If the alarm clock goes off too early every morning … if falling asleep at night seems more like punishment than reward … if you have ever awakened at 3 a.m. and not been able to fall back asleep … You’re not alone.
It’s estimated that 50 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Although insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and obstructive sleep apnea are most common, there are more than 70 different types of sleep problems.
A bad night’s sleep can wreak havoc on your entire day. Running on too little sleep causes people to feel out of sorts. They may have trouble making decisions, remembering things, or problem-solving.
Reaction times slow and accident rates increase. Those who are chronically sleep deprived may experience anxiety, mood swings and poor interpersonal relations.
Research shows a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and mental health. Those with mental health problems are more likely to experience sleep problems … and those with sleep problems are more likely to have mental health issues. Chronic sleep problems affect about 75 percent of clients in therapy as opposed to 20 percent in the general population.
Whether one causes the other or they share a common biological cause is unclear. What’s not unclear is when chronic sleep problems are addressed, mental health improves.
Understanding the Sleep Cycle
The sleep cycle is divided into two types: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-REM or quite sleep. Non-REM accounts for about 75 percent of our sleep. During N1, we are in that twilight area between being awake and asleep. In N2, the brain disengages from the environment and the body’s core temperature begins to drop. During N3, the deepest phase of sleep, blood pressure drops, the muscles relax, and tissue growth and repair takes place.
About 25 percent of a normal sleep cycle is spent in REM sleep. This is the phase in which dreams occur. During this time, the eyes move rapidly, brain activity increases, and body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase to awake levels. REM sleep occurs at 90-minute intervals throughout the night. At first, REM is relatively short, about 10 minutes. By the end of the sleep cycle, the REM stage lasts about 60 minutes.
It is unclear what exactly is occurring during REM, but some research suggests memories are being stored, learning is being hardwired, and mood and emotions are being regulated. REM may also play a role in management of chronic pain.
Improving Your Sleep
The first step is understanding how much sleep you need. Generally, adults age 18 to 64 require seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Those over age 65 need less, usually seven to eight hours. Teens require eight to 10 hours. Children age 6 to 13 need between nine and 11 hours and infants and toddlers need 12 to 15 hours every night.
You can make up for sleep loss, but just be aware that depriving your body and mind of sleep has a price: increased insulin resistance, a precursor for type 2 diabetes; cognitive deficits; mood swings and irritability; slowed reaction times; and memory deficits. Best to get the rest you need, when you need it.
If you have trouble sleeping, a few simple lifestyle changes may help. First off, eliminate caffeine and nicotine. Both are stimulants and can interfere with falling asleep and staying asleep. If you can’t give these up, consider limiting your consumption or not partaking after a certain time of day in the early afternoon.
Although alcohol is a depressant and can help you fall asleep, its effects wear off within a few hours, leaving you wide awake in the middle of the night. Relying on alcohol to sleep is a bad idea.
Reserve your bedroom for sleeping, intimacy and other restful activities. Ban the TV, smart phone, laptop and tablets. Keep the room cool and dark. If you’re noise sensitive, employ a white noise machine, fan or peaceful music to help you fall asleep.
Establish good sleep hygiene habits. Go to bed and get up every day at the same time. Avoid napping if at all possible as it can interfere with your ability to fall asleep later.
Include 30 minutes of moderate physical activity in your daily routine. This one simple step makes a big difference … overnight! The best time is in the morning. If the only time your schedule permits is evening, try to work out at least an hour or two before bed. This will allow your core body temperature to drop to normal levels, which is important to falling asleep.
Learn to relax. Meditation, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercises can help get your body ready for sleep. Tame racing thoughts and ideas by writing them down.
Discuss any difficulties you have sleeping with your family doctor and mental health professional to evaluate whether your sleep problems are due to a physical cause. Physicians can order sleep studies to determine the extent of a potential sleep problem and prescribe interventions that can make a difference.
At Bluegrass, we are a community mental health center helping children, adults and families live their best lives. If you or a loved one needs help with mental health, substance use or intellectual and developmental disability services, Bluegrass is here to help. Call the 24-Hour Helpline with questions, for support or to make an appointment at 1.800.928.8000.