By Emma Stessman
“At bedtime, you should be tired and you should be able to fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of your head hitting the pillow,” says Terry Cralle, MS, RN, a clinical sleep educator and co-author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top.
Instead, you toss, you turn, and you just can’t fall asleep. Not to mention, the pressure to fall asleep then makes it even harder to do so.
We all have nights like this, but when it happens, it can feel like you’re the only one in the world who can’t get to dreamland. But it’s likely you’re simply experiencing one of the common causes of insomnia.
Of course, if it’s happening all of the time, you’ve got to figure out how to fix it, because sleep impacts so many of your body’s systems, like immune system function, heart health, and even the appearance of your skin.
To help you get to that 15- to 20-minute range, we had Cralle break down the most common reasons insomnia hits and how to solve for each.
3 Common Causes of Insomnia
1. A yo-yo sleep schedule
During the week, a crazy work schedule and after-hours plans with friends has you sleeping six hours at the max. On the weekends, you make up for lost sleep by snoozing into the early afternoon. That doesn’t actually work. “When you undersleep during the week, oversleeping on the weekend will not undo the physical damage done by lack of rest,” Cralle says. Your sleep goal should not be based on a weekly total, but rather a nightly number (that by now, we all know should be somewhere between seven to nine hours a night).
Not to mention, having a yo-yo sleep schedule throws off your body’s internal clock, meaning on nights when you want to go to sleep earlier, you’ll have trouble doing so. “We call it Sunday night insomnia,” Cralle says. “People get five hours of sleep most nights, then on the weekends people try to play catch up, and come Sunday night, it’s like they almost have jet lag. Your body clock is thrown off…and then you’re staring at the ceiling.”
The solution: Establish a sleep routine that’s as regular as possible by going to bed and waking up around the same time every day. Yes, even on the weekends.
2. Racing thoughts
Perhaps the most common thing that prevents us from sleeping is our own mind. It makes sense. The time before you fall asleep is one of the few times during the day where you’re (hopefully) away from distraction. Unfortunately, that lack of distraction can also cause you to get up close and personal with some of the thoughts you’ve otherwise been avoiding. “You start thinking about the things you should have done that day or what you need to do tomorrow and your mind starts racing like no one’s business,” says Cralle. “People bring their work home with them, and that can contribute to not being able to turn off your thoughts at night,” she says. “We have to have work boundaries.”
The solution: About two hours before bed, try making your to-do list for the next day. “When it’s all on paper, it can make it look much more manageable,” Cralle says. But give yourself a buffer zone before your head hits the pillow, so you’re not thinking about the list right before bed. Instead, fill the hour before bed with relaxing activities, like reading a book, taking a warm bath, or meditating.
3. Too much light exposure
Light is one of the main ways your body regulates its circadian rhythm, or internal clock. It’s why making changes to your light exposure can be one of the best ways to reduce jet lag. But it’s also why scrolling Instagram before bedtime can be so detrimental to your sleep. “Blue light prevents melatonin production,” Cralle explains. If you’re not producing proper amounts of melatonin, your sleep and wake cycle will suffer.
While phones and computers get most of the flack for preventing sleep, too much light before bed in general can keep you awake. LED lights (like those found in energy-efficient bulbs) and fluorescent lights both emit fair amounts of melatonin-suppressing blue light.
The solution: Turn off your phone, computer, and other electronics at least an hour before bed, Cralle suggests. If there are urgent emails that can’t wait until the morning, you may want to invest in a pair of amber-tinted glasses, she says. They’re not the most stylish, but they can counter some of the harsh effects.
If the lights around your house have dimming settings, set them to low before bed. And if you need to take a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom, try to only turn on the dimmest lights.