Sleep: It's Complicated!

Caring For You

A good night’s sleep is something we all know we need, but chances are if you’re reading this you have a sleep problem.

Rest assured, if you’ll pardon the pun, you are not alone!  Huge numbers of us find it hard to perform this basic biological function. 

Most commonly we either can’t get off to sleep, or drop off quickly then wake up in the small hours, finding it almost impossible to get back to sleep. If we do finally drift off, we wake feeling tired and irritable, and the emotional pattern of the new day is set in motion. 

It is strange that something as natural as sleep should cause problems for so many of us.

The riddle of sleep continues to preoccupy researchers.For many years they have set up all kinds of experiments hoping to solve the mystery of why exactly we sleep and what the optimum amount of shuteye we can function on might be. As you'd expect, the answers are somewhat confusing. 

We have accumulated a lot of information about the effects of lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just cause you to yawn your way through the day or drop your head on the desk. It can also wear down tolerance to stress and affect your concentration – not great for our national productivity or harmony at home. Worse still, there is strong evidence that people who regularly experience insomnia are at a higher risk than others for depression, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. 

Just why some people seem to function on very little sleep while others need a lot is still somewhat elusive. One of the most liberating things I discovered when researching this article is that the magical number eight (“we all need eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night”) is a socially constructed idea, likely to have originated in self-reporting data gathered from US studies of young adults’ sleeping patterns. 

Over time the mantra of the eight hours has kind of morphed into a target we are all supposed to strive for (though lately I’ve noticed that seven hours’ sleep is being touted in some articles as the new magic bullet – maybe because we’re all working harder these days).

It appears that our sleep needs are as individual as our fingerprints and that quality has the edge over quantity when it comes to what constitutes a sound night’s sleep.

Historian Roger Ekirch in his book At Day’s Close, Night In Times Past writes that in preindustrial times our western ancestors had a 'first sleep' until around midnight, when they would wake up, tend the fire, maybe have sex, muse on the day’s happening, then drift off into a 'second sleep'. Of course they didn’t have electric light or the distraction of television, iPads or email!

But it does seem to have been assumed by later researchers that humans were unique among the animals in that we could sleep continuously, rather than experiencing the 'bi-modal' sleep patterns we observe in our four-legged friends. 

It just may be that, as Huffpost Healthy Living blogger Paul Spector MD notes, “… our internal clocks have not evolved to naturally drift off into one continuous nocturnal snooze".  "But according to the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry if we don’t do this we suffer from a sleep disorder that requires medicating.”

So you can see why it’s complicated! 

And I’m not qualified to get into evolutionary arguments no matter how fascinating. 

The bottom line is, if you’re having sleep problems, you will know and probably want to do something about them, preferably without becoming dependent on sleeping pills. 

The best advice I can gather is that you need to work out how much sleep you actually need. There is such a thing as too much sleep. For your experiment you will need to go to bed at the same time each night for about two weeks, including weekends, and allow yourself to wake naturally – no alarm clock. 

If you are sleep deprived it may take you awhile to recover, but you will eventually get in synch with your natural circadian rhythms. 

The bedroom

Ensure that your bedroom is a tranquil place, able to be darkened completely and away from any noise. 

Your bedroom is for sleep and sex - no television sets or iPads allowed! 

Your bed should be comfortable and the room well ventilated and kept on the cool side. 

As we know, animals don’t share our sleep patterns, so even though you dearly love Fido or Felix it’s better for you to keep him out of the bedroom (or at least in his own special bed). 

There are some wonderful aromatherapy mixtures that can be sprayed on your pillow or around the room to create a tranquil atmosphere. 

Relaxation tapes, or more recently smartphone apps, can help you drift off into the Land of Nod. 

Whatever works for you!

Sleepy Time Tips

  • Go to bed at the same time every night (not too early as you will only lie awake). 
  • Get up at the same time each morning, including weekends. You will feel more energised than if you sleep the same number of hours but at different times.
  • Make up for lost sleep with a daytime nap of no more than 30 minutes. This helps to pay off your sleep debt without disturbing your natural rhythms, but be mindful that for some, particularly older people, a nap during the day could result in night-time insomnia.
  • Avoid heavy, fatty, or spicy foods for at least two hours before you go to bed, otherwise your stomach has to work too hard on the overnight shift. Ditto for alcohol: that ‘nightcap’ can affect your sleep quality and wake you up later in the night.
  • Caffeine is on the blacklist, too. A coffee drunk 10 -12 hours previously can still affect your sleep. Caffeine is also a diuretic which can have you trotting to the bathroom during the night. For the same reason, go easy on all other liquids during the evening.
  • Quit smoking. It interferes with almost everything including your sleep! Nicotine is a stimulant and heavy smokers may experience withdrawal during the night which can cause wakefulness.
  • Exercise regularly, though you might prefer relaxing rather than vigorous activity at night (think gentle yoga stretches).
  • Skip the late news. Our brains get stimulated with too much late night input. Wind down by doing something relaxing – talking to a friend, reading a good book, taking a warm bath, or listening to some relaxing music.
  • Stress or worry left ver from the day can affect your sleep. Keep a notebook at your bedside and if you do wake up during the night feeling stressed, jot down your worries then ‘park’ them till morning. You may need to do some deep breathing or try muscle relaxation techniques to help you get back to sleep. There are plenty of good ideas about this in self-help books or on the internet (the same goes for ideas on stress management).If you do wake up during the night, make relaxation rather than sleep your goal. If you are awake for more than 15 minutes, use the time to read by a gentle light, or make yourself a light snack or a cup of herbal tea.