There's nothing more frustrating than sleeping longer to "catch up" on much-needed sleep, only to feel even more tired that day. Sometimes, sleeping longer than usual does the trick for rejuvenating an over-tired body, but sometimes it can make matters worse. Why does this happen? More importantly, how can you avoid it?
A Rhythm Beating to a Different Tune
Your sleep-wake cycle follows a regular pattern (circadian rhythm) and when you sleep "too much" that pattern shifts.
• Circadian rhythms are the patterns of repeated activity associated with the environmental cycles of day and night. Our internal rhythms repeat roughly every 24 hours.
• Once our body clocks, or circadian pacemakers, start "telling the wrong time," we feel it in lethargy, fatigue, and a sleep cycle gone haywire. The clock says one thing and your body says another, very similar to jet lag.
Synchronizing these two clocks (internal and external) come with hitting the "re-set" button every 24 hours. We can do this by exposure to morning light and by activity. For example, when you want to be alert and awake but your body doesn't want to follow, you can stimulate your body to re-set itself just by going outside into the sunlight for 10 or 15 minutes or engaging in some physical activity, preferably outside in the bright light.
The Cycle within Sleep
Sleep itself has a cycle. The average sleep cycle lasts between 80-120 minutes (the average is 90 minutes) and the average person has five of these every night (totaling about 7.5 hours). When you sleep in, you are extending your number of cycles, and then generally you wake up in the middle of a cycle. If it is in the part of the cycle that is deep or REM sleep you can wake and feel worse than before you went to sleep.
Here are the best ways to keep your body clock on track:
• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends. Your cycles will adjust if there is a regular schedule to follow. The key is your wake up time. Just because you stay up an extra two hours does not mean you should sleep in an extra two hours (your internal clock cannot shift that quickly).
• Expose yourself to bright morning light. Your own personal re-set button.
• Try to schedule exercise in the morning hours as opposed to late day.
• Avoid napping past 3 p.m. It's better to nap according to your circadian rhythm, which for most means snoozing in the early afternoon (1-3 p.m.). If you must nap make it for either 30 min or 90 min. If you nap longer than 30 minutes but less than 90 minutes, you run the risk of entering slow-wave deep sleep within your cycle and waking up groggy.
• Try to avoid sleeping in on weekends, even if you went to bed late the night before. Go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier the next night.
• Avoid alcohol and caffeine close to the hours of bedtime. Ideally, stop consuming caffeine between 2 to 3 p.m. and watch out for that second cocktail after work or at dinner. These will both keep you out of deeper sleep in the early part of the night, and your body will then try to make up that deep sleep later in your sleep timewhen you are trying to wake up.
An Underlying Sleep Disorder
Sometimes, our best efforts to get a good night's sleep can be thwarted by another big culprit to unrefreshing sleep: a sleep disorder. And if you suffer from one, then all the hours in the world spent in bed might not help you feel that much better, and maybe even worse.
If you wake up after seven to eight hours of sleep and still feel unrefreshed, your problem may not be about quantity but rather quality. Then your brain wants you to return to sleep, hoping that the quality will get better. Or your quality is so poor throughout the evening, sleeping 7.5 hours on the clock is really like sleeping 6.5 hours to your brain. Once again waking up in the middle of a cycle and making you groggy.
So what kind of sleep disorder could be the problem? There are several, but two common sleep disorders in particular can put a serious kink in your sleep quality no matter how long you stay in bed.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Picture this scenario: You actually stop breathing, for 10, then 20, then 30 seconds. Then, you begin to gasp for air, as if it were your last breath. This cycle repeats itself over and over, all night long. Amazingly, you may be totally unaware that this has taken place. You may wake up with a dry mouth, a headache, and feeling hung over. You may also be sleepy during the day, have significant memory loss, concentration, attention, mood and other related problems. Apnea causes fragmented sleep, and often lowered oxygen which then translates to daytime sleepiness. With some people the more they sleep the worse they feel-because their brain is starved for oxygen.
Periodic Limb Movements: These can be anything from small twitches to full kicks that occur every 9 seconds or so at certain times throughout the night. You may not realize that these movements wake you up sometimes hundreds of times a night, and you wake having had unrefreshing sleep in the morning. Again the more you sleep the worse you feel.
Remember, you may think that you're a "bad sleeper," but it doesn't have to be that way. There are lots of solutions available today to help the worst kind of sleeper achieve the best kind of sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor