7 Things That Have Nothing to Do With Sleep but May Be Keeping You Up at Night

Not all sleepless nights are a sign of insomnia. Here are a few other culprits that may be keeping you awake.

Luke Daugherty Contributor
Luke Daugherty is a freelance writer, editor and former operations manager. His work covers operations, marketing, sustainable business and personal finance, as well as many of his personal passions, including coffee, music and social issues.
Luke Daugherty
5 min read
Woman lying in bed, can't sleep
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There's nothing quite like the feeling of laying your head on the pillow at night. There's great relief in letting go of the day and drifting off to sleep, leaving any lingering worries for tomorrow. 

At least, that's how it feels if you don't have trouble falling asleep. For many who deal with insomnia or other sleep disruptions, the pillow brings dread rather than relief. In many cases, it's hard to pinpoint just what's keeping you awake, making it even harder to drift into dreamland.

Yet, many things that can keep you awake have nothing to do with insomnia or other sleep problems. Solving your issue may just take adjusting an unhealthy habit or tweaking your medications.

What's keeping you up at night?

Everyone suffers from sleepless nights now and then. Worries over an exam, stress about a situation at home or work, a major life change -- all sorts of anxieties can work their way into your mind and cause you to toss and turn. 

Occasional sleepless nights aren't a sign that you have insomnia, though. One in three adults may have some insomnia symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, feeling tired during the day, or mood swings. However, true insomnia is more serious and persistent, and only about 10% of adults have a diagnosable condition. It may last for a few weeks (short-term insomnia) or go on for months (chronic insomnia). To receive a long-term insomnia diagnosis, you must suffer from three or more sleepless nights per week for more than three months without any clear medical cause.

If you do endure chronic insomnia, it's important to talk to your doctor. Leaving this condition untreated puts you at risk of various health complications, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and coronary heart disease.

7 factors (besides insomnia) that might be keeping you from sleeping

Woman holding her phone in the dark, trying to sleep
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Sometimes, your sleepless nights aren't a result of insomnia but some other habit (or set of habits) throwing off your body's natural rhythms. Here are seven things that could be keeping you awake at night.

Eating habits 

Numerous studies have demonstrated connections between dietary habits and sleep quality. For instance, some studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet -- high in plants, lean meats and fiber -- may improve sleep quality in women, while men seem more affected by excessive or insufficient protein or carbohydrate intake.

Meal or snack timing can play a role, as well. Experts recommend avoiding spicy foods within three hours of bedtime, as they can cause heartburn. Research has also found correlations between poor sleep quality and eating high-calorie or high-fat meals less than an hour before going to sleep. 

Your phone 

Smartphones are a uniquely modern reason for restless nights. These devices keep us company everywhere, even in the bedroom, where they may wreak havoc on our sleep. 

Many studies have shown a connection between smartphone usage before bed and difficulty falling asleep or shortened total time asleep. Aside from the constant mental stimulation of scrolling or watching videos, there's a clear biological reason for this connection. Phones emit blue light, which has been shown to suppress melatonin and keep your brain aroused. 

To promote better sleep, it's a good idea to keep your phone out of your bedroom at night, or at least keep the display and sound off.

Poorly timed exercise 

By and large, research has shown a strong correlation between regular exercise and improved sleep quality. Adults who exercise for 30 minutes a day, for instance, tend to average 15 more minutes of sleep at night. 

That said, the timing of that exercise matters. Performing high-intensity exercises such as interval training or running within an hour of your bedtime may keep you awake longer and make it harder for you to stay asleep.

Hot bedding 

Your body releases melatonin as it naturally prepares for sleep. Besides quieting your body and mind, this hormone also begins to lower your body temperature. Your core temperature may drop around 2 degrees while you sleep, but you can disrupt this process by keeping your surroundings too hot.

Research has found the optimal ambient temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but you may be comfortable anywhere between 60 and 68 degrees. Set your thermostat before bed -- and be sure you ditch that heavy winter bedding when summer starts sneaking in.

A messy room

Intriguing connections have been made between clutter and all sorts of mental health issues. It seems that a disorganized space can lead to a disorganized mind, causing stress, anxiety, and distractedness. 

This state of mind can follow us into sleep, too. One particular study showed that hoarding and creating cluttered living spaces was associated with trouble sleeping. Both hoarding and poor sleep can disrupt cognitive functioning, so they may play off of each other to create more clutter and further disrupt sleep.

If your bedroom is a mess, take some time to declutter it and set up a peaceful, stress-free environment

Caffeine and alcohol 

Caffeine and alcohol are pervasive in our society. The Sleep Foundation reports that 64% of Americans drink caffeine daily, with more than half drinking four or more 8-ounce cups of caffeinated drinks each day. Meanwhile, roughly half of U.S. adults report drinking alcohol within the past month. 

As common as these substances may be, they can both hinder your sleep. Studies have shown that caffeine consumption, even up to 6 hours before bed, can keep you awake and disrupt your sleep rhythms. And despite being a sedative that may help you fall asleep faster, alcohol can cause sleep problems later in the night, especially if you drink heavily. 

Your medications 

Prescription medications can also cause disruptions in your sleep patterns or even lead to insomnia. Many common medications, including decongestants, antidepressants, and beta blockers, can keep you awake at night, though the effects vary from patient to patient. 

If your sleep problems are correlated with starting a new medication, talk to your doctor about your concerns. They may be able to recommend different medication timing or dosage levels or prescribe an alternative that's less likely to keep you awake.

Bottom line

Your sleep troubles may not be the result of a serious condition like insomnia, but that doesn't make them any less frustrating or disruptive to your life. When you're desperately counting sheep, you'd probably do anything to doze off more easily. If you've ruled out other medical causes, look over your habits to see if any of these sleep-stealing culprits might be to blame.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.