Why am I so tired?


Why am I so tired?  Is this something you ask yourself on a regular basis? Perhaps you wake up in the morning feeling as if you didn’t have any sleep and can’t wait to fall back into bed that night even though the day has only just started. Maybe you wonder how some people manage to actually enjoy getting up early in the morning and can never imagine being like that. I certainly used to feel that way.

Those with young children know full well the reason for their tiredness and of course it is important to rule out any medical issues. The majority of people however, don’t have any specific reason for their condition and aren’t suffering any illness or disease, they simply lack energy. There are a number of possible reasons for this and quite a few simple steps we can take to help ourselves through this problem.

One of the most common reasons for feeling tired is simply that we do not actually get enough sleep.  This sounds silly I know but in our modern, fast paced world, there are so many distractions available to us that we often stay awake well past the times our bodies would normally expect to be sleeping.  It’s very easy to 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.  This may work for a short while but what happens is that we end up building up a sleep debt.

What is sleep debt?  Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of having too little sleep on too many occasions. It can result in irritability and mental and physical fatigue. Interestingly, the more in debt we are, the less likely we are to notice its effect.

‘And as the sleep debt mounts, the health consequences increase, putting us at growing risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.’ Harvard Medical School.

It helps to understand a little bit about how the body works to fully understand what is going on when we sleep. This way we can use the information to assist us to get more sleep of a better quality.

The two most important steps I took to address my sleep issue were:
1) Changing the way I use technology in the hour leading up to bedtime.
2) Using my knowledge about circadian rhythms and sleep waves to help me catch the next one at bedtime.

Our body naturally goes through different sleep and wake cycles throughout the day.  This is regulated by two different processes.

1) 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 enable us to be awake during the day.

2) The circadian body clock.  This system 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.

Why is this important?  If we ignore the signals our bodies are giving us as part of the sleep/wake homeostasis, we then affect our circadian body clock.  Essentially, if we don’t go to sleep when our bodies are telling us we need to, we alter our body’s capacity to get to sleep and stay asleep at night and in turn change the pattern of our body clock. This is why we can feel extremely tired in the mid afternoon and be unable to go to sleep when we finally fall in to bed at night.

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.  The reason I was experincing this difficulty when reading on my iPad and had not had the same problem when reading a regular, physical novel 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.  The light which is most disruptive to the body clock is short wavelength blue light and guess what?  This is exactly what digital devices use. This means that by looking at my iPad screen in bed, I was actually telling my body that it was time to wake up instead of time to go to sleep.

Having this knowledge about how light affects our sleep patterns 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. 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 (difficult I know), phones, tablet devices, anything that will cause a distraction to our brains and increase the amount of light the optic nerve in our eye picks up. Apart from the light emitted, electronic devices have the capacity to wake us up from 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 and this will affect our ability to return to sleep for up to an hour afterwards. If you use your phone as your alarm clock, make it a rule not to use it in bed and turn all notification off.

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?  That used to happen to me a lot. I would push through that sleep wave in order to watch the end of the program or finish the last page in the chapter. 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.  We then decide that we might as well read the next chapter or catch the next show and the whole cycle begins again.

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.

There may be a number of reasons why someone would feel tired. Once medical reasons are eliminated, consider your before bed routine. It may just be that you are sabotaging your own body’s natural sleep process.