Why Is My Sleep So Bad: Symptoms, Causes, Remedies and More

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

Ever find yourself staring at the ceiling at 2 A.M., wondering: why is my sleep so bad? You’re not alone in the frustration of tossing and turning through the night, chasing elusive dreams of restful slumber. In this article, we’ll explore the factors that disrupt sleep, explore effective remedies, and explain when to seek professional help. Together, we can tackle the night and turn those hours of restlessness into peace.

Why Is My Sleep So Bad Symptoms Remedies and When To Worry

What is considered bad sleep?

So, what does bad sleep look like?

Here are some clear signs that your sleep could be better (1):

  • It takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
  • You wake up multiple times in one night.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re awake for more than 20 minutes.
  • You’re actually asleep for less than 85 percent of the time you spend in bed.
  • Feeling tired during the day and needing more coffee than usual.
  • You notice more breakouts, puffy or red eyes, or dark circles.
  • You’re hungrier for unhealthy food and might be gaining weight.
  • You’re more stressed, drained, or irritable.

Why is my sleep so bad?

Wondering “why am I losing sleep” or “why am I not getting quality sleep”? From what you sip to hitting the gym—we’ll explore how your daily habits might be throwing off your body’s internal clock. Let’s dive into the lifestyle choices that impact your slumber and uncover some simple changes that could lead to profound improvements in your sleep quality.

Lifestyle

A good night’s sleep is as essential as a healthy diet and regular exercise. Understanding how our daily habits can impact sleep quality can help us make better choices that enhance our sleep. In this section, we’ll discuss the role of lifestyle factors such as caffeine intake, screen time, and irregular sleep schedules in influencing sleep.

Nutrition and sleep

Following a balanced diet of macronutrients—including proteins, carbohydrates, anti-inflammatory fats, and water—can help with sleep. Variations in carb quality (Glycemic Index GI) also affect sleep. Micronutrients, including Vitamins A, B, D, E, and K, and minerals such as Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Calcium, Selenium, and Phosphorus—are all recommended and supported in the literature supporting sleep.

Caffeine and sleep

Caffeine, a stimulant found in coffee, tea, and many soft drinks, is beloved for its ability to enhance alertness and performance. However, it’s a double-edged sword when it comes to sleep. 

The average American consumes about 176.6 mg of caffeine per day, which can significantly impact sleep patterns. One study revealed that high caffeine consumption is linked with difficulty staying asleep, particularly in individuals who sleep less than average (2). Notably, those experiencing non-restorative sleep were more likely to be affected by caffeine intake.

The blue light effect

Screen time before bed is another significant factor impacting sleep quality. 

Devices like smartphones, tablets, and computers emit blue light, which can suppress melatonin production, the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle (3). 

A systematic review and meta-analysis found a strong association between nighttime use of these devices and poor sleep outcomes in children, including shorter sleep duration and poor sleep quality (4).

Adults are not immune to these effects; exposure to blue light can delay sleep onset and reduce sleep quality by disrupting the natural circadian rhythms. 

Irregular sleep schedules and social jet lag

Our body thrives on routine, especially when it comes to sleep. 

An irregular sleep schedule can lead to “social jet lag,” a mismatch between our body’s internal clock and social commitments (5). 

This can be exacerbated by factors like shift work, traveling across time zones, or simply staying up late on weekends.

Additionally, jet lag from travel can disrupt sleep patterns significantly. A study focused on managing jet lag noted that travelers crossing multiple time zones might experience insomnia and daytime fatigue that can last several days (6). 

Alcohol

Many people believe that a glass of wine or beer before bed aids sleep, but despite alcohol’s sedative effects that induce drowsiness, it generally diminishes sleep quality.

The primary issue with nighttime alcohol consumption is its impact on epinephrine, a stress hormone that can cause frequent awakenings as the body metabolizes alcohol (7). This is especially disruptive later in the night (8). 

One Finnish study shows that alcohol elevates sympathetic nervous system activity and reduces parasympathetic activity, which is necessary for relaxation and recovery, thus impairing sleep quality, especially in younger individuals and those with lower baseline heart rates (9).

Sedentary behavior 

In today’s world, many of us lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles, especially with jobs that require long sitting hours. 

This lack of physical activity can be a key contributor to sleep issues. A comprehensive study involving over 40 thousand adults found that those who spent significant portions of their day being sedentary were more likely to experience sleep problems (10). 

Specifically, individuals who reported sitting for 8 to 11 hours or more daily had significantly higher odds—1.61 and 1.75 times, respectively—of struggling with sleep compared to those who were less sedentary.

These findings align with a broader systematic review and meta-analysis, which found that prolonged sedentary behavior is associated with a higher risk of both insomnia and sleep disturbance (11). 

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What you may have done before bed

Many of us toss and turn at night, wondering why sleep eludes us. Sometimes, the answer lies in our pre-bedtime routines. Let’s explore some common evening activities that might be secretly sabotaging your sleep.

Intense exercise

While fitting in a workout is crucial for health, the timing of your exercise can profoundly impact your sleep quality. Nighttime exercise can stimulate your body when you’re trying to wind down. Researchers have found that evening exercise can spike your body temperature and elevate your heart rate, both interfering with the natural circadian rhythms necessary for sound sleep (12).

Studies also suggest that people who engage in vigorous physical activities close to bedtime might experience a decrease in rapid eye movement (REM sleep) (13). 

But there’s a silver lining for night exercisers. Certain studies, including one conducted on healthy college students, show that resistance training in the evening doesn’t necessarily harm sleep and may reduce nighttime awakenings (14). Still, if falling asleep quickly is your goal, morning workouts could be more beneficial.

Heavy meals and too much fluid

Dining heavily or drinking lots of fluids shortly before hitting the sack can also disrupt your sleep. Indulging in a large, rich meal can lead to discomfort and prolong the time it takes to fall asleep. Additionally, consuming foods high in fat or carbohydrates close to bedtime can lead to poorer sleep quality (15). 

Moreover, drinking too much water before bedtime can lead to frequent bathroom trips, a condition known as nocturia. This can fragment your sleep, decreasing its restorative power and leaving you groggy the next day (16). 

Eating or drinking too close to bedtime doesn’t just affect how quickly you fall asleep but also your overall sleep architecture. 

For instance, a study analyzing data from the American Time Use Survey found that those who ate or drank within an hour of bedtime experienced longer sleep durations but also more frequent awakenings, disrupting the quality of their rest (17).

Conditions affecting sleep

It’s important to recognize that various medical and psychological conditions can significantly impact our sleep quality. Here, we’ll delve into common conditions like insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy, highlighting their symptoms, disruption to sleep, and available treatment options.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. This can cause loud snoring and the sensation of gasping or choking, often leading to significant disruptions in sleep quality. 

Common symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, irritability, and difficulty paying attention during the day (18).

Treatment approaches (19):

  • Lifestyle changes: Simple adjustments like altering sleep positions, losing weight, eating nutrient-dense foods that support sleep, and avoiding alcohol can reduce symptoms.
  • Positive airway pressure devices: Devices such as CPAP machines keep airways open by providing a steady airflow during sleep.
  • Oral appliances: These custom-fitted devices help maintain an open airway by repositioning the jaw and tongue.
  • Surgery: In certain cases, procedures are necessary to remove or tighten tissue or expand the airway.
  • Nerve stimulators: These can help by stimulating nerves that control airway muscles, ensuring they remain open.

Insomnia

Insomnia involves difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to return to sleep. Sufferers often feel tired during the day and may experience mood disturbances and difficulty concentrating. Insomnia can be short-term, triggered by stress and life events, or chronic, persisting for months or longer (20, 21).

Treatment for Insomnia (22)

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT for insomnia involves techniques that help control or eliminate negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake.
  • Behavioral strategies: Techniques like relaxation therapy, sleep restriction, and stimulus control can improve sleep.
  • Medications: Various prescription medications can help with falling asleep and staying asleep, although they are generally recommended for short-term use.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects how the brain handles sleep and wakefulness, leading to excessive daytime sleepiness and unexpected naps during daily activities. This condition can manifest in several ways (23): 

  • Cataplexy, where strong emotions cause a sudden loss of muscle control and possible collapse.
  • Sleep paralysis, which is an inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up.
  • Vivid, sometimes scary hallucinations that occur as one drifts off to sleep or when waking. 

Together, these symptoms make managing daily life with narcolepsy particularly challenging.

Treatment for narcolepsy includes:

  • Medications: Stimulants, antidepressants, or other drugs can help control the symptoms.
  • Lifestyle changes: Scheduled naps and consistent sleep schedules are beneficial.

If you’re wondering why your sleep is so bad, it’s likely due to a mix of lifestyle choices, evening habits, and health conditions. By understanding these influences and making mindful adjustments, you can improve both the quality and quantity of your rest, paving the way for more energized and productive days.

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What to do if you can’t sleep?

If you’re tired of counting sheep and staring at the dark ceiling, this section will offer some practical and effective techniques to help you find that elusive slumber. These methods aren’t just about closing your eyes and hoping for the best; they’re about actively engaging your body and mind in relaxation. 

How to fall asleep fast

Want to fall asleep fast? Here are two strategies to help you drift off more easily.

478 breathing technique

When sleep eludes you, and you find yourself awake in the dark, try the “4-7-8” breathing method to help relax your mind and body. Here’s how to do it:

  • Position: Sit up with your back straight.
  • Mouth setup: Put the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth.
  • Exhale: Make a whooshing noise as you exhale completely through your mouth.
  • Inhale: Close your mouth, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four.
  • Hold: Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Exhale: Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound for eight seconds.

This breathing pattern helps reduce anxiety and may lower your heart rate, soothing you back to sleep (34). Start with four cycles and increase to eight as you get more comfortable with the practice.

The Military method

Developed to help soldiers fall asleep in combat conditions, the military method can be surprisingly effective. It involves a systematic relaxation of the body and a specific mental focus that clears the mind (35). Here’s how to do it:

  • Relax the face: Including the muscles inside the mouth.
  • Drop your shoulders: Let go of tension, and let your hands fall naturally to your sides.
  • Relax your chest: Take a deep breath and exhale, letting go fully.
  • Relax lower body: Let your thighs, calves, and feet go limp.
  • Clear your mind: For 10 seconds, try to envision a serene environment or repeat “don’t think” to keep your mind from wandering.

Practice this routine to teach your body to fall asleep on command. Although it requires some practice, it’s an invaluable skill that combines muscle relaxation and mental visualization to achieve quick and restful sleep.

How to improve your night rest

Enhancing the quality of your sleep can transform not just your nights but also your daily energy and mental clarity. Here are some foundational steps to ensure a restful night’s slumber, focusing on maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, optimizing your sleep environment, and considering the judicious use of sleep aids or supplements.

Optimal sleep environment

Creating an optimal sleep environment is crucial for a good night’s rest. The right conditions involve a blend of darkness, cool temperatures, and quiet. 

Reducing light exposure before bedtime is key since light, particularly blue light from screens, can inhibit melatonin production, disrupting your natural sleep-wake cycle (36). Blackout curtains or dimming the lights can help your body recognize that it’s time to wind down. 

The ideal bedroom temperature should hover around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) to complement your body’s natural temperature dip during the night (37).

 Additionally, minimizing noise can prevent disruptions to your sleep cycle (38). Consider using earplugs or soundproofing your room to create a serene sanctuary.

Regular exercise 

Physical activity is another cornerstone of good sleep hygiene (39). 

Regular exercise, particularly when timed correctly, can significantly enhance sleep quality. Aim to exercise during daylight hours or at least three hours before bed. 

Activities like yoga or light stretching in the evening can also prepare your body for sleep, promoting relaxation without elevating your heart rate too much.

Thoughtful use of supplements

Sometimes, even with the best routines, you might find falling asleep challenging. This is where supplements like melatonin can play a role. 

Melatonin supplements, often used to treat insomnia, can help regulate your sleep-wake cycle, especially in cases of jet lag or shift work sleep disorder (40, 41).

Other supplements that may support sleep include magnesium (42), which aids in relaxation due to its modulating effects on neurotransmitters and hormones, as well as by improving and regulating melatonin production. 

Also, zinc and L-theanine (43), which can improve sleep quality. Zinc in particular supports gut, hormonal and neurotransmitter regulation having notable implications for sleep. 

Remember, it’s important to approach these supplements one at a time to gauge their effectiveness and avoid potential interactions.

If you struggle to find sleep, practical techniques like the 478 Breathing technique and the Military method to help you relax both mind and body for a quicker transition to sleep. Also, optimizing your sleeping environment and adjusting your lifestyle can lead to better sleep quality, including the strategic use of supplements like melatonin. These methods and tips are designed to help you transform restless nights into peaceful, restorative sleep.

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Benefits of getting enough sleep for students

Adequate sleep is essential for students not only to avoid fatigue but also to boost memory retention, concentration, mood, and overall academic performance.

  • Improved memory retention: Deep sleep stages are critical for memory consolidation, where short-term memories transform into long-lasting ones (32). This process helps students retain information, whether studying for exams or learning new skills.
  • Enhanced concentration and focus: Sufficient sleep sharpens the mind, aiding students in maintaining focus during lectures and engaging more deeply with their studies.
  • Boosted mood: Regular, quality sleep balances neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate emotions, increasing resilience and enhancing the ability to handle daily stressors (26). This is because sleep affects the quality and composition of the gut microbiome, the epicenter of our health—supporting balance of hormones and metabolic and immune functions. 
  • Better academic performance: Studies show that students who sleep well before exams tend to achieve higher academic results (33).

Tips for getting more sleep as a student

To reap the benefits of good sleep, students should establish a routine that promotes restful nights:

  • Prioritize sleep: Decide that sleep is as important as academic and social activities.
  • Manage caffeine and alcohol: Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep.
  • Be mindful of whole, nutrient-dense foods in supporting sleep.
  • Limit screen time: Reduce exposure to electronic screens before bed to help the mind unwind.
  • Maintain a regular schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.

For students living in dorms, addressing environmental factors like noise, light, and comfort can also improve sleep quality. Creating a bedroom environment conducive to sleep, using earplugs, eye masks, and comfortable bedding can make a significant difference.

What does bad sleep do to you?

Poor sleep can profoundly impact your overall health, affecting everything from brain function to physical health. Understanding these consequences can help underscore the importance of prioritizing a good night’s rest.

Cognitive impairments

Lack of sleep significantly deteriorates cognitive functions. 

Studies show that sleep deprivation leads to decreased alertness, impaired attention, slower reaction times, and reduced cognitive speed. These effects can be as severe as those observed in individuals with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal driving limit (24). 

The research underscores that insufficient sleep negatively impacts not only simple tasks but also complex cognitive functions like decision-making, creativity, and memory (25).

Mood changes

The emotional toll of poor sleep should not be underestimated. 

When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to process emotional information suffers. This can result in heightened sensitivity to negative emotions and decreased emotional resilience. 

Research reveals that REM sleep, often disrupted by poor sleep, plays a crucial role in emotional health by helping to process emotional experiences from the day (26).

When sleep is disrupted, our emotional stress can spike, further impairing sleep quality and creating a vicious cycle of sleep disruption and emotional instability (27).

Weakened immune function

The immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy. 

During sleep, the body releases cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Sleep deprivation can reduce the production of these protective cytokines as well as infection-fighting antibodies and cells (28). 

Consequently, lack of sleep increases your susceptibility to infections, with studies indicating that people who sleep less are more likely to catch colds or other infections (29). 

Weight gain

Chronically poor sleep can cause weight gain due to long-term health consequences, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. 

Sleep affects processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including your blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation levels (30). It also plays a crucial role in your body’s ability to heal and repair. 

For instance, sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the hunger hormone ghrelin and decrease the satiety hormone leptin, which can lead to overeating and weight gain (31).

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When to see a doctor

Recognizing when to seek professional help for sleep issues is crucial for maintaining overall health. If you’re struggling with persistent sleep disturbances, it may be time to consult a healthcare provider. Here are some signs that indicate a need for medical consultation (44, 45):

  • Persistent difficulty sleeping: If you regularly have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and this issue persists for several weeks, it’s important to seek help.
  • Waking up too early: Consistently waking up earlier than desired without being able to fall back asleep can disrupt your sleep cycle and affect your daytime function.
  • Feeling unrefreshed: Not feeling refreshed even after sleeping for what should be sufficient hours can be a sign of sleep quality issues.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness: Feeling excessively sleepy during the day, even if you slept the night before, or feeling the need to take multiple naps to get through the day suggests that your sleep is non-restorative.
  • Impact on daily activities: If sleep problems are affecting your ability to perform daily activities or if you find yourself falling asleep during activities like driving, watching TV, or reading, it’s crucial to discuss these with a doctor.
  • Reports by others: If someone who sleeps near you reports that you snore loudly, gasp for air, sleepwalk, act out dreams, or show unusual behaviors during sleep, these could be signs of a sleep disorder.

Should I stay up all night if I can’t sleep?

It’s generally not a good idea to force yourself to stay awake all night if you’re having trouble sleeping. Instead, try to relax without putting pressure on yourself to sleep. Engaging in calming activities, like reading or listening to soft music, might help. If sleep continues to elude you, it’s better to stay in a dimly lit, quiet space and rest your body even if you can’t fully sleep.

How long can you go without sleep?

While it might be possible to go without sleep for a day or two, doing so can significantly impair your cognitive functions, mood, and physical health. Most adults will experience noticeable declines in concentration and motor skills after just 24 hours. Extended periods without sleep can lead to more serious health issues, including hallucinations and impaired immune function.

Should I go to the ER if I haven’t slept in 3 days?

Yes, if you haven’t slept at all in 72 hours, it’s advisable to seek immediate medical attention. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe physical and mental health complications. The emergency room can evaluate your condition, provide relief, and determine if there’s an underlying disorder causing the sleeplessness.

What to do if I haven’t slept in 2 days?

If you’ve been unable to sleep for 48 hours, it’s important to avoid stimulants like caffeine and screen time, as these can exacerbate the problem. Try engaging in gentle, relaxing activities and create a calm, dark, and cool sleeping environment. If sleep still doesn’t come, consider reaching out to a healthcare provider for advice and potential treatment.

Can genetics affect your sleep?

Yes, genetics can play a significant role in how you sleep. Certain genetic markers have been linked to sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, as well as to the tendency to be a “morning person” or “night owl.” Your genetic disposition can influence how long you need to sleep and how susceptible you are to sleep disruptions.

Are short sleepers healthy?

Short sleepers, or people who regularly sleep less than six hours a night but feel rested, are rare and may have genetic variations that allow them to function well on less sleep. However, for the majority, insufficient sleep can lead to serious health issues like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cognitive impairments. It’s important to assess how you feel and perform during the day to determine if your sleep habits are truly sufficient for your health.

Summary

Throughout this article, we’ve answered some of your questions on “why is my sleep so bad” and offered insights into both the symptoms and solutions for restless nights. From lifestyle adjustments and evening routines to understanding and mitigating conditions that disrupt your sleep, we’ve covered the essential strategies to enhance your nightly rest. Remember, better sleep isn’t just a dream—it’s achievable with the right approach and consistent efforts. Stay hopeful and proactive about improving your sleep; your mind and body will thank you for it.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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