- It’s time to sleep, but it quickly degenerates into a frustrating toss & turn party.
- You wake up several times between bouts of shallow, unsatisfactory sleep.
- You feel defeated and cannot focus for prolonged periods throughout the waking day.
These are all telltale signs that you are being deprived of quality sleep. More specifically, it is the amount of deep stage 3 sleep and restorative Rapid Eye Movement sleep. Disruption to these phases inhibits bodily repair and cause drowsiness and poor concentration the next day.
Repeated lack of sleep can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other medical conditions. In fact, lacking sleep just once for 20 hours impairs your mental and bodily functions to the same extent as a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% - 1.6 times the legal limit for driving in Ontario, Canada! That’s equivalent to guzzling down 3 12oz mugs of beer before going into office and drifting half-alert through your job. You are also 300% more likely to take days off for illness. Together, these effects can make you feel trapped and unaccomplished, and is not likely to be helpful for your career.
Here are the top 5 reasons you are unable to achieve that satisfying level of sleep:
1. Not having a regular sleep routine
If you sleep and wake at a different time every day, or if you take naps irregularly during the day, this could be the cause of your inability to achieve a prolonged period of quality rest.
Sleep is triggered by the sleep hormone melatonin, which is in turn governed by the circadian cycle. Sleeping (and waking) at a different time for just a day can throw off your circadian rhythm and melatonin levels. A delayed peak in melatonin levels, or a decrease in melatonin secretion will cause you to only fall asleep past your bedtime, and wake up with inadequate rest. A study has also found melatonin to be a key factor in maintaining restorative REM sleep.
2. Poor sleep environment
Do you notice how your bedroom is never completely dark at night, and noises from the street seep in no matter the time of the night?
Whether it’s a street lamp, electric lights from the next room, or your mobile phone screen, light and noise pollution from today’s ultra-urbanized living is one of the top causes of poor sleep. While you may have gotten used to the elevated baselines of light and noise, the evolution of human biology certainly hasn’t caught up.
The circadian cycle is also influenced by environmental factors your body uses to tell the time of day, primarily light. As your body is programmed to drop melatonin levels at daybreak, a sleeping environment that isn’t completely dark will make it harder to fall asleep, easier to wake prematurely, and also reduces the proportion of time spent in deep, restorative sleep. Ambient light is also the reason why shift workers as a whole experience much lower quality sleep, and have a 50% higher risk of diabetes.
Everyone’s sleep will benefit from less light and noise in their sleep environment.
3. You have a substance abuse problem
If you need a drink to fall asleep, you should probably speak to your doctor. However, substance abuse isn’t just limited to alcohol and narcotics. Becoming reliant on sleeping pills to fall asleep and stimulants to stay awake are also examples of abuse.
A study done by Department of Psychiatry, University Hospitals, Cleveland, Ohio found that in a group of patients with substance abuse problems, 96% of them experienced sleep impairment, and 56% had at least moderate insomnia.
If you tuck yourself in with a glass of gin every night and have several coffees throughout the day to stay awake, this is probably why you experience problems falling asleep.
4. You check the clock in bed (and have anxiety over falling asleep)
While getting into bed, you worry that you’ll have trouble falling asleep. You check your clock after a few minutes of tossing and realize that you are indeed going to fall short of 8 hours of sleep when your alarm rings at 5am. Worrying about how the lack of sleep will affect you the next day keeps you awake further.
“Sleep Dread” is a term used to describe a fear of not being able to fall asleep, which ironically keeps you awake. This is almost like performance anxiety before a big test. Sleep dread is unlikely to be the only cause of your inability to sleep, but greatly exacerbates the issue when you already have a sleep problem due to one of the 3 aforementioned causes. This creates a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation that can persist even after the root cause is solved.
Sleep better with these 3 simple tips!
Isolate your sleep environment
To maximize the deep and REM phases of sleep, you’ll need to block out all external stimulus. Manipulating your body to believe that it is the dead of the night is especially important for shift workers who get their sleep during the day.
Getting a pair of earplugs or mufflers will prevent you from being awoken at night, helping you reach the deep stages of sleep.
To ensure minimal light, you should shut off all electronic devices that might emit light, such as your mobile phone, and use blackout curtains to block ambient light from the street.
If a family member stays up later than you do, roll up your doormat at the bottom of the door to block light sifting in from the next room. Complete darkness is crucial if you experience problems falling asleep as even the tiniest light will signal to your body to reduce melatonin and wake you up (or keep you awake).
If setting up curtains and blocking up crevices are too troublesome, or if you must have electronic devices in your room, you can always use a good eye mask that blocks out light from the photoreceptors in your eyes. Eye masks will also stop your habit of checking the clock, helping you avert potential sleep anxiety. The downside of using eye masks is that light can still enter if the fit isn’t good, and eyemasks that contact your eyelids can disrupt REM sleep by preventing movement of the eyes.
Cut the booze and coffee
Although alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it actually shortens the REM phase of sleep. This means you spend more time sleeping while getting less rest. Prolonged alcohol abuse can cause sleep apnea, pauses in breathing that cause you to wake up at night and feel drowsy during the day.
If you consume caffeinated drinks, try to have them no less than 6 hours before bedtime or they could still be in your system, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Oftentimes, we consume caffeine without being aware of it as they’re present in foods such as cola, energy drinks, and chocolate.
Get out of bed
Though this may seem counter-intuitive, staying in bed when you cannot fall asleep can make you associate your bed with stress and anxiety. This makes it harder to fall asleep in future. If you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes of getting into bed, leave your bedroom and do something else.
It is important that your activity does not involve staring at a screen as the light emitted can wrong-foot your circadian cycle and reduce melatonin levels, making it hard to sleep. Instead, try reading a book, or having a warm glass of milk, then get back into bed when you feel sleepy again. The key is to stop worrying about falling asleep and get your body as relaxed as possible!