Sleep cycles – is yours out of synch?
Many people experience problems with sleep. Some of the more common forms of sleep disturbance are: not getting enough; difficulty falling asleep; problems staying asleep; and early morning awakening.
Sometimes they are acute and self-limited. You’re tense about that big exam tomorrow, or you felt tired and took a nap during the day, or perhaps there’s some problem that you’re wrestling with that you can’t stop thinking about. These types of sleep disturbances are usually just short term – once that problem is resolved, you start sleeping normally again.
Other times, sleep disturbances can be more prolonged. Some can be because of medical problems like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. When the sleep disturbance is due to a medical cause, that cause must be found and treated. But some people have difficulty sleeping without a concurrent medical problem. Factors that can cause someone from non-refreshing sleep can be many. I want to take a look at some of them here and give some suggestions for getting your sleep back to normal, if possible.
It’s important to get the necessary amount of sleep because prolonged insomnia can cause a number of related problems that can have a negative impact on daily life.
For example, those who haven’t gotten enough sleep have problems with staying alert and staying focused. These can be problematic when someone needs to be mentally sharp like when driving, studying or doing any one of a number of daily tasks. Also, sleep deprivation can lead to increased irritability and anxiety. People who don’t sleep well can suffer from depression and may be more sensitive to pain than had they slept normally. These can add to a vicious circle that keeps reinforcing itself.
The hypothalamus in the brain helps to regulate circadian (cycles that occur daily) rhythms, like sleep. This internal clock is closely aligned with the amount of light that enters the eye. This, in turn, regulates the amount of melatonin that is produced by the pineal gland. This area of the hypothalamus sends out signals that help keep us awake and alert. As the day draws to an end, these signals slow and more melatonin is released by the pineal and we gradually become sleepy.
There is also a homeostatic sleep drive that operates. This works to make us sleepier the longer that we’ve been awake, somewhat like hunger. The longer since our last snack or meal, the hungrier we get. Anyone who has been up for 20 hours knows that he feels much more sleepy than he did when he was awake for 10 hours. And this homeostatic drive is independent of the circadian rhythm.
Most studies show that the “average” adult needs between 7-8 hours of sleep per night, though there can be quite a bit of variation in this. And, surprisingly, as we get older we don’t need less sleep. With aging, the sleep cycle itself changes. We spend less time in “deep” sleep, and more time in lighter sleep from which we can be more easily awakened. Some research shows that older adults may just not feel as rested as they should even after getting a reasonable amount of sleep. They feel more tired and may nap or doze. Additionally, people who are past retirement age may have considerably less to do if they haven’t replaced their career duties with other activities. They may feel bored, and napping is a partial solution for them. Of course, that will upset their nighttime sleep cycle even more.
Tips for sleeping better
So, if you’re having problems with sleeping soundly and awakening rested, what can you do?
First, you may want to get checked by your doctor. Let him investigate and see if there’s a medical cause for the sleeplessness. If there, is and the problem can be corrected, then you may be able to sleep normally again. But sometimes, there’s no definite cause found for the sleeplessness. However, there may be a number of things that some of us do on a daily basis that may hamper getting a good night’s sleep.
Here are some general tips that you can try that may help you sleep a little better.
1. Avoid caffeine from early afternoon on. Also, be aware that caffeine is in a lot of foods and beverages. So, you may stop drinking coffee at 3 PM, and think that you’ve therefore stopped your caffeine intake. But caffeine can be found in things like tea, chocolate, energy drinks, yerba mate, some processed beef products (like beef jerky), some chewing gums and other products. So check out the labels on the foods you buy to see if there’s any caffeine there.
2. Make your bedroom as conducive for sleep as possible. Minimize noise and light make sure that the temperature is comfortable before you get into bed. Sleep only in your bed and use your bed only for sleep (or sex). In other words, don’t read in bed.
3. About an hour before bed, start relaxing. Listen to some soft music, meditate, take a warm bath or shower. Unwind. Don’t watch action adventure movies or the news. This isn’t the time to listen to heavy metal music or get into arguments with loved ones.
4. Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol may make you sleepy, but it can interfere with your sleep cycle and leave you with a hangover in the morning. Don’t use alcohol as a sedative.
5. Get up about the same time each morning, even non-work days. Use an alarm clock to wake you. Sleeping in on non-work days can throw your sleep cycle off.
6. Go to bed at about the same time each night. Keeping to a regular schedule of bedtimes and wake-up times, helps your body to acclimate to a regular cycle.
7. Shortly before going to bed, use the bathroom. And you may want to cut back on drinking liquids a few hours before bed. You don’t want to have to get up to answer a call of nature if you can avoid it. Also, make sure that everything you need to do before going to sleep is done (lock the doors, turn out lights, turn air conditioning or heat down, etc.). You don’t want to remember something just as you’re getting drowsy and have to get up to take care of it.
8. If you have trouble falling asleep, don’t look at the clock. That will only aggravate you and your sleeplessness.
9. If you don’t fall asleep soon, don’t lie in bed and toss. Get up and then go back to bed when you feel sleepy again. In the meantime you can try meditating, reading something that isn’t exciting, listening to music or something similar.
10. Don’t nap during the day unless you absolutely have to. If you must nap, keep it short ( less than 1 hour).
11. Eat meals (especially dinner) at regularly scheduled times. Eating later or earlier than normal can interfere with falling asleep.
12. Plan and do some form of regular exercise each day. It doesn’t have to be a heavy workout. Walking, swimming , yoga or stretching are all ideas if you’re not into (or up to) an hour of intense cardio each day. But don’t exercise close to bedtime.
Giving the above tips a try may help you get a better, more refreshing night’s sleep.