We’ve all had them. Those nights where you toss and turn as the hours ticks by and your mind feels like it’s in a loop, saying “Why can’t I sleep?“.
Everybody has sleepless nights occasionally, that’s just life. It’s when sleep starts to become an issue every night that you have a problem. There are all sorts of reasons that may be keeping you awake at night, but it’s important that you get to the bottom of the issue as lack of sleep will soon start taking its toll.
Let’s take a look at just why sleep is so important?
The Effects Of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health. It’s as important as drinking clean water and eating a healthy diet. Yet in today’s world and our busy lives it’s probably the first thing we sacrifice.
There are many reasons why sleep deprivation is detrimental to our lives. From making us look haggard and old, to putting us at risk of chronic illness. Not to mention the dangers it poses to ourselves and others when we drive a car or operate machinery in a drowsy state.
Studies show that sleep deprived workers are 70% more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than their well rested counterparts. They also cost the American economy a whopping $63 billion a year in lost productivity, with workers consistently being late, not showing up and not performing at their best.
Lack of sleep also has an adverse effect on our relationships. One study, performed on a randomised group, to measure direct and indirect empathy found that participants in the sleep deprivation group had significantly lowered levels of empathy towards others. Sleep deprivation has a negative effect on the processing of emotional information and the findings are not only relevant to people that suffer chronic sleep problems, but to healthy individuals with poor sleep habits as well.
Understanding The Circadian Rhythm
We all have a circadian rhythm – a natural, internal clock that tells us when we should sleep and when we should be awake. The rhythm repeats itself every 24 hours. And it’s not just us humans that have it. All living organisms do. Animals, plants, even fungi have this internal process that regulates their sleep cycle.
It used to be that we went to bed when the sun went down and got up when the sun came up. This lifestyle was perfect for our circadian rhythm. When it begins to get dark outside our pineal gland starts producing melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy and ready to sleep. Sunlight inhibits the production of melatonin which is why we can stay awake during the day.
In this modern age though, with its electric lighting and alarm clocks, we don’t tend to follow our natural patterns anymore. Our jobs and the way we choose to spend our free time are the major deciders of when we sleep. No one was binge watching Netflix in the stone age!
Understanding The Sleep Cycle
In adults the average sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes and during that time we go through 5 stages of sleep. Stages 1 to 4 are NREM or Non Rapid Eye Movement, and stage 5 is REM.
Stage 1 – You are drifting off to sleep, your brain produces what are called alpha and theta waves and your eye movements slow down. You’re still quite alert and could be woken up easily. This stage lasts around 7 minutes.
Stage 2 – You’re still in a fairly light sleep but your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep. After an initial spike in brain wave activity the waves start to slow down. Your body temperature starts to drop and your heart rate slows. If you are having a power nap then this is when you’ll want to wake up.
Stage 3 – You’re entering deep sleep now and the brain has started producing slow Delta waves, although there are still some shorter, faster waves every now and then. It’s harder to wake you up now.
Stage 4 – Your brain is just producing Delta waves now. Eye and muscle movement have ceased and you are in the most restorative part of the sleep cycle. It’s the most difficult time to wake up as your body is repairing muscle and tissue, stimulating growth and development and boosting the immune system.
Stage 5 – This final stage in the sleep cycle is known as the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase. The brain starts to become more active, your blood pressure and body temperature rise, your breathing speeds up and of course your eyes begin to dart in all directions, hence the name. This stage of sleep is very important. It’s when the brain consolidates memories and all the information you’ve taken in during the day, deciding what’s important and what’s not. This is when you will dream and why you often wake up mid dream.
You’ll repeat the cycle throughout the night, usually about 5 or 6 times and waking up between cycles, as opposed to in the middle of one, is what will have you feeling energised and refreshed rather than groggy and tired.
A good nights sleep and an easy wake up is all about timing.
Understanding Sleep Debt
Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of hours you need to sleep (about 7 – 9 a night for most of us) and the amount of sleep you actually get. According to the Harvard Medical Journal, the more in debt we get, the less likely we are to recognise it.
“Once sleep deprivation — with its fuzzy-headedness, irritability, and fatigue — has us in its sway, we can hardly recall what it’s like to be fully rested. And as the sleep debt mounts, the health consequences increase, putting us at growing risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.” – Harvard Health Publishing
If you only have a small debt, say you had a couple of late nights during the week, then you can probably make up for it by sleeping for a few extra hours at the weekend. The problem with this is that sometimes you just can’t sleep. Short naps during the day can help but long naps may mess with your natural sleep cycle. Long term chronic sleep debt is much harder to repay. It takes a long term strategy of making sleep a top priority to settle that debt.
The Yo-yo sleep debt repayer, who gets insufficient sleep during the week, makes up for it on the weekend, and then goes back to bad sleep habits during the week may suffer the worst health consequences.
Kenneth Wright of the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab at CU Boulder says that yo-yoing back and forth – changing the time we eat, changing our circadian clock and then going back to insufficient sleep is uniquely disruptive and can have the worst effects on our health.
Common Sleep Problems
There are various types of problems that could have you tossing and turning all night long. They can be separated into the following groups:
Medical – Some of the most common issues include:
- Sleep Apnea
- Chronic Pain (Arthritis, Fibromyalgia etc)
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder
- Heart Burn
- Thyroid Problems
- Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)
- Certain Medications
- Night Terrors
- Other Mental Health Issues
- Poor Sleep Hygiene
- Too much light
- Too much noise
- Shift Work
Dealing With Sleep Problems
If you have a medical issue that is keeping you awake night after night then you really must seek help from your doctor. Lack of sleep can aggravate medical problems as the body and brain don’t have the time they need to perform all the restorative functions that happen while we snooze.
Psychiatric problems such as depression can stop you from sleeping, which in turn makes you feel more depressed. This can turn into a vicious cycle and you’ll need to find a way to help yourself through. Therapy works for many people, and if you’re not one of them then speak to your doctor about medication.
When it comes to sleep hygiene you need to look at what you could be doing in your day to day life that is affecting your sleep. Are you drinking too much caffeine, too late in the day? Are you eating heavy, greasy food at night? Blue light from screens inhibits the production of melatonin, just like sunlight does. If you’re using your phone or computer late at night this could be one of the reasons you’re having trouble sleeping.
Shift workers experience disruption to their circadian rhythm. Working during the hours that they should be sleeping and then trying to sleep when the body expects to be awake. Although most shift workers will have a few problems when they initially change their sleep schedule, they generally fall into a new pattern without too much of a problem. If you’ve been working shifts for a while and you still have trouble falling asleep and feel tired after sleeping you may have Shift Worker Sleep Disorder. It’s actually a recognised syndrome – SWSD, and people that have it tend to sleep around 4 hours less than other workers.
And So To Bed…
Sleep is so important on many levels. If you want to look your best, feel your best and perform at your best the importance of sleep cannot be stressed enough. But we all known that sometimes getting the rest that we need is not that easy.
If you feel that you aren’t getting enough sleep you need to look at the problem and figure out why. Then make it a priority to take action to fix that problem.
Sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity. Sleep debt is difficult to pay off effectively. We need to do our utmost to get the sleep our body needs, every single night.
Consistency is key.
If you have any questions or tips, please leave them in the comments below. Thank you.
Good night x