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Why Can’t I Sleep Even Though I’m Tired? Sleep PhD Explains

Can’t sleep even though you’re tired? It’s probably poor sleep hygiene, being out of sync with your circadian rhythm, stress, or a medical condition.
Published
2022-08-10
Updated
2024-04-16
23 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, Rise Science Scientific Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man sitting in bed at night instead of sleeping because he can't sleep even though he's tired

Why Can’t I Sleep Even Though I’m Tired? 

  • There are many reasons you might not be able to sleep even though you feel tired. It may be down to poor sleep hygiene, which is the set of daily behaviors that can help or hurt your sleep. Poor sleep hygiene includes getting too little natural light exposure in the morning and during the day, being too wired from screens or stress before bed, and having caffeine, alcohol, or a large meal too close to bedtime.
  • You may also be out of sync with your circadian rhythm, or body clock, which can happen if you have an irregular sleep schedule. 
  • Sleep disorders like insomnia, hormones, and medical conditions like anxiety and depression could also be keeping you up. 
  • To help, start by ruling out poor sleep hygiene and keeping a more regular sleep schedule. The RISE app can tell you the best time to go to sleep and wake up for you, and when exactly to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits based on your own biology, making them even more effective at helping you fall and stay asleep.

Not being able to sleep is annoying enough. But if you feel tired and still can’t drift off, it can feel like your body is conspiring against you. 

Many things might be stopping you from sleeping, but — luckily — there are science-backed solutions to help. 

Below, we’ll dive into the reasons you can’t sleep, despite feeling tired, and what you can do to solve them. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you fall asleep night after night. 

Heads-up: Feeling tired and feeling sleepy aren’t the same thing. When you feel tired, you feel fatigued, but you can’t necessarily fall asleep and sleeping might not help you feel better. On the other hand, when you feel sleepy, you could fall asleep if you tried and you’ll usually feel better after sleeping. Despite the difference, tiredness and sleepiness are often used interchangeably. We’ll do that as well unless we note that we’re focusing on one particular aspect of these experiences.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

““If you feel tired but can’t sleep, aim to keep a regular sleep schedule throughout the week and make sure you’re staying on top of sleep hygiene habits, like getting out in morning sunlight and avoiding caffeine in the afternoons. A healthcare provider can rule out possible sleep disorders and medical conditions.”

Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu, who is double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

Why Can’t I Sleep Even Though I’m Tired?

There are many reasons you can’t sleep, even if you feel tired, and some are more surprising than others. 

Here are the common reasons you feel tired, but can’t sleep. 

1. You’ve Got an Irregular Sleep Schedule 

Do you go to bed at 10 P.M. during the work week and then stay up long past midnight on the weekends? If so, you’re not alone — 87% of us go to bed at least two hours later at the weekend.

But having an irregular sleep schedule like this disrupts your circadian rhythm or body clock, which thrives on consistency. 

Your circadian rhythm runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and dictates your sleep schedule, body temperature fluctuations, and when your body makes certain hormones, including the sleep hormone melatonin

So, if your sleep and wake times are all over the place, you’ll be sending your circadian rhythm mixed signals and your body won’t know when to promote sleepiness or wakefulness.  

This can leave you tired all day, but then wide awake when you try to sleep. It can also make it difficult for you to wake up when you want to and lead to fatigue as well as unpredictable fluctuations in energy levels throughout the day.

The fix: Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on your days off. If you want to sleep in, keep this to an hour or so. 

RISE can predict the timing of your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when your body wants to sleep and wake up. Aim to sync up with these times for an easier time falling and staying asleep.

If these times don’t match your lifestyle, you can shift your circadian rhythm earlier or later. 

We’ve covered how to reset your circadian rhythm here.  

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2. You’ve Missed Your Melatonin Window 

Each evening, there’s a roughly-one window of time when you’re naturally most primed to fall asleep. It’s when your body’s rate of melatonin production — the hormone that primes your body for sleep — is at its highest. 

We call this your Melatonin Window. Heading to bed during your Melatonin Window can help you fall and stay asleep, But if you miss your Melatonin Window and go to bed too late, you may struggle to drift off.

And the same thing can happen if you try going to bed too early. You may feel tired (worn out and low on energy), but not sleepy (physically nodding off). If this happens, you’re better off doing a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy enough to crawl into bed.   

The fix: Check RISE for the timing of your Melatonin Window each night and aim to go to bed within this window of time. Keep a regular sleep schedule to keep the timing of your Melatonin Window roughly the same each night.

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window reminder
RISE can tell you the best time to go to bed.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up a reminder to check their Melatonin Window here.

3. You Drank Coffee Too Close to Bedtime 

We all know coffee can perk us up during the day, but it can linger in your system for more than 12 hours. So a seemingly innocent late afternoon latte may make it hard to fall asleep when bedtime rolls around. 

And if you can’t sleep at night, you might find yourself drinking more coffee to get through the day, creating a vicious circle of more caffeine and more sleep loss. 

The fix: Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bed. RISE can tell you the exact time to stop drinking coffee each day

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their limit caffeine reminder here.

4. You Drank Alcohol Before Bed 

As well as coffee, there’s another drink that can disrupt your sleep: alcohol. 

Alcohol can: 

  • Be stimulating in low doses
  • Fragment your sleep, meaning you wake up more often in the night
  • Reduce melatonin production, weakening crucial timing cues for sleep 
  • Cause or worsen anxiety 
  • Cause or worsen sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea  
  • Cause a hangover (which won’t make it easy to sleep)

Even if you feel exhausted, you may find you can’t sleep on nights when you’ve had alcohol. 

If you’re a regular drinker, you might find you can’t sleep without alcohol if you’ve developed a psychological or physical dependence on it. 

We cover more reasons you can’t sleep after drinking alcohol here. 

The fix: Avoid alcohol three to four hours before bed. RISE can give you an exact time to cut yourself off. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their avoid late alcohol reminder here.

5. You Ate a Large Meal Too Late in the Day 

Eating late can push back your circadian rhythm, meaning you might not feel sleepy when you crawl into bed. 

It can also cause digestive issues, like bloating, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which certainly won’t help you relax and drift off. 

Eating close to bedtime can also cause trouble after you’ve fallen asleep. A 2021 study found eating or drinking an hour or less before bedtime increases your odds of waking up during the night. Eating further away from bedtime lowers these odds.

The fix: Finish up dinner two to three hours before bed. If you need to eat closer to bedtime, go for a light healthy snack. RISE can tell you exactly when to stop eating. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their avoid late meals reminder here.

6. You’re Stressed or Anxious  

Stress and anxiety don’t play nice with sleep. In fact, RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest challenges when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. 

If you’re in a state of stress, you might feel wired but tired at bedtime. When this happens, it can feel like your mind is alert and racing, but your eyes are drooping and your body’s tired.

If this happens for several nights or more, you might feel “overtired,” which, while not a medical term, is often used to describe that feeling of extreme exhaustion from sleep loss. 

When stressed and wired but tired, you might have high levels of the hormone cortisol. This can stop your body from winding down and drifting off, even if you’re feeling sleepy.

High cortisol can also keep you in fight-or-flight mode. This can cause mental and physical alertness, despite feeling drained or ready for bed.  

It’s also easy for our minds to start ruminating (or endlessly worrying) at night. We don’t have any distractions when we’re lying in bed, so we may find ourselves going over the same anxious thoughts. 

So, if you can’t sleep at night, but can during the day, stress or anxiety that heightens at bedtime may be to blame. 

The fix: Try breathing exercises that have been scientifically proven to lower your stress and help you sleep. These exercises can also provide a distraction to break the rumination cycle.

  • A 2021 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped nurses feel less anxiety and fall asleep faster
  • Another 2021 study found deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation reduced anxiety and improved the quality of sleep in hospitalized older adults. (Although there’s no set definition for sleep quality). 
  • A 2023 study found psychological or cyclic sighing, which emphasizes prolonged exhalations, helped reduce anxiety and improve mood. This study was co-authored by one of our sleep advisors, Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, Co-Director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences at Stanford University. 

RISE has in-app audio guides that walk you through exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

We’ve covered more breathing exercises to do before bed here.

RISE can guide you through relaxation exercises.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started here.

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7. You Took a Nap

While we usually encourage napping, it can be the reason you can’t fall asleep at night. 

If you nap for too long or too late in the day, you may not have enough sleep pressure — the urge to sleep — to drift off that night. 

This can cause sleep deprivation, and then a bigger urge to nap the next day. 

This can be a slippery slope if you can’t sleep at night, but can during the day, as breaking the cycle might involve forgoing your usual nap.

The fix: Keep naps to 90 minutes tops and earlier in the day. The best time to nap is during your afternoon dip in energy (check RISE to see when this is each day). This is far away enough from bedtime to — hopefully — not affect your nighttime sleep, and you’ll be feeling naturally sleepy at this time anyway. 

If you have insomnia, you may want to avoid napping altogether. 

If you’re looking for an energy boost in the evening, consider yoga nidra or NSDR. Studies show yoga nidra can give you some of the same benefits you’ll get from a nap, such as improvements in mood and alertness, without reducing sleep pressure.

8. You’re Using Screens Before Bed 

Screens — including your phone, laptop, and TV — emit blue light. And blue light is one of the most disruptive wavelengths of light to your circadian rhythm. It pushes it back and suppresses melatonin production, meaning you may struggle to fall asleep at your usual bedtime, despite feeling sleepy and ready for bed. 

Beyond light, screens can be disruptive to your sleep if they excite or stress you too much before bed. Consuming exciting or anxiety provoking content before bed (think watching an action movie or reading the news) can energize you rather than calm you down, causing you to miss your Melatonin Window and delay your bedtime. 

The content you’re consuming on your screens can also cause you to miss your bedtime due to its bingeable or addictive nature. The same goes for playing multiplayer games online, as it’s hard to pull yourself away if your friends continue playing late into the night. 

The fix: Be mindful of how and when you’re using screens before bed. Make sure you’re getting plenty of natural light throughout the day and dimming the lights before bed. Putting on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed (we recommend these) may help too, especially if you have a more irregular sleep schedule. 

Avoiding electronic devices an hour or so before bed may help, but you don’t have to if you enjoy pre-bed screen time. The research is mixed, but a 2022 study found media use before bed was linked to an earlier bedtime. 

And if media use was done in bed and didn’t involve multitasking — so no scrolling on social media with Netflix on in the background — it was linked to more sleep time, too. 

Just be sure to consume relaxing content, such as a sitcom you’ve seen before, and consider setting a bedtime alarm or putting your devices on a timer, so you don’t blow past bedtime. 

You can learn more about the science of screens before bed here, including how to enjoy them and still feel sleepiness right on cue at bedtime. 

9. You’re Uncomfortable 

It doesn’t matter how sleepy you are, if you’re in pain or discomfort, it’s going to be hard to relax and fall asleep. 

And beyond obvious discomfort, you need to make sure your bedroom is a sleep-inducing environment. It shouldn’t be too bright, too noisy, or too warm for sleep

Temperature is hugely important, yet often overlooked. Your core body temperature needs to drop in order for you to drift off. That means a warm bedroom or thick pajamas could be stopping you from sleeping. 

You’ll also want to improve the air quality in your bedroom as much as possible and get the humidity levels right. Learn more about air quality and sleep here.

The fix: Audit everything about your sleep set-up — your bedroom, your bed, and your sleep position. 

Try: 

10. It’s Your Hormones 

The reason you’re struggling to sleep isn’t always something you can control. Unfortunately, hormones can wreak havoc with your sleep. 

Fluctuating hormones can change your body temperature and anxiety levels, and cause symptoms like hot flashes or night sweats

This might leave you with daytime fatigue as well as trouble sleeping at night.

The fix: You can’t control your hormones, but you can work to mitigate the sleep issues they cause. Pay extra attention to good sleep hygiene, especially keeping cool and calm before bed. 

We’ve covered advice for common times of life when hormones are their most disruptive, including: 

Discover other reasons why females can’t sleep even though they’re tired here.

11. You Have Insomnia 

Can’t sleep even when sleep deprived? Insomnia might be to blame. 

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, insomnia is when you have:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulty sleeping despite the opportunity to sleep
  • Daytime impairment
  • Having these sleep problems at least three nights a week for at least three months (chronic insomnia) or under three months (short-term or acute insomnia)
  • No other sleep disorders, medical conditions, medications, or substance use disorders causing these problems

Insomnia can take on a few different forms. You may have trouble falling asleep at the start of the night, wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to drift back off, or wake up too early and find you’re unable to get back to sleep. This can leave you feeling tired all day, but awake at night. 

You might also have paradoxical insomnia, also known as sleep-state misperception, which is when your sleep problems feel much worse than they really are.

Chronic insomnia can be genetic, but it can also be caused by poor sleep hygiene.

The fix: Speak to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. They can determine if you have insomnia and, if so, which type. Insomnia treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) as a first-line treatment. This includes a mix of sleep hygiene education, supervised sleep restriction, and stimulus control (which includes only going to bed when sleepy and getting out of bed if you’re still awake after 20 to 30 minutes). 

We cover more on how staying up if you can’t sleep can treat insomnia here.

12. You Have Another Sleep Disorder

It might not be insomnia. Another sleep disorder could be keeping you up, even though you feel exhausted.

That could be:

  • Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder: This circadian rhythm disorder is when your sleep is abnormally delayed compared to the light-dark cycle of the outside world. It affects about 1% of adults.
  • Restless leg syndrome: This is when you have uncomfortable sensations in your legs and an uncontrollable urge to move them. This can happen in the evening, stopping you from falling asleep.
  • Sleep apnea: This is when your airways close off during the night and your body wakes you up to kickstart your breathing. Once you’re awake, your stress levels may be too high to fall back to sleep. Research shows sleep apnea and insomnia usually coexist.

The fix: Talk to your healthcare provider or to a sleep specialist. They’ll be able to test you for sleep disorders and recommend the best treatments, which could be lifestyle changes, medication, or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for sleep apnea

13. You Have a Medical Condition 

Beyond sleep problems, health issues and medical conditions could be causing sleeplessness or daytime fatigue.

These include: 

  • Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and ADHD
  • COVID (including long COVID)
  • Chronic pain 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism 
  • Allergies 
  • Nutritional deficiencies 
  • Anemia 
  • Leg cramps 

The fix: Talk to your healthcare provider if you think a health condition is behind your sleepless nights. They can recommend treatments and medications to help. 

Pay extra attention to your sleep hygiene to make sure nothing else keeps you awake. 

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Why Am I Tired During the Day But Awake at Night? ‍

There are a few different reasons you might be tired during the day, but awake at night. For example, you may have a sleep disorder like insomnia, stress or a medical condition causing daytime fatigue and sleep problems, or poor sleep hygiene keeping or waking you up at night. This lack of sleep can cause you to feel sleepy during the day.

Having an irregular sleep schedule or being out of sync with your circadian rhythm in other ways — such as when you have jet lag or a circadian rhythm sleep disorder — could also leave you tired and low on energy all day, but unable to sleep at night. 

Should I Just Stay Awake If I Can’t Sleep?

In the short term, yes, you should stay awake if you can’t sleep because you can’t force sleep and trying to force sleep can backfire and trigger insomnia or more sleep problems. 

Don’t just give up on sleep altogether, though. 

After 20 minutes or 30 minutes of trying to sleep, do a sleep reset. This involves getting out of bed and doing a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy again. 

Try:

  • Reading
  • Journaling
  • Doing gentle yoga
  • Doing an easy household chore, like folding laundry 
  • Doing NSDR

Expert tip: When you’re out of bed, keep the lights low and avoid looking at the time. You want to create a relaxing sleep environment, and bright lights and stressful clock-watching won’t help you feel sleepy.

Doing a sleep reset can help to stop your brain from making the link between being awake and being in bed, also known as stimulus control

It should also provide a distraction, so you don’t get stressed about not being able to sleep. Dr. Jade Wu, a board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, and author of Hello Sleep, a book on overcoming insomnia without medication, advises thinking of this time as bonus me-time and enjoying it, knowing that sleep is coming. 

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Staying awake if you can’t sleep can also be, perhaps surprisingly, an effective treatment for insomnia. This is called sleep restriction, when you intentionally get less sleep for a set period, which can lead to feeling sleepier at night in the long term. You should only attempt sleep restriction with the help of a CBT-I therapist or app. 

While staying awake can be useful in the short term, in the long term, you shouldn’t just stay awake if you can’t sleep. Sleep is vital for health, energy, and productivity. If you don’t get the sleep you need (known as your sleep need), you’ll build up sleep debt (a measure of how much sleep you owe your body). And this will lead to adverse health outcomes, poor mood, and low energy. 

We’ve covered why it takes you so long to fall asleep here, including the average time to fall asleep (10-20 minutes).

Heads-up: We all have different sleep needs. When we looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and older, we found they ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. Check RISE to find out your unique sleep need and whether you have any sleep debt.

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
The sleep needs of RISE users.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

Why Do I Sleep Worse When I Go to Bed Early? 

You might sleep worse when you go to bed early because you don’t have enough sleep pressure to fall and stay asleep. Sleep pressure is the urge to sleep that builds up all the time you’re awake and reduces when you sleep.

If you’re trying to sleep earlier than usual, you’ll also be out of sync with your circadian rhythm and trying to sleep before your Melatonin Window. You might struggle to fall asleep because your body's melatonin production and core temperature have not yet reached the optimal levels for sleep (and are timed instead to your usual sleep schedule).

Not enough sleep pressure and sleeping out of sync with your circadian rhythm explain why you sleep worse when:

  • You’re trying to sleep during the forbidden zone of sleep — a time in the early evening when it’s almost impossible to sleep (you might also know this time as your “second wind”)
  • You have social jet lag and you’re trying to sleep early after a weekend of going to sleep late 
  • You’re a night owl trying to force yourself to sleep too early
  • You’re trying to “bank sleep” or get more sleep than your body needs, which isn’t possible 

In other circumstances, additional factors can make your sleep worse when you go to bed early too: 

  • You have anxiety around an early flight or event that’s waking you up too early (this is known as anticipatory anxiety
  • You have poor sleep hygiene that wouldn’t usually affect you — going to bed earlier than usual might mean you have too much caffeine in your system to fall asleep or too much alcohol to stay asleep through the night 
  • It might still be light or noisy outside, disrupting your sleep 
  • You have a sleep disorder like insomnia or delayed sleep-wake phase disorder

Want to get to bed earlier? We’ve got advice on how to sleep early here. 

Similarly, if you want to sleep, but your body won’t let you, that may be down to not having enough sleep pressure to drift off, poor sleep hygiene, or trying to sleep at a time that’s at odds with your circadian rhythm — perhaps too early for a night owl, during the forbidden zone of sleep, or trying to nap in the mid-morning when energy levels are high. 

How Can I Fall Asleep?

The ultimate goal is to feel sleepy at bedtime and drift off easily when you crawl into bed at night. There are a lot of things you can’t control — like hormones or health issues — but you can control your sleep hygiene. 

And good sleep hygiene is scientifically proven to help you fall and stay asleep each night. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get bright light first thing: This resets your circadian rhythm for the day, keeping your sleep schedule on track. Aim for at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up, or 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window.
  • Get as much natural light as you can during the day: The more natural light you get during the day, the less likely bright artificial light will make it hard to sleep at night. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed. Use screens wisely, or avoid them an hour or so before bed. 
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: You don’t have to give them up entirely — you just need to get the timing right. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily.
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: This will help your body and brain wind down for the night. This is helpful for everyone, but especially those who find stress and anxiety keep them awake. Try reading, listening to music, journaling, or doing yoga.
  • Avoid sleeping pills: Sleep aids come with side effects and there’s a risk of rebound insomnia, when your sleep gets even worse when you stop taking them. 

RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep habits each day and tell you the most effective time to do each one.

For the best results, do these sleep habits every day — not just when you’re having trouble falling asleep. This will ensure you’re getting the best night’s sleep possible, keeping your sleep debt low. Then, when a bad night of sleep happens, it won’t be as impactful. 

We’ve covered what to do when you can’t sleep here, including the many other factors that could be keeping you awake (and their fixes).

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

Feel Sleepy at Bedtime 

Sleep is essential for health, well-being, focus — just about everything in life. But sometimes our bodies just won’t drift off, no matter how tired we are. To feel sleepy at bedtime, focus on what you can control: keeping a regular sleep schedule and sleep hygiene. 

Sleep hygiene includes getting bright light first thing, and avoiding light, caffeine, meals, alcohol, and intense exercise at the right times. 

To take the guesswork out of it, the RISE app can tell you the best time to go to sleep and wake up for you, and when exactly to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits.  

Users say these reminders make a big difference:

“Just becoming more aware of when’s the best time to drink caffeine, eat dinner, and get sunlight according to my circadian rhythm has helped my sleep quality tremendously.” Read the review

All this will help you get the sleep you need, and get it fast — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days.

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Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

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