The actual reason you can’t fall asleep (it’s not insomnia) and how to fix it

Although sleep disorders are extremely common in the US, their pathologies are largely unknown.

Because the limited data available on the subject often gets placed beneath the wrong umbrella condition, it’s important to keep several key terms in mind during the diagnostic process.  

Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD) alternatively referred to as delayed sleep phase syndrome is a disorder in which a person’s sleep schedule is dramatically delayed every night. 

The condition it’s particularly prevalent among young people even though it frequently gets confused with insomnia.

“DSWPD occurs when sleep onset and final awakening are delayed with respect to the desired clock time,” explains Eve Van Cauter, Ph.D., chair of Sleep Number‘s scientific advisory board, and professor in the department of medicine at the University of Chicago said in a release. “Typically, the affected individual falls asleep and awakens two or more hours beyond the socially acceptable or conventional bedtime.”

To be clear, insomnia is the inability to sleep, night owls are more active in the evenings and sufferers of DSWPD feel tired during conventional sleep hours, it’s just their internal clock is a few miles behind them.

Every person has a different chronotype, (a person’s natural inclination to the times of day they prefer to sleep or when they are most alert or energetic). Depending on yours, the delayed hour amputated from your sleep every night could have major effects on the way you function. 

This delay often occurs when one’s internal sleep clock (circadian rhythm) is shifted later at night and again later in the morning.

Genres are suspected to play a role given 40% of people with DSPS have a family history of the disorder.

Psychological and neurological diseases like depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder have also been linked to the DSWPD. 

Treatment is halved between taking on habits and supplements and dropping some. Studies have shown that increased light exposure can help in this regard. Light therapy can be achieved by sitting near a lightbox for 30 minutes a day.

You can also attempt to speed up your circadian clock by going to bed five minutes earlier every night. Continue this process until you fall into a consistent sleep schedule. 

Melatonin supplements can be used to bolster either of the measures listed above. 

“Good sleep habits include following a regular sleep schedule and avoiding electronics before bedtime. You should also avoid these things before going to sleep, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and vigorous exercise,” Healthline reports. With your doctor’s help, you can get your sleep back on track. Treatment aims to change your body clock with bright light therapy, melatonin, and good sleep hygiene. It might also involve adjusting your sleep and wake times.

Delayed sleep can just as easily be circumstantial. Recent literature has shown that the pandemic has impacted sleep patterns on a global scale. Even in this instance, the countermeasures previously indexed should do the trick. 

DSWPD is often misdiagnosed to if you expect you might be suffering from the condition consider gathering your medical history, requesting a sleep log and an actigraphy to better assist a physician’s diagnosis.  

 CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at