Your eyes aren’t getting heavy


The luxury of sleep! Image courtesy of STEPHANIE HOFSCHLAEGER

No. Please no.

It is, undeniably, the single most depressing noise known to humans. It occurs typically at night, while you’re asleep. While there are other night time noises, this one is alone in its power. It goes something like this…

…uh, uh, ah huh, ah huh, Ah Huh, Ah HUH, huh WAH, Huh WAAAAH, WAAAAAAAAAAAAH…

This generates a neural reflex in the hearer, who therefore generates one of the common reflexive responses “Oooooh”, “Unnff”, “Gnnhk” or the slightly more serious “No. Please no, not now”.

This is sometimes followed closely by the second most depressing noise known to humans. It goes something very much like this… “Your turn…”.

You know what I mean

New parents who have just read this are now doing one of two things. Smiling knowingly through stretched face and bloodshot eyes or, rocking quietly in their chair, arms around knees, staring vacantly and dribbling a little. I find coffee good for that.

The reason this is so tough is, of course, the broken sleep. We talked before about how the adult sleep cycle is about 90 minutes and how, if you’re in Stage 3 NREM sleep, you’re really hard to wake. We also tend to suffer more if woken in the first quarter or last quarter of the night. But how does this all happen? How does it fit together? What other effects does it have? And what can we actually do? So we’re going to talk a bit more about

  1. circadian rhythms and melatonin
  2. the physiology of sleep
  3. sleepiness and wakefulness
  4. sleep deprivation
  5. some guidelines

STOP! Before you go any further get a coffee. This is a long post!

Good, thanks.

First, some clarification on what we all experience

First off, we have to be careful what we’re talking about. I’m sure you know what feeling tired is, when you just haven’t had enough sleep, because you stayed up late finishing a term paper, or you had visitors, or you were travelling or something. You might drift off in the afternoon the day after next or occasionally for the next day or two but, otherwise, you come right on your own.

On occasion, you’ve no doubt had trouble falling asleep too. Maybe you were feeling stressed, or you’d had a coffee too late in the evening, or you had a nap in the early evening and it turned into a two-hour sleep.

Let’s put these things in the typical life box because they happen from time to time and they don’t cause too much harm. We’re not talking about those. We’re talking more about generally ensuring you get good sleep most of the time and, if you don’t, most of the time, what might help.

And two guidelines

If you don’t get good sleep, you’ll be familiar with the tiredness that comes from persistent lack of sleep, such as the stupor you see in new parents, or the tiredness associated with insomnia.  There are two key determinants here:

  • how you feel in the morning
  • how you function through the day

If you only sleep for five hours a night, and yet still feel refreshed in the morning, and still perform well on complex mental tasks through the day, you have nothing to worry about, even if you do wake up at 3am every day. Go you. You’re also pretty rare. 7-8 hours is still the right amount for most people.

But if you’re waking at 3am, can’t get back to sleep, get up at 6.30 feeling completely second-hand every day and feel exhausted during the day, then you’re right, that isn’t normal.

Let’s start with the broad brush

We’ve talked about circadian rhythms before. For most people, this also dictates the time you’ll most naturally fall asleep and wake up. Across any population of people, there will be those who get up and go to bed early, let’s say up at 5am and in bed by 9pm. Larks. There will also be those, like me, who prefer to get up and go to bed late, say up at 9am and in bed at 1am. Owls.

The only real difference here is time. Larks and owls follow exactly the same pattern and process, mine just happens four hours later. That said, if I decide to take a job which requires me to get up a couple of hours earlier, within a few days to a week I’ll be getting sleepy a couple of hours earlier in the evening. My whole cycle has been brought forward to fit my new rising time. The pattern is still the same, just now advanced by a couple of hours.

Any of us can do this, but it’s best done in increments rather than a big hit. It’s easier to shift your rising time by about 30 minutes and keep it that way for a couple of days. Then shift it again. By the seventh day, you’re going to bed and getting up two hours earlier than previously, without much drop off in functioning through the day.

It works the other way too. Go to bed 3o minutes later and get up 30 minutes later, repeat etc and you’ve moved your cycle back. Remember that one of the features of this rhythm is a drop in body temperature to match when we should be heading off to bed.

And then add this…

In addition to the daily rhythm is a groovy little guy called the Pineal gland. He sits at the base of the brain, and releases into the blood a chemical called melatonin, another component in your sleep-wake cycle. What melatonin does is help cause sleepiness and a drop in body temperature, both of which are important for sleep.

The pineal gland does this in response to darkness. Dark = good for melatonin production. Light = bad for melatonin production.

Our sleep therefore is affected by light and temperature.

So here’s the take home bit

For good sleep, and sleep is incredibly important, start with simple stuff. We’ll get to more complicated stuff in good time, but get the basics right.

  1. Always get up at the same time
  2. Always get up at the same time
  3. Always get up at the same time
  4. Always get up at the same time
  5. Always get up at the same time

If you’ve had a late night for some reason, but it’s a one-off rather than a pattern, you need to make up the sleep. Your body will demand it. To do this, go to bed early, don’t sleep late, avoid naps if you can.

To catch up on sleep

  1. Go to bed early, don’t sleep late
  2. Avoid naps
  3. Always get up at the same time

You don’t want to mess with your rhythm more than normal!

And there’s more. Because your circadian rhythm is affected by temperature, make sure too that your room is cool, not warm.

Lastly, keep the room dark. Use black out curtains if you need to, and keep digital clocks turned low. If you can’t sleep, avoid turning on bright lights, displays, tv, other screens and the like. If you let too much light into your eyes and thus into your retina, you begin a chain of messages that tell your pineal gland it’s time to get up. He’ll stop producing melatonin, and your chances of getting back to sleep just nosedived.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Melatonin, pineal gland

What’s it like for you?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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