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Is sleep overrated?

In this fast paced society of today we can find ourselves in a perpetual state of tiredness.  There are many distractions and tasks required of us during the day that it can seem impossible to find enough time for sleep.  Often we can convince ourselves that we don’t have time to sleep and that we’ll simply have an extra coffee to help us get through the day.

It helps to understand a little about how the body works to fully understand what is going on when we sleep and how we can use that information to our advantage to get a better quality sleep, if not more of it.

Our body naturally goes through different sleep and wake cycles throughout the day.  There are two processes at work that affect this.  The first is the sleep/wake homeostasis.  This system tells our bodies that we are developing a need for sleep and when it is time to sleep.  Without it we would not be able to remain asleep long enough at night to make up for the hours we are awake during the day.  The other process is called the circadian body clock.  Essentially, this regulates our periods of sleepiness and wakefulness.  It makes us feel more awake at certain times of the day when the sleep/wake homeostasis alone would mean we felt sleepy at that time instead.

sleep

Why is this important?  Well, when we consider our modern lifestyle, it is hardly surprising that we have difficulty going to sleep and wake up feeling tired.

I know that when I first got my iPad I found it almost addictive and would regularly sit up in bed reading emails, checking Facebook posts, playing games and even using it to read my latest novel.  I have always read before going to bed and found it to be a fantastic way to slow my brain down before going to sleep.  After getting my iPad however, I found things to be different.  Even when I restricted myself to my book, I seemed to have difficulty becoming tired.  This seemed ridiculous because earlier in the day I would have been very tired and looking forward to going to bed but once getting there, that was no longer the case.

It was then that I discovered something very interesting.  Part of the process for regulating our sleep cycles has to do with light signals to the eye.  Light registered through the optic nerve tells our internal clock that it is time to be awake.  This means that by looking at my iPad screen in bed, I was telling my internal body clock that it was time to wake up instead of go to sleep.

Having this knowledge can help us make small but significant changes to our before bed routine that will assist us to fall asleep at an appropriate time and wake up feeling refreshed.

1) Lower the light levels in the house in the evening.  Don’t have bright lights on all over the house.  This will allow our internal clock to begin the process of preparing our bodies for sleep.

2) Remove electronic devices from the bedroom.  This includes the television, phones, tablet devices, anything that will cause a distraction to our brains and increase the amount of light our optic nerve in our eye picks up.  Another factor that electronic devices bring in to the equation is the capacity to wake us up from a sleep when we least expect it.  A text message, an email arriving, a notification beeping or a loud action scene on the television while we are drifting off to sleep can have the same effect on the body as a shot of espresso.  The body will release adrenaline as a result of the surprise it has experienced from the sound and this will affect the ability to return to sleep for up to an hour afterwards.

Another thing you may have noticed is that sleep seems to come over us in waves.  Have you ever been reading a really interesting book or watching something on television, felt sleepiness overcome you but pushed it away because you just wanted to finish the last page of the exciting chapter or see the end of the episode?  The problem with this is that once we miss the sleep wave, it can take up to 90 minutes for it to return.  This leaves us in a situation where we have finished the chapter or episode but no longer feel sleepy.  You then decide that you might as well read the next chapter or catch the next show and the whole cycle begins again.

3) An alternative is to consider reading a boring book or one you have read previously as a way of enabling your body to catch the sleep wave when it arrives.

4) Knowing what we do about the effect of light on the body at night means that we can use that same process to wake ourselves up in the morning.  Turn the light on as soon as you can when you wake up. Turning the lights on will signal to our internal clock that it is time to be awake and we feel much more alert than we would have otherwise.

Some other factors that can assist include setting an environment for sleep.  Don’t use the bedroom as a place to store unfolded laundry, unfinished paperwork, things that need to be dealt with.  All of these incomplete tasks have the unconscious effect on the brain of telling us that we are not yet ready for sleep.

Sometimes there are external factors that affect our ability to go to sleep at the time we would prefer.  These might be the needs of young children, work commitments or illness, however by regulating our exposure to light, removing as many distractions from the bedroom as possible and using an awareness of the circadian body clock, we can greatly influence or capacity to fall asleep and stay asleep.

What tips do you have to help you go to sleep on time and wake up feeling refreshed?

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