Getting Some Sleep? Part 2

Last week, we looked at some general information about how challenging it can be to ensure we are sleeping soundly and adequately. Still, a question remains as to why we do sleep. While some disparity amongst sleep experts persists, there are some fundamental reasons for our restful sleep to enhance our lives.

Many people exacerbate their sleep problems because they do not have a good understanding of the sleep process. Sleep, like oxygen, food, and water, is one of our basic daily needs. Like hunger and thirst, it is a drive… our body will eventually, when faced with no other options, force us to sleep. Sleep loss increases the sleep drive and promotes good sleep – much like when we are very hungry, we find ourselves more likely to eat or even eating more voraciously.

You might have noticed that you occasionally had a relatively good night’s sleep after one or several nights of poor sleep. Such a pattern demonstrates the sleep drive in action. A natural accumulation of sleep need that occurs as we go through the day plays a part in the regulation of normal sleep.

In other words, under normal conditions, sleep debt (sleep loss) “fuels” (drives) good sleep at night. Indeed, the drive to sleep gets stronger the longer one is awake before attempting to sleep. For example, a person is much more likely to sleep for a long time after being awake for 16 hours in a row then after being awake for only 2 hours. Most persons who have sleep problems are focused on the negative consequences of insufficient sleep and forget that some sleep debt promotes a “healthy appetite” for sleep. Our attempts to recover lost sleep by trying to sleep more the next night or taking long naps during the day weaken the sleep drive and prolong our sleep difficulties. We’ll elaborate on this in just a few minutes.

Although science still has much to learn about the biological purpose of sleep, we already know a great deal about the human sleep process. Many research studies have shown that sleep is an active process made up two distinct states (Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep and non-REM sleep). Non-Rapid Eye Movement or Non-REM sleep occupies about 75 to 80% of the night’s sleep of a “typical” young, healthy adult. The rest of the night’s sleep is REM sleep. Non-REM sleep consists of several stages, marked by their special brain-body activity patterns. Non-REM sleep is divided into three stages going from lightest (Stage N1) to deepest stages (Stage N3).

During a typical night of sleep, the Non-REM and REM stages of sleep occur in consistent and predictable cycles. When good sleepers go to sleep at night they usually experience a period of relaxed wakefulness. The length of this period of relaxed wakefulness varies from one person to the next but it is typically less than 30 minutes.

About 70 to 90 minutes into the night the first REM sleep occurs. Usually, this first REM period is relatively short and is followed by a return to a lighter stage of sleep. The time from sleep onset to the end of the first REM period constitutes the first sleep cycle. For the rest of the night, REM sleep alternates with Non-REM sleep (primarily stage N2) in roughly 90-minute cycles.

Most deep sleep occurs early in the sleep period. Because most people sleep at least 3 hours, they are rarely deprived of this deep sleep stage. Some wakefulness is a normal part of the night’s sleep even in good sleepers and A few brief awakenings do not need to be a cause for concern. These awakenings become more frequent closer to an individual’s morning waketime. This explains why most people are more easily awakened in the later part of the nocturnal sleep period. This also means that even when you sleep poorly, you are unlikely to be totally deprived of the deepest, most restorative stage of sleep.

REM (dreaming) periods become longer toward the morning rising time. This is why we are more likely to awake from a dream during the second half of the night. As the night progresses our dreams may become more complex and/or vivid, explaining why nightmares are more common during the last third of the sleep period.

There are two basic processes that regulate sleep and wakefulness. One is the normal accumulation of sleep debt as the day goes on, which we mentioned a few minutes ago (in other words, the more time that passes after we wake up for the day the greater the sleep debt). This is what we refer to as the “sleep drive”. The other process is determined by our biological clock. It is called the “circadian process.”

Next week, I will delve a bit deeper into these two processes that regulate our sleep so that we can be sure we are getting the type of restorative and enervating sleep that we need! If you’re looking for some tips on getting better sleep in the meantime, I shared some tips with Reader’s Digest recently that you can get started with.

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Getting Some Sleep? Part 1

A question often on people’s mind is ‘How much sleep do I need each night?’ Generally speaking, there is no single amount of sleep that ‘fits’ everyone. Most healthy adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. However, at the extremes, some people need only 4 hours of sleep and others require 10 hours of sleep. Moreover, a person’s sleep need might change depending upon life circumstances. At this point, it is important to remember that optimal amount of sleep lets us not only feel alert and energetic during the day, but it also allows us to best manage our emotions and reactions to the difficult things going on for us in our lives. It gives us a resilience that helps us navigate the tough things that come up, deal with our stresses, and figure out things we’re struggling to work through. It can also just brighten our spirits and give us relief and positivity during a difficult period of time.

Insomnia is diagnosed when poor sleep is associated with distress and/or daytime consequences, such as impairment in function or mood. Insomnia often begins during periods of stress. About 75% of people with insomnia can identify a trigger that initiated their insomnia. Examples include health issues and/or stress related to family or work situations.

Poor sleep is a common reaction to stress but there are large individual differences in how people react to and cope with stress. These differences likely play a role in the development of insomnia. Most of the time, sleep normalizes after the stress that started it subsides or after the medical condition that caused it is treated. However, in some cases insomnia persists.

This can happen if there are perpetuating mechanisms present such as the following:

  1. The bed and the bedroom become linked with wakefulness, arousal, or negative emotions. This is known as conditioned arousal or conditioned insomnia. The bed and the bedroom become unconscious cues for arousal rather than sleep. For example, many people with insomnia report that they dose off while watching TV or reading in the living room, only to become fully awake when they go to bed. For these people, past experience with tossing and turning while trying to sleep has made the bed a cue for wakefulness rather than sleep. Conditioned arousal can develop even when the main problem is prolonged awakenings in the middle of the night, rather than difficulty in initially falling asleep.
  2. Some people react to poor sleep by trying harder. They extend the time they spend in bed, avoid previously enjoyed evening activities, and spend long periods tossing and turning in bed. These strategies do not solve the problem. In fact, such strategies make it worse. Prolonged time in bed actually promotes wakefulness. The very act of “trying” to sleep produces frustration, increases arousal, and can become a hidden source of stress. This process is akin to a Chinese finger cuff. The harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more stuck they become. When you let go, you can ease your fingers out.
  3. Worry about sleep is another common reaction to having difficulty sleeping particularly in those individuals who are predisposed to worry. After a period of not sleeping well, apprehension and concern that the coming night will be another struggle emerge. When unable to sleep, worries about the negative daytime consequences of insufficient sleep develop and people start to plan their day and evening activities around their sleep. Such worries, though understandable, are mentally activating and end up making sleep even more difficult to achieve.

Many people with insomnia make their problems worse by the things they do to make up for lost sleep. For example, people may go to bed too early or ‘sleep in’ following a poor night’s sleep in order to recover lost sleep. Although these practices seem logical and sensible for good sleepers who are occasionally forced to curtail their sleep (e.g., when sleep is interrupted by a sick child who needs parental attention at night), these same practices often serve to continue or worsen the sleep problems of people with insomnia. In fact, these habits are usually the opposite of what needs to be done to improve sleep.

Some people misjudge their state of sleepiness. They confuse the sense of being sleepy with the sense of being tired, fatigued, and the wish to rest the mind and the body. Being very sleepy means having to almost struggle to stay awake. When you are close to that, you are sleepy. Fatigue and tiredness reflect low energy that signals the need to rest whereas sleepiness signals the need and readiness for sleep.

Sleep scientists have yet to agree on the fundamental biological purpose of sleep. Some sleep experts believe that during sleep the human body restores and repairs cells and tissues that have been damaged or destroyed while we are awake. Other experts think that sleep is necessary to maintain a constant body temperature. Still others believe that sleep is essential to the maintenance of normal human metabolism. Regardless of these different opinions, sleep experts generally agree that to function best we all require consistent, good quality sleep. What is the right amount of sleep? The answer varies from person to person. Moreover, the sleep need of each person may vary depending upon life circumstances and age.

Next week, I will explore some of the reasons why we sleep. If you’re looking for some tips on getting better sleep in the meantime, I shared some tips with Reader’s Digest recently that you can get started with.

Curious what I can offer you to help build the life you love? Get in touch!

Get access to more valuable content weekly here!