortable. A lumpy mattress, one that sags in the middle, or one that is too soft can make it difficult to sleep. Mattresses can sometimes be rotated to provide better support. Old mattresses should be replaced. When sharing a mattress, it is important that both people who use the bed be equally comfortable.

  • Pillow. There are different types of pillows for people who prefer to sleep on their back or on their sides. (Sleeping on the stomach isn’t recommended.) Some people may require a hypoallergenic pillow for a better night’s sleep. Old pillows can lack support and may also contain dust mites.

  • Temperature. Although previously mentioned, temperature plays a very important part in achieving a full night of rest. Set the thermostat to a relaxing temperature. Use the right amount of blankets to achieve comfort. A suitable temperature enables people to fall asleep much faster and to remain asleep longer. If the feet get cold at night, try adding an extra comforter to the very bottom of the bed.

  • Noise. White noise can be used to drown out disruptive sounds. If a person has used music on their alarm clock setting to awaken them in the past, they may find it difficult to go to sleep while listening to music.

  • Odors. Certain odors can make it difficult to sleep. For example, it may be hard to drift off to sleep if the walls of the room have been freshly painted. Open windows and provide proper ventilation.

  • Outside distractions. Some distractions are unavoidable. An ambulance suddenly driving by, a baby crying, a car alarm going off, the phone ringing in the middle of the night – these situations are unexpected and hopefully they don’t occur very often. After such an interruption, the challenge is to return to slumber. This can be quite difficult.

  • Change in time zone / sleeping at a different time than usual. Traveling across multiple time zones can affect a person’s circadian rhythm (inner time clock). So can switching from working during third shift to a different shift. The body isn’t yet ready to fall asleep. It usually takes several days for the person to adapt to a new schedule.

It’s useful to be able to pinpoint at least one or two areas that are most affecting one’s ability to sleep. After figuring out what circumstances may be prohibiting rest, or what areas could be slowing down the process of drifting off into sleep, attention can then be given to coming up with possible ideas and creative solutions.

Although not an effective solution for all problems related to sleep, scheduling regular visits to the chiropractor can help the body to feel more relaxed and comfortable while in bed. Chiropractic treatment can also enable the neck to rest more easily on the pillow and the hips and shoulders to line up more comfortably on the mattress. A full night’s sleep strengthens the body and equips it to face the challenges of the following day.

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