I usually sleep pretty well. And I know I’m lucky.
I have many friends and family members who sleep poorly, and they’re not the only ones. If you are one of the many people are chronically sleep deprived, this piece of writing is for you, or someone you know who sleeps badly.
This blog is all about:
- What sleep is and why we need it,
- What can happen to our health if we don’t get regular, good quality sleep,
- What good quality sleep really means,
- How you can improve your sleep without drugs.
I learned so much while researching this article – I hope you enjoy it and learn something too! I’d love to know if you, or a loved one, get benefit from the tips at the end of my blog. Sweet dreams!
A Good Night’s Sleep is Not a Luxury
Irish playwright and author Jean Kerr joked: To begin with, the average, healthy, well-adjusted adult gets up at seven-thirty in the morning, feeling just plain terrible.
And although we may laugh, continued poor sleep is not a laughing matter.
How do you wake up? Refreshed, alive, ready to take on the day with optimism and energy?
Or do you hit the snooze button until you can’t possibly put off rising any longer?
Is this because you’ve slept poorly? Or maybe it took an age for you to go to sleep. Or perhaps your bladder is insistent throughout the night, waking you up just as you’re getting stuck into a good dream.
Maybe you wake yourself with a snore, a pain or reflux.
Perhaps you just can’t turn your mind off and it goes around and around, replaying events of the day when you think of all the brilliant ripostes you wish you’d said to that smart alec in the tea room, or that rude sales assistant at the supermarket.
There are a myriad of reasons we find ourselves deprived of sleep. And although the occasional bad night is considered relatively harmless, regular or constant sleep deprivation is cause for greater concern.
In the real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning – said F. Scott Fitzgerald.
If I can’t sleep, it’s because I can’t turn off my mind. I call it monster o’clock, when all the bad thoughts come out to play. They gang up on me and I am helpless against their relentlessness and malice.
I’m like William Faulker, who said, …Night is nothing but one long sleepless wrestle with yesterday’s omission and regrets.
Fortunately, I have found some good non-medical strategies which I use to quell these monsters of the dark. I will share these with you later.
First, I want to just talk about how good quality sleep is supposed to work.
The Cycles of Sleep
For thousands of years scientists have been perplexed about our need for sleep. And to some degree they still are, and really serious and interesting research continues. But one thing they do know is that we absolutely need good quality sleep, every night.
Sleep provides a space for a number of essential biological functions to take place.
It’s the time our skin replenishes itself, it’s vital in balancing our hormones, emotional and psychiatric health, supporting our immune system, enabling learning and memory to be bedded down, and cleaning toxins from the brain.
In fact, if you don’t sleep for months on end, you will die.
The average person needs between 7-9 hours every night. And this sleep needs to follow a pattern.
Scientists call this ‘Sleep Architecture’. Sleep can be divided into two main categories – REM and non-REM sleep. REM means rapid eye movement, and it’s what we do when we dream.
Non-REM sleep has four stages:
- Stage 1 – you move from wakefulness into drowsiness to falling asleep. If you fall asleep in front of the ballet or at the movies, you are in this category!
- Stage 2 – eye movement stops, brain slows down, heart rate slows and body temperature drops.
- Stages 3 and 4 are called slow wave sleep – the ‘dead to the world’ phase. This is where your body temperature and blood pressure drop further and your breathing slows.
Then you enter REM – where you dream.
These five stages form a 90-110min cycle – and a robust sleep would see you enjoying this cycle between four and six times a night.
But not everyone does.
And this can be dangerous.
The physical risks of sleep deprivation
Without your body getting the sleep it needs, you are at risk of a number of health conditions.
Diabetes – Studies have shown a sharp increase in the risk of Type 2 Diabetes for people with chronic insomnia. This is for a number of reasons, including impact on your hunger hormones, insulin resistance and weight gain.
High Blood Pressure – As reported in the journal Sleep, researchers found the risk of high blood pressure increased by three and a half times among insomniacs who routinely sleep less than 6 hours a night.
Heart Disease – People who don’t sleep well consistently have higher blood levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, a major factor in cardiovascular disease.
Sleep Apnoea is also an issue. Obstructed breathing during sleep raises heart disease risk, and stress hormones. People with untreated moderate to severe sleep apnoea have three times the risk of stroke as those without it.
Weight management – Health issues such as weight gain and obesity can be a big problem. A study at the University of Chicago showed that those who slept only 4 hours a night had a 28 percent increase in ghrelin, the body’s hunger hormone. The study participants also noted a 24 percent increase in appetite, with a preference for foods high in sugar, salt and starch – all the foods that help with weight gain.
Immune system – when we sleep poorly, our T-cells go down and inflammation rises. This results in our reduced ability to fight off viruses, leaving us at a greater risk of getting sick.
Ethics and morality – In their study, the Universities of Washington and Oregon found a link between the amount of sleep we get and our morality. Sleep deprived participants scored lower on a moral awareness decision making scale the the control group.
Alzheimer’s Disease: During sleep, our brains do a big toxic clean out. In particular, a neurotoxin called beta-amyloid can collect in your brain if your body doesn’t get the sleep it needs.
Beta-amyloid, which is a protein, has been found in clumps in some parts of the brain of those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a bit of a catch 22 – because the more beta-amyloid you have in parts of your brain, the harder it will be for you to enjoy deep sleep; and the harder it is for you to enjoy deep sleep, the harder it is for your body to clear out the beta-amyloid, and other neurotoxins.
Mental Health and Sleep
A study at the University of California, Berkeley looked at how a night of sleep deprivation affected the emotional memories that the participants made during the study. The participants were shown a number of words – positive, neutral and negative words like calm, grief or willow, after a sleep deprived night, and were asked to rate them on their emotionality.
After two subsequent nights of normal sleep, they were given a surprise memory test, and asked to look at the words again and categorise them. The study found that the participants had a significant deterioration in their ability to recognise the words they had seen earlier.
Even more astounding, their recognition of positive and neutral words deteriorated by 50 percent, whereas their ability to recognise words with negative connotations deteriorated by only 20 percent.
The study concluded that when you are sleep deprived, it’s possible that you create twice as many negative memories as positive or neutral memories, leading researchers to draw a link between sleep deprivation and depression.
Memory and Sleep
Researchers believe that sleep helps us process the day’s events, and helps us lay down memories of those events for the long term. Scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries believed that sleep helped us consolidate these memories.
However studies in the 21st century have found that memories are less set in concrete than that. More recent discoveries indicate that memories can be changed – which means that accurate memories can be corrupted into inaccurate memories, but also that inaccurate memories can change to become accurate.
Scientists now refer to the act of memory work while we sleep as memory evolution. Further studies have indicated that different parts of sleep – or different sections are our sleep architecture – strengthen different memories. More work is being done in this area.
Daniel Schacter of Harvard University argues that we create memories not so we can think about them and look to the past – but to use them to base decision making in the future.
Why don’t you sleep well?
Not being able to sleep is terrible. You have all the misery of having partied all night… without the satisfaction , said Lynn Johnston.
So why do people not sleep well?
The reasons are as varied as there are human beings on the planet – but scientists have identified some patterns and similarities through their research.
Jet lag and shift work are two major contributors to poor sleep, as the body’s circadian rhythms are disrupted and our internal clocks get confused.
Anxiety can be a major cause. I know that when I was in the corporate world if I had a big client presentation to make, or an early plane to catch (which was most Monday mornings) I slept poorly the night before.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is being recognised as a contributor to sleep deprivation. Researchers think that people produce too much melatonin, or are extra-sensitive to normal amounts.
Ageing has an affect on our sleep, as we get older we don’t sleep as much, and we don’t sleep as deeply. This is not to be confused with not needing as much sleep – we do need as much sleep as we age, we just don’t always get it.
Movement disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, sleep walking, sleep eating, a constant need to urinate, and sleep terrors are all contributors to sleep deprivation.
Caffeine, alcohol, and heavy or rich meals in the evening can contribute to poor sleep.
And medical conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and depression and anxiety can also interrupt sleep patterns.
As Charlotte Bronte so beautifully said, A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.
If you suffer from any of these or other medical conditions, then see your health professional. This article is not designed to replace quality medical advice!
How do you improve sleep?
So that’s the bad news. But don’t worry, there are many non-medical strategies you can employ to try and improve your sleep.
Philiip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was later turned into the film Bladerunner, said:
Don’t try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.
But you could try these tips to help you improve your sleep. I have split them into three categories – preparing your space, preparing your body and preparing your mind, for a good night’s sleep.
Preparing your body
- Keep regular sleep hours: If you are an insomniac try going to bed and rising at the same time every day, even on weekends. This pattern might help reset your circadian rhythms which might in turn help you sleep more soundly.
- Eating and sleeping: Give yourself at least 2 hours (but 3 is better) between eating and sleep. Eat a smaller portion at night. That way your body is not trying to digest when you’re wanting to sleep.
- And if you suffer from heartburn or reflux, then consider the type of food you are eating, as some foods can contribute to digestive disorders. Also, you could try sleeping on your left side, as there is evidence that sleeping on your right side increases the likelihood of heartburn.
- Dim the lights: Start dimming the light about 2 hours before retiring. This will signal to your body that you are getting ready for sleep.
- Have a bed readying strategy: Do anything you need to do before bed, like cleaning your teeth, before you start dimming the lights – so you don’t need to get all ready for bed then turn the bright bathroom light on to clean your teeth.
- Frequent urination: If you suffer from nocturia, or the need to urinate regularly through the night, try not to drink any liquids within 2 hours of retiring.
- IT devices: Don’t read your tablet or phone in bed. The blue backlight tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime by repressing the melatonin release which your body needs to sleep.
- Regular exercise: Regular aerobic exercise (although not within two hours of bedtime) is good for helping your body need rest.
- Stretching: Stretching and toning exercise that incorporate deep breathing, such as yoga and tai chi, can help your body get ready for rest. You could also lie on the floor with your legs up the wall, a well-recognised relaxation technique.
- Mindful drinking: Reduce your alcohol and coffee intake and these can keep you awake.
- Warm bath: A warm bath with lavender oil is a well known cure for helping the body relax.
- Napping: If you sleep badly, and you need a nap, even a little 10-15 minute shut eye in the middle of the day – then grab it. Even this short period of time can help your brain recharge, improve memory and cleanse itself.
Preparing your space
- A Sanctuary: Make your bedroom a sanctuary. Invest in a good mattress, pillows, sheets and blankets or doona. Keep your bedroom just for sleep and sex.
- Cool and dark: Keeping your bedroom cool and dark will help your body drop into drowsiness and then into sleep.
- Control noise: Keep your bedroom as quiet as possible. If you are in a noisy place, you could try having heavy curtains or double glazing to block sound; use a fan or sleep machine to create ‘white noise’, or have recordings of gentle sounds, like rainfall, playing while you drop off.
Preparing your mind:
- Stress can keep you awake – so write down anything that’s worrying you and know you can deal with it in the morning.
- IT devices: I’m adding them in this category as well because scientists are linking the electro-radiation from these devices with disrupted sleep, and they also impede your brain from clearing out neurotoxins at night.
- Sleep Diary: Keeping a sleep diary may be useful in identifying what’s disturbing your sleep. Try it for a month and see if there is a pattern.
- Learn and apply some gentle relaxation techniques. These might include deep breathing – which is what I use at monster o’clock. I put my hands on my tummy and breath deeply in and out for a count of 5 – my stomach rises and falls with my breath. I try to do this 20 times but usually fall asleep before I get there
- You could try tensing and releasing muscle groups. Start with your toes and clench them, then release them, go onto your calves, then your thighs – you get the idea.
- The Cognitive Shuffle developed by Canadian Neuroscientist Luc Beaudoin might be worth giving a go. With this strategy you think about things that don’t make any sense. Picture a random sequence of objects for a few seconds each – say cow, fridge, water bottle, coat. Or you could think of a word – say Teatime. Start by thinking of all the random words beginning with T, then with E, then with A.
The thought behind this is that the brain .The thought behind this is that the brain tries to figure out if it’s safe to sleep. If you’re thinking about stuff that makes sense, then your brain may figure it’s not safe to sleep yet. By thinking nonsense, your brain triggers the sleep switch because it knows it’s safe for you to drop off.
Or, as Dale Carnegie recommends, If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep. This is usually if you’ve been in bed for about 20 mins with the light out and still can’t sleep.
In the end, there are many causes of sleep deprivation, and many dangers associated with it. But I hope you can try some of the tips I’ve given you and that these will help you improve your sleep.
Thank you, and good night and sweet dreams!
Robert Stickgold, Sleep On It!, Scientific American, October 2015
Harvard Medical School, Focus on Sleep, General Ways to Improve Sleep, Issue #1 of 5 email series, September 2015
Harvard Medical School, Healthbeat – Tips for beating anxiety to get a better night’s sleep, email subscriptipon, July 2016
Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, Improving Sleep – A Guide to a Good Night’s Rest, 2015, http://www.health.harvard.edu
Vivian Giang, http://qz.com/424120/our-poor-sleeping-habits-could-be-filling-our-brains-with-neurotoxins
Brian St. Pierre, The Power of Sleep, Precision Nutrition, August 2016, www.precisionnutrition.com/power-of-sleep-infographic