A poor sleep pattern is one of the most common complaints in our society today and we do little to help ourselves. We stay up too late and get up too early. We tend to over stimulate ourselves with late night activities, such as working on our computers or watching television, and then we use drugs and other chemicals such as caffeine to keep us awake, for whatever reason. Failure to get a good night’s sleep is often the cause of a great deal of misery to many people, and can be the cause of health risks, lack of energy, emotional imbalance, and loss of productivity and motivation. When people have not had enough sleep they do not enjoy life, they feel old before their time, everything becomes a chore and any everyday task becomes a major problem. Lack of sleep is associated with inflammation causing an increase of cytokine molecules. Long term insomnia leads to chronic inflammation which increases the risk of hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
So, how much sleep do we require? The normal average is around 7.5 hours a night, however some people are happy with just 5 hours and others need as much as 9 hours a night. The key is to find the right amount for you by monitoring how you function during the day. If you wake up feeling refreshed and stay awake during the day, after 6 hours of sleep, then you do not need more. If on the other hand you need 8 hours to feel refreshed and awake then that is your individual requirement.
Sleep occurs in stages and is organised by our biological clock that regulates our biological rhythm, which inturn is regulated by different areas of the brain.
During the night your sleep pattern goes through different stages and there are two major parts. There is rapid eye movement sleep (REM), which occupies 20% of the night and occurs every 90 minutes, and there is non-rapid eye movement sleep (Non-REM) which occupies 80%. The latter is divided further into 4 stages with stage 3 and 4 referred to as ‘deep sleep’.
During non-REM sleep hormones are released to help the body repair itself and rebuild from damage done during the day. During REM sleep memories and thoughts from the day are processed, and it is the time when vivid dreams occur.
There are many reasons for not sleeping and stress and anxiety are probably the most common causes. People complain of not being able to relax their mind and of things going around and around in their head.
If you travel a lot, jet lag is a temporary disruption in circadian rhythms that occurs when you travel across time zones and can cause sleep problems.
Shift work can cause a circadian rhythm sleep disorder because your work schedule and your biological clock are out of sync.
Certain medications can be a problem, such as antidepressants; cold and flu medications that contain alcohol; pain relievers that contain caffeine (Midol, Excedrin); diuretics, corticosteroids, thyroid hormone and high blood pressure medications.
The amount of coffee or alcohol you drink may stop you sleeping properly and I have found that certain food sensitivities can cause sleep problems.
Medical conditions such as asthma, acid reflux, hormonal changes, cancer, chronic pain, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, parkinsonism and allergies can all contribute to sleep problems.
Things to do to improve your sleep.
• Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bed. Although alcohol can help you to get to sleep, a few hours later when your blood alcohol levels, and therefore your blood sugar levels, begin to fall, it can have a stimulant effect.
• Avoid too much fluid within an hour of going to bed. Allow your body to get rid of excess fluid, otherwise you will be woken during the night to empty your bladder.
• Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed. This includes tea, coffee, cola drinks and even chocolate as it has a stimulant effect.
• Avoid heavy spicey or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bed. You may get to sleep but they can affect your ability to stay asleep. Your sugar levels will dip which has a stimulant effect again.
• You could have a light snack before bed such as a banana, peanuts, or yoghurt, that is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps you to sleep.
• Try and go to bed at a regular time every night and make sure it is well before midnight. Melatonin is only produced between 10 and 12midnight and only when your eyes are closed and it is dark. This hormone is vital for cell regeneration.
• Exercise regularly, but not within 2 hours of going to bed as it may prevent you from going to sleep. Exercise during the day can deepen your sleep at night.
• Try to establish a pre-sleep ritual such as a warm bath with lavender oil to help the relaxation. Meditation, yoga or deep breathing can also help, or some light reading.
• Make sure your bed is comfortable that you have the right number of pillows so that your head is not propped up or tilted down at an angle to give you neck ache.
• Find the best sleeping position for you so that you don’t wake up with aches and pains.
• Is your room is cool and well ventilated?
• Make sure your bedroom is dark and free of distracting noise.
• Do not use your bed as an office.
• Avoid watching the television or using your computer within an hour of going to bed.
If you wake in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep, don’t lie there ‘trying hard’ to sleep. Get out of bed, read for a while or have a light snack or take a bath and then go back to bed and you are more likely to go back to sleep.