Everyone struggles with an occasional night being unable to get to sleep, tossing and turning in bed, waiting in the dark for the moment when consciousness gives up the fight and you can get some rest.
This can occur for a wide variety of reasons, including food or drink, an unusual worry, an annoying neighbor…. Things that can be accounted for and avoided and cause maybe 1 night in 100 to slip away into the realm of lost sleep.
For some, however, the lost nights of sleep are more than occasional. It is a chronic, persistent problem that somehow must be addressed in order to continue to function in daily life without excuse. For example, these last two weeks, I climb into bed with the full intention of laying my head on my pillow and closing my eyes. I feel tired, almost to the point I can’t keep my eyes open. Yet, as soon as I turn the lights out, I feel fully awake, just lying there staring into the dimness. In the few weeks prior to this, I was waking up at 4 am for no apparent reason and unable to go back to sleep. This cycle of initial insomnia and terminal insomnia alternates back and for every few weeks. In either case, the result is a tired, cranky, achy me and no underlying cause is evident in order to make a change.
Why Sleep is Important
Those who regularly get a refreshing nodder every night might take for granted why sleep is an important psychological and physical requirement, hence their lack of sympathy for those humans who just can’t capture those elusive z’s. It’s easy for many and guess what – they feel great about it!
Sleep is essential for a person’s health and well-being according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Sleep recharges our bodies and our brains and promotes our immune systems. Those who have healthy sleep patterns are better adjusted to stress and are less irritable.
In some ways, insomnia is viewed similarly to a mental illness: why can’t you just change the way you feel? Trying going to bed on time. Won’t that help? There is little sympathy for those who are plagued with sleepless nights for no clear reason. There are many tips and tricks purported by experts on how to beat insomnia. I’m going to take a realistic (and sometimes sarcastic) look at a few of these.
Try to go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. – This is great if you have no other responsibilities to anyone. In a house of four with shifting daily requirements, this is not always ideal. My intention is to go to bed may be interrupted by someone else’s upset stomach or urgent drink of water.
Avoid caffeine or alcohol late in the day. – I rarely drink caffeine at any point during the day, and alcohol less frequently. If anything, alcohol helps me go to sleep in small doses.
Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep – Again, this isn’t ideal in a busy house.
Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex. – I’ve tried this, but my bed is also home to kid snuggles, reading books, writing, and sometimes movie watching.
If you can’t fall asleep and don’t feel drowsy, get up and read or do something that is not overly stimulating until you feel sleepy. – I would gladly use this extra time for writing, but if I get out of bed, everyone else in the house is wondering what I’m up to. One day, we’ll finish the basement so I can hide there and not bother anyone.
For most people who suffer from occasional transient (a few days) or acute (short-term) insomnia, the underlying cause will eventually disappear after a reasonable time. That inkling of worry will clear up when the time comes. Your cold will work its way out in a few days. Or you’ll ask those pesky neighbors not to play basketball on their driveway at midnight on a week day. Eventually, a good night’s sleep will be had and you’ll start feeling better.
For chronic suffers, this is a different story. I can’t even figure out the reason why I can’t sleep. I just can’t. And once I find myself lying awake in bed, what am I going to do?
The National Sleep Foundation notes several lifestyle habits that can lead to the body being out of synch with a healthy sleep pattern. I believe many can be attributed to our modern, technology-driven lifestyles.
Working at home – Work, as well as the lighted computer screen, stimulates the brain and upsets the natural clock. Since I work a corporate job during the day, I often work on my writing at home after dinner as well as try to keep up with laundry and housework. This could very well be a key component in my recent struggle.
Shift Work or irregular hours – these schedule changes upset the body’s routine. I can attest to this, as my worst sleep challenges occurred in my college days when I worked three jobs to pay for living expenses, each with whacky schedules that were always shifting, including overnight desk shifts at residences halls and late night data entry shifts.
Taking Naps – I wish I could have one right now.
Adopting unnatural sleep habits – This is my husband. In the summer, he sleeps in, then works on marching shows and lesson plans past midnight. He then has to shift his sleep habits back the other direction in order to rise at 5:30 am during school months.
Some people are just biologically prone to insomnia. Chemical interactions in the brain may actually be interfering with sleep habits. So despite following any and all advice to reach restful and healthy sleep, some of us just can’t do it. Our own brains are working against us. There are even entire families that for some reason have inherited a nocturnal dispositions and must adapt themselves to living in a diurnal population, often to their own detriment.
The Negative Effects of Insomnia
Lack of sleep isn’t just a nuisance. It causes several detrimental effects on the human body that can cause damage not only to the sufferer, but to those around them.
Changes of mood, lack of energy, and irritability are just a few of the emotional and psychological effects of not getting enough sleep. In fact, I have believed for years that a major factor in road rage is the fact that so many people suffer from sleep deprivation, a growing problem supported by industry and commercialism and the social need to earn, shop, watch, and keep up with the Jones’. And there is a vicious cycle in feeling drowsy, which makes you feel tense and preoccupied, and the worry over the inability to sleep becomes a cause as well as a result.
The physical effects manifest themselves in an increased vulnerability to infections, increased aches and pains, and excessive sleepiness during waking hours.
Operating cars and machines while sleep-deprived is similar to doing the same while intoxicated. Your reaction time slows, as does your ability to problem-solve and adapt. There are studies that show that lack of sleep increases the risk of a variety of accidents, including motor vehicle accidents. According to reports from the National Highway Safety Administration in 2002, high-profile accidents can partly be attributed to people suffering from a severe lack of sleep, costing millions in damages and over 1500 lives.
Clocks – One thing I’ve done in hopes of relieving my insomnia is removing clocks. Now that we have smart phones with alarms (and every other tool possible), we no longer have glowing red clocks on our bedside tables. This prevents me from staring at the clock and worrying about how little sleep I’m going to get. It also removes a distracting source of light from the room.
Keeping things cool – At night, we drop the thermostat into the 60s, 68 during the summer so the AC will kick on and keep the air moving, and 63 in the winter so that the heater doesn’t kick on too much during the night. Keeping the bedrooms cool helps the entire family sleep more soundly, and we are less prone to waking from the discomfort of being too hot.
Turning off the lights – Because light signals affect nerve clusters in the brain and prompt the secretion of melatonin, darkening the house in the evening helps set up the body for better sleep. Because not all activity can cease just because the sun goes down (we’d never have clean clothes in the winter when it’s dark at 5:00 pm), reducing the amount of light provides a starting point for relaxation of the mind. It also helps reduce the electric bill.
Kids – I expect the best change will come when the children are old enough and responsible enough to get themselves to bed and get themselves up and ready for the day without my intervention. This would shave off an hour of our typical morning routine and probably another hour in the evening. Currently, they spend quite a bit of time realizing they haven’t played with each and every toy today and suddenly have twenty things to tell Mommy about before they can close their eyes. And I can send them to bed 15 times before they finally give up. Maybe it’s the kids who have insomnia and not me?