Whether you never get to sleep, or awake repeatedly throughout the night, poor quality sleep can affect everything from mood to memory, hormones to brain chemistry.
Last week we looked at what happens during sleep and why it is so essential to our wellbeing and health. But getting a good night sleep to reap the benefits is much easier said than done, especially in the modern world. In this post I will explore some of the more common ways we typically sabotage our sleep.
Our bodies need sleep to survive and function effectively throughout the day. As such they have been evolutionarily designed to regulate themselves and maintain an internal balance in two ways: the homeostatic drive and our circadian rhythm. However due to stress, expectations and technology humans are interfering with these natural processes.
After a day of activity or work, the sleep drive kicks in and we start to feel sleepy in preparation for bed. When we are in balance, we fall asleep easily and stay asleep. If however there is too much arousal in the nervous system or activity in the brain sleep can become elusive. Either our bodies feel tired but our mind too ‘wired’ to sleep, or we fall asleep but awake once or more in the middle of the night.
The physical, mental and physiological bodies respond to cues of light, unwinding and gearing for sleep when exposed to darkness. However with technology and the demands of daily life, these natural rhythms are often disrupted. We expect our bodies to be alert when they should be sleeping or to ‘switch off’ on command.
In short, there are many things that we consciously or unconsciously do that negatively affect our sleep.
Mistake 1 – Spending Extra Hours in Bed
If we are feeling groggy or tired, it might seem like a good idea to “make up” for lost hours by sleeping in on the weekends. However, by doing this we actually disrupt our internal body clock, affecting future sleep habits. So if you find yourself wanting more sleep at the weekend, take it as a sign that you aren’t getting enough quality sleep during the week.
Mistake 2 – Paying Too Much Attention to Sleep
Our thoughts contribute significantly to our ability to fall asleep. When we struggle to get to sleep we tend to pay more attention to the process of sleep. We tell ourselves we ‘have’ to sleep, or remind ourselves how many hours there are left until our alarm. These worries about sleep arouse our nervous system and inhibit sleep.
Mistake 3 – Distracting Ourselves to Encourage Sleepiness
If thinking about sleep isn’t conducive to getting a good night’s rest, it seems logical that distraction is the best solution. Sadly, no. We often try to distract ourselves with work, movies, social media, anything to make us feel tired and avoid any thoughts of not sleeping. But this doesn’t allow for the much needed wind-down time, resulting in poor quality sleep.
Mistake 4 – Caffeine Addiction
You’ve awoken after a terrible night’s sleep and immediately reach for a coffee to rouse you for the day ahead. Perhaps another one is needed midmorning, then again at 4pm. But let me show you the effects of this example. Caffeine has a half life of about four hours (depending on strength and your metabolic rate). So if you have a double espresso at 8am, it’s only half gone by noon, a quarter is still left at 4pm and one eighth by 8pm. By having one at 4pm, half an espresso is still in your system by midday.
Mistake 5 – Alcohol Misuse
After a long day in the office or managing the kids, alcohol can seem like a good way to unwind. However, after the initial relaxing effect, alcohol produces symptoms of anxiety which can result in waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about anything and everything. Furthermore, night sweats caused by the process of breaking down the alcohols sugar can also disrupt sleep.
Mistake 6 – Drug Dependency
Sleeping pills (whether chemical or natural) are widely accessible and used. However, research has shown that these reduce in effectiveness over time. Medication and drugs are also relied upon to boost energy during the day after a poor nights sleep. But dependency on these pills can seriously affect the natural sleep-wake rhythms of our body.
Mistake 7 – Taking Naps
You either love them or hate them, but for many people, napping is how they survive the modern world. Unfortunately, this method is ineffective because it removes the ‘sleep drive’ needed to have a good night’s sleep at the right time. It’s like how having a snack before a meal can reduce your hunger.
Mistake 8 – Artificial Light
As we have seen from our Circadian Rhythm, light is instrumental for our ability to sleep. Sunlight, which triggers daytime response, is on the blue part of the light spectrum. This is the same part of the light spectrum that is emitted from our smart phones, tablets and laptops. Exposing ourselves to this light at night inhibits sleep by tricking the brain into a wakeful mode.
As with most things in life, we are all uniquely designed and what effects one person’s quality of sleep, might have no impact on someone else’s sleep cycle. Developing an awareness of our own habits and their knock on effect is fundamental for making change. You can use this Sleep Log Journal from The Sleep Foundation to record the amount of sleep you get as well as your daily habits to see what is influencing your troubles.
Next week we will continue with this Sleep Series and explore how to create a positive and effective sleep routine.
Till then X
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