Mind & Body

Why you can’t sleep even though you’re tired (and what to do about it)

Have you ever been so tired that when you wake up in the morning all you can do is daydream about getting back into bed that night? Fast forward to bedtime but there you are lying awake in bed struggling to get to sleep. Sleep expert Dr. Stephanie Centofanti has some tips for you.

Sleep problems are one of the most common health issues affecting people, but many of us suffer in silence. From insomnia to disrupted dreams, restless legs or a snoring partner, poor sleep can affect your whole day, particularly when you wake up feeling worse than when you went to bed.

It’s not just about feeling tired. Bad sleep can lead to a range of other problems, from anxiety to poor performance at work. And with COVID-19 disrupting everyone’s routine and causing great stress and uncertainty, we all need decent quality sleep more than ever.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to combat insomnia and improve your sleep. So, what are some of the main factors that make sleep so elusive, even if you’ve spent all day fantasising about bed?


It’s no surprise that stress and anxiety can make it hard to fall asleep. Sleep is regulated by hormones, so if stress hormones like cortisol are high at night, this can cause insomnia. Lack of sleep can also make it harder for us to cope with stress, so it can become a bit of a vicious cycle.

Tips: to reduce stress try mindfulness apps as well as steering clear of stressful news stories at night (particularly this COVID year). Try setting aside some time in the evening to write out a to-do list for the next day, so that you’re not lying awake worrying about everything you have to get done. Incorporate some relaxing habits into your wind-down routine to switch your brain off, such as watching a fave TV show, debriefing with a friend/family member, reading or having a bath. Allow yourself some time to escape from the stress of the day.

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Being glued to electronic devices can make it harder for us to sleep for two reasons. Firstly, the blue wavelength light that our phones and tablets emit can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, which reduces secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin. Secondly, being on devices, especially if you’re interacting with others on social media or playing games, can increase physiological arousal. Essentially, the brain gets too excited to sleep.

Tips: Try to avoid having devices in the bedroom, the bed should be reserved for sleep. Have a tech-free buffer zone for 30 minutes before bed. If you are going to be on your phone, try using ‘night shift mode’ or an app that blocks some of the blue light. There isn’t much research to show that this is less detrimental to our sleep, but it’s probably better than not using it.

Diet (food timing, caffeine)

Most of us know that too much coffee can stimulate and make it hard to nod off, which is why we drink it so much of the time! But caffeine can stay in your system for up to six hours. Alcohol might make it seem easier to fall asleep, but it actually reduces your sleep quality.

Food and mealtimes can also impact sleep. More evidence is emerging to show that it’s not only what you’re eating that’s important, but the timing of what you’re eating.

Tips: Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before bed. If you’re really sensitive to caffeine this might mean not only cutting back on coffee and energy drinks in the evening, but chocolate and caffeinated tea as well. Try to avoid alcohol and large meals close to bedtime, and stick to a regular meal schedule during the day to keep your body’s sleep-wake cycle in check.

Lack of routine

Although a bit of a sleep-in on weekends won’t hurt, having a regular sleep schedule can be really helpful for keeping the circadian rhythm (the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle) on track. If there’s lots of variability in the time you go to bed and wake up, this can ‘confuse’ the circadian rhythm, which not only impacts on sleep but overall wellbeing too.

Tips: It’s important to try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day. In the same way that small children need a consistent routine to help them sleep, having a consistent bedtime schedule and wind-down routine is important for adults too.

Underlying health or sleep issues

Sometimes there are underlying health issues such as mental health disorders or sleep disorders that can impact sleep. Two common sleep disorders are insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea. Medications for different health issues can also impact on sleep.

Tips: Keep a record of your sleep and alertness for a few weeks. This can be helpful information for your GP. If you think your problems sleeping might be caused by an underlying health issue, see your GP.

Of course, there may be unavoidable factors contributing to your lack of sleep (like screaming babies in the house or challenging work rosters) – but putting into practice one or two small changes that are in your control can help to make a difference over time.

Dr Stephanie Centofanti is the Online Course Facilitator for the University of South Australia’s Bachelor of Psychology and the Bachelor of Psychological Science and Sociology.