Can’t Sleep? 5 common causes (and what to do about them)

Picture of a woman awake at three o'clock in the morning.

If you are having a hard time falling asleep, or a hard time staying asleep, you may have trawled the internet in the wee small hours looking for answers or advice. Chances are, you’ve read all about “sleep hygiene” – the good habits that research has proven to help improve sleep. But what happens when you already practice all these habits and still have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep? Perhaps there are some other matters to attend to.


If you haven’t schooled up on Sleep Hygiene, the absolute basics are:

  • Exercise, but not too late in the day
  • Make bed a beautiful restful place to be (don’t work in bed, watch tv there etc)
  • Limit stimulation and stimulants (screens, caffeine, alcohol etc) before bed
  • Avoid napping and establish a sleep/wake times routine
  • Get enough daylight in the day, make your bedroom dark at night and your bed warm
  • Avoid big meals that are hard to digest late at night, but you might want a wee snack before bed….more on this later


Sleeping problems are a common reason for a person to seek help from a health practitioner. When a client comes to a naturopath with sleeping issues, it is important to establish what specific factors are affecting that unique individual. Naturopathic medicine is more about “what is causing this? Let’s deal with it” rather than quick fixes that mask symptoms. We are all so very different, and a tailored and targeted approach will always work best. However, like any condition, there are many common issues and imbalances that influence sleep.


Here are our top 5 common factors that contribute to poor sleeps, and what might help:


1.Stress, stress, stress and sensitivity


This could easily be a whole book unto itself. The subtle interplay of stress, stress hormones and sleep hormones is an important dance to understand if this is what is stopping you getting a good sleep. For most people, stress and sensitivity is at the heart of their sleeping issues, this is why it’s number 1 on my list!


Most of you will have heard of the “fight or flight” response, our primal way of dealing with any external threat. In response to a stress, our adrenal glands pump out the hormones adrenalin (in the short-term) and cortisol (in the longer-term), to help us escape from the immediate life-threatening situation we have found ourselves in. When this fantastic life-saving response was developed, there were plenty of very real threats, for example wild animals to run away from. Stress hormones tell our bodies to be on alert, they help our brains work faster, our bodies run faster, our lungs breathe more oxygen to enable us to escape danger. The stresses of our modern day are not the same as being faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, and yet our body responds as if the overwhelming influx of emails, the deadlines looming, the traffic and every other thing that stresses us is an actual threat to our physical safety.


The upshot of this is that if we are stressed, or have the feeling or perception of stress, no matter what the cause, our bodies are in alert mode, and this makes it very hard to switch off and get a good night’s sleep. The ‘fight or flight’ part of our nervous system is the opposite of our ‘rest and digest’ mode, which really says it all. Actively reducing stress in our lives and enhancing as much as possible our feelings of peace, calm, and happiness are not just “nice ideas” they are really essential to promoting good sleep.


Sensitivity can create stress too, whether this is emotional sensitivity or a physical sensitivity to light, noise or movement. We are so over-stimulated in our modern society that we are constantly being ‘zapped’ with new sensations, new things to look at, to read, to hear, touch, mentally process and think about. If we are unsettled or disturbed it is much harder to sleep, this is especially so when suffering from anxiety or depression.


Herbal medicines can offer wonderful support for an overstimulated nervous system, or an over-active stress response. Whether taking a medicinal herbal tea or seeking out a practitioner to prescribe you your own personalised herbal tonic, herbs can be exceptionally powerful tools for relaxation when they are administered properly. Some wonderful calming herbs are chamomile, lemon balm, valerian, passionflower, motherwort and skullcap. Each herb has its own specific actions and suits specific people, so while kava might be the best thing to help melt the tension in your body and soothe you into a sweet sleep, your best friend may do better with zizyphus to ease her night sweats and nerves.


  1. Hormones – no not the sexy ones! Meet melatonin.

Mostly when people think of hormones they think of sex hormones – oestrogen and testosterone, but there are many others with different roles to play in our bodies. Basically, hormones are chemical messengers that travel around our bodies telling our cells and organs what to do. You have already met the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, so let us introduce melatonin, our sleep hormone. Melatonin has a hard time being produced in the right quantities and at the right times when we have erratic sleeping patterns, when we have elevated cortisol levels, or when we have too much light exposure at the wrong times of day.


  1. Nutrition, or lack thereof!

So now that we know about melatonin, let’s have a look at how we produce melatonin. One of the key building blocks to make our precious sleep hormone is tryptophan, an amino acid that we get from eating protein (especially animal proteins, including dairy products). Also required to convert tryptophan into melatonin are B vitamins, magnesium and zinc. Where do these come from? They have to come from our food. Eating a healthy, whole-food diet with minimal processed and convenience foods ensures that you get actual nutrition from your food, rather than just empty calories.


Foods and food substances that can be over-stimulating to the nervous system of some people include caffeine, sugars, food colourings and flavour enhancers. Additionally, reducing foods that use up our own precious stores of good nutrients is important. This can include reducing excessive consumption of sugar, coffee, alcohol, white flour, and refined carbohydrates.


  1. Vitamin & Mineral imbalances

No matter how healthy we may think our eating is, there may be things that get in the way of having optimal nutrient levels. Excessive stress can deplete our levels of certain nutrients, as can the consumption of coffee, sugar, alcohol, and white flour. Some other factors that can use up our stores of goodies are; exposure to pollution, immune problems, infections, pregnancy, breastfeeding, to name a few. Also, if our digestion isn’t working at its best, we may not be absorbing all the nutrients from our food ideally. Some medications can reduce nutrient absorption also, especially when taken long term.


One of the most common imbalances we see that impacts on sleep is low magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral responsible for many metabolic processes in the body, but a simple way of looking at it is as the mineral responsible for nerve and muscle relaxation. Have you got cramps? Twitchy eyelids? Restless legs? Anxiety? Taking reflux medication? You may have lower than optimal levels of magnesium. Poor sleep is often improved by the introduction of a good quality magnesium supplement, in the right form for you, and at the right dose. Some other common nutrient imbalances that can affect sleep are calcium, iron, and B vitamins. As with anything however, this varies from person to person.


  1. Reactivity: the right foods for you


For some people, no matter how chilled out and vitamin-replete, sleep is a broken and restless affair. If the points outlined above don’t resonate, it may be that your digestive system is a tad unhappy and letting you know all about it in the wee small hours of the night. This can be true for people of all ages, including babies, infants and children. Eating foods which don’t agree with you can disrupt sleeping patterns by either disturbing the digestion and creating discomfort, by acting specifically on the nervous system (for example some foods can act like opiate drugs in the brain), or by mechanisms not yet well understood. Anecdotally, there are so many many people who report improved sleep once they have identified and removed problematic foods and food substances.


Occasionally people wake from being hungry at night, when blood sugar dips. Some people find a protein snack great before bed, while others will find this too hard to digest and prefer a milk snack or cottage cheese snack. Others will prefer whole-grains. This is highly individual, and all of these can help to improve melatonin levels, and all will help maintain blood sugar levels. Like many things, it’s about finding what suits your body.


So in addition to addressing basic sleep hygiene, we recommend the following:




Investigating the root causes of your lack of sleep may lead you to a far greater understanding of what else may be out of balance in your life. So instead of just popping a pill and switching off, addressing the underlying causes of poor sleep is going to have greater benefit for your sleep, your health, and your whole life.

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