We all have a bad night’s sleep from time to time. And usually, we know why. But what if you regularly lie awake half the night, feel totally drained the next morning and spend the rest of the day fighting to keep your eyes open? If that sounds familiar, you may have an underlying sleep problem or even a clinical sleep disorder.
About four in ten of us have trouble sleeping. And in half of these cases, research tells us, the problem is so serious and persistent that it causes real physical and mental problems. Which is hardly surprising when you consider that good sleep is a must for good health.
Why do we sleep?
Although it’s still not entirely clear why we spend a third of our lives doing this, we do know that it is essential to relax our minds and bodies and to give them the chance to recover from the day and restore themselves.
As we sleep, all sorts of things are happening inside our bodies. Our muscles relax and our breathing and heart rate slow. So does our brain activity. In ‘sleep mode’, our brains block all outside stimuli. Our state of consciousness is reduced and we shut ourselves off from the world around us. Because nature has provided us with so many mechanisms to enable sleep, we have to assume that it’s as basic a need as breathing, eating and drinking.
This affects the functioning of our brains. It undermines our responsiveness, concentration, speech, planning ability and decisiveness, as well as upsetting our emotional and physical balance.
How much do we need?
How much do we need varies from person to person. About 10 per cent of people can live with just 6.5 hours a night, whilst 15 per cent of us need more than nine hours. The average adult can for seven to eight hours a night. The older you are, the less sleep you tend to need.
But the quality of sleep is at least as important as how much you get. To understand why we need to look a little closer at the phenomenon of sleep.
Five cycles with five stages each
A full night’s sleep consists of four or five recurring cycles, each lasting 90-120 minutes and divided into five stages. The first two stages are classified as ‘light’ sleep and stages 3 and 4 as ‘deep’ sleep. In stage 3 your breathing and heart rate slow and your muscles relax completely. During stage 4, with your breathing and heart rate at their slowest, your body recovers from the day’s exertions. Stage 5 is REM (rapid eye movement) or ‘dream sleep’. This is when your mind refreshes itself and processes the experiences of the day. Stages 3-5 are vital to the quality of sleep.
Physical and mental recovery
Because the ‘deep’ sleep phases are at their longest in the first four or five hours after you go to bed, this is when you get most of that restorative sleep. It’s also when you dream the most. In principle, then, your body and mind need no more than five hours’ sleep to recover from one day and prepare you for the next. If you still feel tired after that, it’s probably because your lifestyle isn’t leaving you enough time for relaxation. That increases the activity in your brain, and it’s been shown that people who sleep badly have overactive brains both during the day and at night.
Ultimately, the best gauge of how well you’re sleeping is how you feel the next day.
Causes of poor sleep
Poor sleep is often associated with an unusual experience the previous day. That could be something upsetting, such as a disappointment, an argument or the death of someone close to you, but also a positive event like a birth in the family or falling in love. Or it may have a more direct physical cause, such as eating a meal just before you go to bed – or, for that matter, going to bed on an empty stomach. Other known factors in poor sleep include:
- A busy or irregular lifestyle, stress, jet lag, lack of exercise, alcohol and drinking tea or coffee late in the evening;
- Temperature, noise and light;
- Hormonal fluctuations in women;
- Illness, colds, asthma, itching, restless legs and palpitations (awareness of your heartbeat);
- Depression, tension and anxiety.
Poor sleep for these reasons is usually a temporary problem that passes quite quickly. We only classify lack of sleep as a medical condition, insomnia, if you have trouble falling asleep – that is, you lie awake for more than half an hour – or you wake up so early that it leaves you tired for the rest of the day on a regular basis: more than twice a week for longer than three weeks. If this is the case, you should consult your GP.
How to sleep better
If you are sleeping badly, try to work out why that might be. This can help your doctor to help you. It may be useful to keep a sleep diary, in which you note day by day:
- What time you go to bed;
- How long you lie awake;
- If and when you wake up during the night;
- What time you wake up in the morning;
- If you take any naps during the day, and how many;
- Any thoughts and concerns you have on your mind;
- Any physical complaints you have;
- How much caffeine you consume, in products like coffee, tea, energy drinks, coke and chocolate, and when;
- If applicable, how much you drink and smoke;
- Any medicines or drugs you take.
One tried and trusted way of improving sleep is to develop a healthy daily routine. That includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, and not taking naps during the day. Practising relaxation technique can also help a lot. As can…
- Not watching TV or playing computer games just before you go to bed;
- Making sure your bedroom is cool and dark;
- Taking a warm bath or shower before going to bed.
If you have really bad sleep problems, you might consider trying homoeopathic remedies. Or sleeping pills like temazepam or zolpidem, although you should discuss this with your GP before taking them. Melatonin is another widely used treatment for poor sleep.
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Last updated on August 7, 2017.
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