Food Intolerances & 6 Other Surprising Things Affecting Your Sleep Health

woman sleeping in bed next to kitten
A healthy sleep schedule is important. Here are 7 things that might be negatively affecting yours. (Image: Twenty20/@creepture)

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: a healthy sleep schedule is important. If you're regularly skipping out on those precious zzz's, your hormones could be affected — leading to changes in appetite, stress levels, mood, metabolism and more.

Stuck in bed (again) with eyes wide open? Don't worry — whatever's keeping you up at night is likely treatable. Here are the surprising things that could be affecting your sleep health, and here's how to get back to those glorious seven hours of zzz's for a restorative morning and balanced life.

1. Nutritional Deficiencies

You exercise regularly, take control of your anxiety and seem to have a generally well-suited schedule. Yet, you still find yourself Googling "Why can't I sleep?" on the regular.

According to New York therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, nutritional deficiencies might be to blame for your sleepless nights. "Nutrient deficiencies mean your body is not absorbing the necessary vitamins and minerals," she says.

In particular, she names deficiencies in vitamin D, iron and magnesium. According to research from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, these deficiencies can lead to restless leg syndrome, therefore pain in the legs while lying down — pain that can affect your ability to slumber.

What's more, "Vitamin D deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression which may cause sleep issues [and] vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to migraines, cramps and digestion problems making sleep difficult," she adds.

If you're low in vitamin D, eat foods rich in it like egg yolks, salmon, and liver, and consider taking a supplement under your physician's direction.

To get more shut-eye, tackle your deficiencies. Magnesium in particular is known to promote relaxation and sleep, so load up on high-magnesium foods, such as nuts and grains, leafy greens and seeds.

You can also take a magnesium supplement (powder you can stir into water or milk) or soak in an Epsom salt bath before bed to induce drowsiness.

2. Food Intolerances

Histamine is a compound in food that can leave you sleepless at night. "Histamine is naturally occurring in some foods including spinach, tomatoes, tea and others. It’s also a product of bacterial action on foods, so anything fermented such as vinegar, wine, or processed like cheese, salami or even left-overs that have been refrigerated for a day will have higher levels of histamine," says Catherine Darley, ND, a naturopathic sleep expert.

People often take anti-histamines as an OTC treatment to sleep better, as histamine can lead to wakefulness, as explained in a study in Sleep Medicine Revolution. "Clinically I see this more in people who tend to get too hot at night, and are restless, along with the insomnia," she says.

Try taking a break from high-histamine foods, like soy, cured meats, and fermented foods, for two weeks and see how your sleep improves, she says. If you are vegan and often eat processed soy proteins, consider reducing your intake in favor of other vegan protein sources, like beans.

In addition to histamine, gluten sensitivities may also keep you up at night, as poor digestion can lead to inflammation in the gut and make it hard to fall asleep.

What's more, while lactose intolerance is not affiliated, an allergy to whey or casein can also affect sleeping ability.

woman working out
Exercising late at night can affect your body's internal temperature ... and its ability to fall asleep. (Image: Twenty20/@criene@ajknapp)

3. Exercising at Night

"When the body begins the fall asleep, its internal temperature begins to drop, making it easier for you to fall asleep. However, exercise, particularly exercise late at night or right before bed, can raise the body temperature too much such that a person feels more awake and less ready for sleep," says Dr. Sujay Kansagra, neurologist and the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program.

While exercise is a large part of a well-balanced lifestyle, and exercise has been shown to promote better sleep, according to research in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, exercising too close to bedtime can inhibit sleep.

Try exercising in the morning or earlier in the evening in order to avoid sleep disruptions, he says, giving yourself at least 3 hours before bed to unwind and come off of those endorphins.

4. Dehydration

Dehydration might also be a reason you can't sleep at night, and it's also an outcome of getting too few hours, according to a new study in the journal SLEEP_._ Whether you're not drinking enough water in the day or are finishing the day with a night cap, you could be dehydrated before bed.

And if you get a few bad nights in a row, you'll only keep getting thirstier and thirstier, stuck in a dangerous cycle, especially if you're dehydrated as a result of your drinking habits.

"While it’s true that alcohol may help you to fall asleep faster, ultimately it interferes with your sleep cycle," says Kansagra. First off, alcohol can affect the quality of sleep due to its dehydrating effects, so you might be waking up off and on throughout the night and you won't feel as rested in the morning, he says.

Secondly, alcohol can worsen existing sleep disorders and may even cause new disorders, such as sleep apnea, he adds, an association which also has been backed by a study in the journal Sleep Medicine. If you find yourself constantly dehydrated from alcohol, switch to water instead.

To make sure you're getting enough fluids in the day, set a reminder on your phone to guzzle some water every hour or keep a water bottle handy at your desk or in your bag so you can easily refill throughout the day. If you need some flavor, add in lemon squeeze or fresh fruit.

5. Stress

We all know from experience that stress can wreak havoc on our sleep. "Many adults with high stress levels often get less than 5 hours of sleep per night although 8 hours is the recommended minimum. Whether stressed from work, home or both, those who bring stress into the bedroom inevitably get less quality sleep in addition to less sleep in general," says Dr. Kansagra.

Stress can not only prevent you from falling asleep but also it can worsen under conditions of sleep deprivation, leading to a cycle where you can't sleep anymore.

6. Loneliness

Lack of snoozing can also come from loneliness. "People who are lonely have more fragmented sleep, which is probably because we need to feel secure to sleep well," says naturopathic sleep expert Darley.

In fact, a recent study in Nature Communications showed that people with insomnia tend to withdraw socially and become more lonely, which can result in an unfortunate cycle where you're stuck in bed yelling, "Why can't I sleep."

If you find yourself feeling sad or isolated, don't alienate yourself. Look out for support and try to re-connect with friends or make new ones.

You can join a gym or a type of community with similar minded people, you can speak to a therapist, or you can start marking down plans on your calendar to make sure you have some fun activities to look forward to.

7. Being On Social Media Before Bed

One of the biggest negative impacts on sleep and health is artificial light at night. "Melatonin, which is called the “Hormone of Darkness” is a key to sleeping well. In natural light conditions, melatonin starts to rise before bedtime as it becomes dark.

However, it is strongly suppressed by light, particularly blue light such as that given off by electrical devices, computers and TVs," says Darley.

Unfortunately, in today's culture, we don't shut off televisions or phone use until getting into bed. It's only then though that melatonin can begin to rise, which can delay the ability to doze off at a reasonable hour.

"One of the most important lifestyle habits is to spend the hour before bed doing something relaxing in low light," she suggests. Try reading a non-stimulating book, meditating, or listening to soothing rhythms or music, instead.

couple snuggling in bed
Good news - you can hack your sleeping patterns to be less affected by jet lag when you travel. (Image: Twenty20/@heftiba)

8. An Erratic Sleep Schedule

Travel and inconsistent work schedules can be a reason you can't sleep. "When you travel across time zones, your body will try to remain on its home timing, while the place you are visiting will be set to a different time. This leads to fatigue, poor sleep and irritability, commonly known as jet lag," says Kansagra.

Over time, your body will re-adjust to the clock at your new location, but it can take days, and then you're probably getting ready to head on back home.

To hack your next trip, push back or extend your bedtime by 15 minutes each night or in the 1-2 weeks before you travel. "This will help your circadian rhythm adjust prior to your travel in order to experience less sleep disruptions later on," she says.

What's more, even when not traveling, your sleep schedule might be inconsistent with your natural rhythm. Everyone has their own specific circadian phase, where they are either a “night owl” or “morning person," says Darley.

"Although most people know what times are best for them, many people don’t follow these times with their lifestyle," she says. This can create a disconnect with the body's natural clock, making it difficult to sleep and perform well.

"I suggest each person think about what their best times are for sleeping and working, and shift their lifestyle to honor these times," if doable, says Darley.

If you are struggling to sleep well, consider these sneaky culprits that could be messing with your internal body clock and keeping you awake. With a few lifestyle tweaks, you should be able to get back to sleeping quickly and soundly so you can feel happier and healthier each day.

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