Maybe you have trouble falling asleep. Maybe you have trouble staying asleep. Either way, sleep deprivation can be a nightmare. If the situation persists, your brain is in a muddle and your body seems to drag. And worse.
Why does sleep go haywire so easily for some of us, and so rarely for others? How diverse are the causes of sleep problems, and how can we make improvements? Is life so stressful — or distracting — that we cannot manage to give our bodies the rest they need? And at what cost?
I used to marvel at the way my ex-husband could fall asleep, nearly anywhere and anytime. And he isn’t the only man I’ve known for whom sleep comes readily.
Hardly able to provide a representative sample, I nonetheless wonder if there are gender differences in what I think of as “sleep sensitivity” and if so, are they what we expect? Are the reasons what we imagine them to be?
In fact, the Sleep Foundation tells us that some 45% of Americans report poor or insufficient sleep. Or, in pure numbers, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) estimates 50 to 70 million Americans suffer sleep-related problems.
That’s a staggering statistic!
I’m the poster child for sleep struggles. I exist in gratitude for coffee. I dream of even a decent dose of zzzz’s. Thus, my increasing focus on improving sleep-related routines.
In light of the growing body of knowledge supporting the absolute necessity of sleep to our health and well-being, opportunities to avail ourselves of information in this area seem worthy our time and serious consideration.
I’ve Got Rhythm, You’ve Got Rhythm…
All thoughts of “better living through pharmaceuticals” aside — data from a 2013 CDC study tells us 9 million American adults use prescription sleep aids.
My, my. Another impressive stat, wouldn’t you say?
Questions come to mind, including these.
What about those lucky individuals who catch their 40 winks nearly every night? Are they somehow living with less stress, better nutrition, more regular exercise, fewer nighttime diversions, and whatever other magic combines to enable them to sleep?
And what about biorhythms and natural sleep cycles that we hear so much about? How exactly do they work? How are we derailing them and to what deleterious effect?
Psychology Today elaborates:
We humans, like all other animals, live in a world that is marked most basically and most invariably by cycles of day and night… these fundamental rhythms were etched into our brains, so that we would be organized in synchrony with our environment…
How the brain does this is through an elaborate system of signals kicked off by light… the brain sends messages to virtually every system of the body to rev up or ramp down… Like the world around us… We are designed to sleep and wake in cycles of roughly 24 hours, otherwise known as our basic circadian rhythm.
Why is this so critical to our health and well-being?
Study after study has shown that we function best physiologically and psychologically when our internal cycles are well-synchronized with those of the external world. If we mess up our sleep and wake patterns… Mood suffers. Alertness wanes… Memory gets shoddy… You don’t feel coherent, may not even be able to speak coherently… The immune system is compromised… Hormones are in disarray, stomach problems arise.
This same source reminds us that the less people sleep, the more they get depressed.
Reversing the effects of chronic sleep deprivation? Apparently, we don’t yet know much about that.
Are Good Sleepers Born or Made?
My various sleep initiatives over the years?
When I traveled as part of my job, I typically took two or three nights to adjust to a new room. This could be grueling on two- or three-day trips, when little sleep was a virtual guarantee. Ironically, this has improved in recent years, perhaps a function of the reasons for transplanting myself for a few nights — typically not work-related.
Additionally, heeding the recommended routines around bedtime — targeting the same hour, putting the laptop out of sight, not going to bed hungry — has helped, although exactly how much I can’t say.
Still… even the results of my concerted efforts at bedtime don’t hold a candle to the rest achieved by those I deem “born” sleepers. And as much as I persist in tending to my sleep habits, I ask myself if good sleepers can be “made.”
This is a question I occasionally pondered when I became a mother the second time around. Observing my two sons during infancy, toddlerhood, and childhood, one slept easily (like his father) while the other inclined toward shorter, more restless nights. And I clearly noted that the former slept peacefully in utero, although his brother squirmed and kicked at all hours of day and night. Hardly a scientific study, but you can imagine my conclusion nonetheless.
As teenagers, I saw school pressures and related lifestyle factors push both my children to less sleep than desirable. And I will be relieved when my college student is once again past the sleep-deprived nights typical during finals.
Common Reasons for Poor Sleep
When we struggle with falling asleep or waking during the night, we routinely point a finger at stress not to mention overuse of our glowing devices, or possibly, a snoring bed partner. But is this all? Aren’t there more causes of sleep disturbance that we ought to bring to light?
What role do our eating patterns play — from going to bed hungry to what we’re consuming to eating at a late hour? What about our sedentary lifestyle? What about medications? And genetics — how significant is the “born” sleeper element in this equation?
According to Healthline, the most common reasons for not sleeping include insomnia, stress, depression, anxiety, Restless Leg Syndrome, and pain (from various sources).
Also described by Healthline is Irregular Sleep-Wake Syndrome, a condition that was new to me, explained as:
… sleep[ing] one to four hours at a time… several sleep sessions in a 24-hour period… [They] are not considered sleep-deprived. They get an adequate amount of sleep. However… People with this condition have problems with both insomnia and excessive sleepiness during the day.
… physical, mental, and behavioral changes in response to light and dark. Your body essentially has a 24-hour internal clock. This clock controls a number of processes, including sleep-wake cycles.
Melatonin… makes you feel tired. This hormone is secreted in higher amounts at night, when it is dark. It is vital to the regulation of normal sleep-wake cycles.
And incidentally, offering answers to some of the questions posed here, this BBC article on sleep habits references global study data by age and sex (among other factors), noting the importance of Circadian rhythms, our resistance to according them their due, and:
… social pressures weaken and/or conceal biological drives in the evening, leading individuals to delay their bedtime and shorten their sleep. A country’s average bedtime, but not average wake time, predicts sleep duration.
Rx for Good Sleep
The irony in our national sleep deficit?
We know it’s a problem. We know our non-stop distractions and 24/7 communication habits — factors we can control, not to mention the squeeze of school and work (likely harder to manage) — are robbing us of much needed shut-eye. We also know we shouldn’t enable much less applaud all-nighters.
Middle of the night creativity may sound sexy and seem expedient, but what happens when darkness greets sunrise and we need to function in the daylight?
Minuscule amounts of sleep should not be emboldened by societal bravado. Nor should we habitually fill our bellies with energy drinks while praising our will power.
We also know that pain, hunger, worry, stress, and physical discomfort (room too hot, too noisy, too light) can make falling asleep and staying asleep harder. And, with an ever expanding set of study data, we understand more and more about sleep disorders, and equally, the critical importance of sufficient sleep.
You caught that list above of health risks, right?
Sleep deprivation causes accidents, illness, lost productivity. It is also a lousy way to live — half-zonked on the worst days, and dragging on the rest. And still, we don’t insist on doing better — for ourselves, our spouses, our children, our co-workers.
Isn’t it time we acknowledge the brilliance of biology — the brain’s responses to light, the marvels of the human body — and reconsider our priorities?
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