Can you be too tired to sleep?

When it comes to small children, people are quick to identify the signs of overtiredness – the hyperactivity, the mood swings, the irritability – but in adults, these telltale signs often get overlooked.

Stress and sleep

Sonia Chartier

31 January 2019

Is there a difference between being tired and being sleepy?


Mood swings, irritability and hyperactivity are symptoms we can easily recognize in small children, particularly when they stay up past their bedtimes. Despite the clock ticking, they just seem to resist and keep going until they eventually crash. Unsurprisingly, grown adults can also demonstrate a similar reaction when overtiredness presents itself, but before we go on to explain how overtiredness can occur, we first need to define what it is and its impact.


First, it’s important to understand that feeling tired is not the same as feeling sleepy. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but sleepiness is a precursor to sleep – if you’re constantly yawning, blinking and generally struggling to stay awake, then you’re definitely sleepy. However, tiredness and sleepiness aren’t necessarily linked, which means you can feel physically, emotionally or mentally exhausted but not sleepy.


This is essentially what happens when you feel overtired – you may feel drained and mentally tired but you’re still too wired or restless to feel sleepy. When you do eventually go to bed, you’ll find yourself tossing and turning, unable to tune out your own thoughts and still too awake and alert to feel relaxed enough to sleep.


Ten common symptoms of overtiredness:


  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings
  • Inability to think straight
  • Slower reaction times
  • Muscle tension
  • Dizziness
  • Poor coordination
  • Blurred vision
  • Insomnia


Why am I feeling overtired?


Although the phrase “overtired” is often ascribed to children, it can present itself in adults for a number of reasons. If you’re unable to “switch off” at night then, according to sleep expert Nerina Ramlakhan, your hectic lifestyle and society as a whole may be playing a big role in that. As she cites, “We have become restless as a society,” and when you consider the advent of new technology such as smartphones and tablets, this makes sense.


One of the great things about these technologies is that we’re now more connected with the world around us than ever before, but this can also be a disadvantage. Whether we want them to be or not, our phones are constantly pinging with alerts and notifications, so there’s no chance of switching off the same way we used to, and this can create issues, particularly when it comes to our work/life balance.


In 2010, a survey found that 89% of US workers considered their work/life balance to be a problem, and considering that many of us can now access our work emails from home, this definitely poses a problem. This type of connectivity can mean that many of us struggle to shift out of “work mode” and often put in extra hours from home long after we’ve officially clocked out. This not only engages our brain but can also be quite stressful. Here in Canada, it’s also believed that the environment we work in could impact our sleep patterns too!


If your job involves a computer, chances are you spend most of your day at a desk in an office, with limited exposure to natural light. Since your sleep/wake cycle relies on the right exposure of light at the right time, your sleep patterns could become disrupted and your production of vitamin D greatly reduced.


But it isn’t just switching off from work that’s the problem. Whenever we have a spare moment, most of us are browsing on our phones or laptops, so our brains never get a chance to rest. Unlike 30 or even 20 years ago, we’re being constantly bombarded with stimulants, be it blue light or an action-packed YouTube video.


Combine all these different factors and you’ve got the perfect recipe for overtiredness as your brain, in a state of constant stimulation, will eventually trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, making you feel more awake and alert, even at night when you’re tired. So, if you’re struggling to switch off at night because you’re still on red alert mentally and emotionally, here are some things you can do to get some good quality sleep.


Top five tips if you’re overtired


1 – Relax your muscles, relax your mind

Feeling restless and finding it difficult to relax can cause muscle tension, which can be an additional source of discomfort while you’re trying to get to sleep at night. However, practicing gentle stretches combined with deep breathing techniques can really help not only your muscles to relax, but your mind too! In 2015, Harvard Health Publishing highlighted a survey that found that over 55% of yoga practitioners felt that it helped them sleep better at night, and comparable results have been found with similar exercises such as tai chi.


2 – Increase your magnesium intake

When it comes to overtiredness, this mineral is definitely worth considering. Low levels of magnesium are often associated with sleep problems and, unfortunately, here in Canada, low levels of magnesium are quite common.

This is a real shame, as magnesium is not only pivotal for your muscles and joints (helping to relieve tension and spasms), but it can also impact your nervous system. This is because magnesium can help increase your levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that works to reduce feelings of anxiety. Since anxiety is often associated with overtiredness, this can go a long way to helping you get to sleep. However, the benefits of magnesium don’t stop there – it’s also believed to help regulate your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone!

Realistically, you should be able to get all the magnesium you need from your diet and you definitely shouldn’t exceed 400 mg a day! But if you’re menopausal or suffering badly from PMS symptoms, you might want to consider a magnesium supplement.


3 – Be more mindful

Mindfulness is growing steadily in popularity. It can be especially useful if you’re overtired and find that your thoughts are whizzing all over the place, as mindfulness encourages you to be present and aware in the moment. Instead of participating in this mad flurry of worries and anxieties, you’ll be able to take a step back to observe your thoughts from a distance and help your brain to control negative emotions. Studies have found that practicing mindfulness can help you lower your blood cortisol levels, which will make it easier for you to get a good night’s sleep.


4 – Switch off from the notification squad

Have you ever been woken up by a Facebook notification or an email? If you sleep with your phone right next to your bed, then chances are you’re going to find it very difficult to relax. If it’s within reach, it’s all too easy to start checking emails and scrolling through social media, which can in turn exacerbate the symptoms of overtiredness. This isn’t just because your phone, laptop and similar devices emit blue light waves that can inhibit your production of melatonin; these technologies also stimulate you at a time when ideally you should be resting. That’s why we always recommend either putting your phone in airplane mode or switching it off once you’re in bed. And if you do find yourself fidgeting, get up and out of bed.


5 – Don’t be afraid to get out of bed

Your bedroom should be a relaxing and comforting environment – the last thing you want to do is associate it with negative emotions such as anxiety and frustration. That’s why, rather than tossing and turning in bed, we usually recommend getting up. Get out of bed, move to a different room and sit quietly for a few minutes in the dark. If all goes well, your body should start to relax, in which case, head straight back to bed – sleeping on the sofa is unlikely to give you a restful night’s sleep!


Can herbs help?


When it comes to sleep problems, a variety of herbs can help.


Chamomile tea, for example, is often used to help soothe and relax the body in the evening, so if you’re addicted to coffee or caffeinated tea, this could be a useful swap to keep in mind!


Lastly, when it comes to tackling overtiredness, I would recommend our Deep Sleep herbal tincture. This remedy contains a combination of valerian and hops, which can help gently relax your nervous system, ease stressful or anxiety-ridden emotions and allow you to unwind in preparation for sleep.


Unlike most conventional sleep medicines, Deep Sleep isn’t associated with any side-effects, such as drowsiness the following day, so it’s ideal if you have to keep on-the-go.



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