Anxiety Might Be the Reason You Can't Fall Asleep—Here Are 6 Things That May Help

Having a hard time falling—and staying—asleep? Anxiety might be the culprit. Whether you're already diagnosed or are trying nail down the reasons for your restlessness, read on to learn more about anxiety's role in sleep, plus six easy things you can to do help.

As anyone who has anxiety or has had it in the past knows, anxiety doesn't just "turn off" because it's bedtime. Instead, those anxiety-driven worries, concerns, fears and racing thoughts stick around and sometimes even get a little louder, all of which makes falling asleep difficult. It can even lead to poor-quality sleep once you do fall asleep. Yet, getting good-quality sleep is key to managing anxiety, and there are a few tweaks to diet and lifestyle that may help to decrease anxiety and improve sleep.

Nighttime sleep disruptions—specifically an inability to fall asleep and having restless, wakeful sleep—are some of the most common symptoms experienced by people suffering from either temporary stress-driven anxiety or anxiety disorders. While less-than-adequate sleep often means lower energy and productivity the next day, the bigger issue is that it aggravates anxiety, often making it worse. Even in those not currently suffering from anxiety, research suggests poor sleep increases risk for an anxiety disorder.

A woman laying in bed expressing discomfort with a night sky in the background and scratches
Getty Images / Tara Moore / KristjánFreyr

How do you stop the anxiety-insomnia cycle from continuing? Seeing a therapist is the best treatment for anxiety and associated sleep issues if you are experiencing anxiety, have an anxiety disorder or when stress-induced anxiety sticks around. But adding these diet and lifestyle tips into your day can also help too. Check out these six things that may help decrease anxiety, so you can sleep better.

1. Load up on magnesium-rich foods.

Magnesium is a key nutrient needed by the brain, and the majority of Americans don't get the recommended amount. Low or inadequate intakes are associated with anxiety and other mental health conditions. Research suggests that increasing dietary intake of magnesium can improve anxiety for many people and make falling asleep easier and overall sleep less restless.

How to Do This: Nuts, seeds and legumes are your top sources. In fact, 1 ounce of almonds (approximately 23) provides 20% of daily needs, and cashews aren't far behind. Legumes like peanuts, black beans and edamame, and seeds like chia, flax and pumpkin (pepitas) are also great sources, as well as leafy greens like spinach and kale.

2. Incorporate key proteins and other nutrients.

A few of the amino acids that make up proteins also serve as starting material for neurotransmitters in the brain, which regulate mood and impact sleep. Consuming adequate protein is important every day, and you may find additional benefit by incorporating specific protein-rich foods with additional nutrients to ease anxiety a few times a week. A lack of both omega-3 fatty acids and choline are associated with increased risk for anxiety, and research suggests that increasing both may help treat anxiety.

How to Do This: Higher-fat fish, such as salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines, are your best sources of omega-3s, and it's recommended that you incorporate at least two servings a week. One of the best sources of choline is eggs, so consider adding eggs to your meal plan a few times a week. Purchasing eggs from chickens given fortified feed can also give you a dose of omega-3s. Learn more about how much protein you need each day here.

3. Move daily.

Exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do each day to treat and manage anxiety. According to Atlanta-based certified trainer and yoga instructor Julie Jones, "Physical activity helps you to release anxious energy. It also triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to also ease anxiety and stress." And since exercise is also one of the best strategies to improve sleep and insomnia, moving daily can be an important way to prevent anxiety from impacting sleep.

How to Do This: Moving daily means getting some physical activity each day. Engaging in three to five days of planned, structured exercise each week is important for cardiovascular and strength benefits, plus it eases anxiety. The rest of the week can consist of less-structured activity, if you prefer, such as doing yardwork, walking with a friend or taking a moving meditation class like yoga or tai chi. And for times when you're struggling to get any exercise in at all, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that even just 10 to 15 minutes can improve mood and anxiety.

4. Feed your gut.

The brain and gut are in constant communication with the microbiome—the collection of good and bad microbes in the gut—and this relationship means that the microbiome has a large influence on brain and neurotransmitter activities. Research suggests that the microbiome's balance and overall health plays a role in anxiety and other mental health conditions, and incorporating probiotics into the diet has shown small improvements in symptoms.

How to Do This: Choose foods rich in probiotics over supplements when possible and consume them daily or regularly during a week. Some of the best appear to be yogurts and cheeses with active live cultures, kombucha and the fermented foods miso, kimchi, tempeh and sauerkraut and other vegetables.

5. Keep tabs on caffeine.

Starting the day with a cup of coffee wakes you up and gets the brain going thanks to caffeine which boosts energy and blocks chemicals in the brain that make you feel tired. These effects are heightened the more caffeine you consume during the day, something that can lead to caffeine-induced anxiety and worsen existing anxiety and stress. Adding to that is fact that caffeine consumed later in the day—even the afternoon—often impacts sleep.

How to Do This: Keep tabs on overall caffeine intake by staying under 300 mg (about 2 to 3 cups of coffee). Caffeine has a long half-life in the body (around 8 hours), so it's best to consume any caffeinated food and drink in the morning and early afternoon and avoid it during at least the 6 hours prior to bedtime. Also, skip the energy drinks. Many contain 300 mg of caffeine in one drink, as well as herbs and botanicals that can also add to anxiety and insomnia.

6. Create a bedtime routine designed to ease stress and worries.

When you're living with anxiety, getting to the end of a day often feels like a relief—until you try to settle down, relax and fall asleep at night. Not being able to go to sleep because of worrisome thoughts and feelings can add to the anxiety you're already experiencing, so it's important to establish a calming routine and bedroom. Sleep experts recommend creating an environment in your bedroom that's conducive to sleep—dark, comfy, quiet, technology-free and slightly cool, but adding in a few other things can help too.

How to Do This: Unplug from devices at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime and create a nightly routine to get your mind ready for bed by taking a bath, meditating or listening to calming music. When even doing this is a struggle, consider making a worry list where you jot down your concerns. Simply getting those anxiety-inducing thoughts on paper can help your brain take a break and settle down. Some also find relief by using a weighted blanket on their bed.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is known for her ability to not only simplify the science behind healthy eating, but also make it quick and delicious. Her work is regularly featured in publications like EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health and Allrecipes. In 2019, she released Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, a cookbook that teaches readers how to use the healing powers of food in quick, family-friendly recipes. Her next cookbook, One-Pot Meals That Heal, is scheduled for release in Spring 2022.

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