Why we can't sleep

The room is dark, the duvet is wrapped warm around you, you’ve finally put your damn phone down and you wonder “why am I not asleep yet?” Sometimes, no matter how much you want to, you simply cannot find the off button. You’ve tried everything; counting sheep, breathing exercises, listening to whale songs, you’ve even tried counting whales and listening to sheep songs but nothing is working. Why does this happen? If mother nature decided that we needed to spend a third of the day recharging, then why did she make it so bloody difficult to do it. We all know how frustrating it can be so let’s try to understand what’s preventing you from dosing off and how you can help it along a little. First things first; what is the difference between being awake and being asleep? You close your eyes, you lie still, you breathe deeply, you can even try dribbling a little, but something special has to happen for you to make the mysterious switch to the other side. There are 5 stages of sleep. In the first, you move from an Alpha state, basically daydreaming, into a Theta state, where your brain locks down your muscles and prepares to move into deeper sleep. You could say that you’re technically asleep in Theta, but very lightly. It’s at this stage where the Hypnic Jerk can occur, that moment when you suddenly twitch awake as if you’re falling. We think it’s likely to be caused by your brain still being conscious when sleep paralysis sets in. It could have been an evolutionary benefit so that our old primate ancestors didn’t fall out the tree when they had a little nap on a branch. But, given that, in the US alone, 1.8 million people visit the emergency room every year because they fell out of bed, evolution has quite a long way to go. In stage two, your brain sends out waves called sleep spindles that we think are used as a sort of thought-jammer to keep you calm and stop you thinking about the washing up or that spreadsheet or where you hid the bodies. Stage 3 is the transition from light sleep to deep sleep and stage 4 is when you get a rush of delta waves and you are deepest asleep. Stage 4 last about 30 minutes and is the best time to draw on someone’s face. Finally, you get stage 5, when REM occurs and this is when your body repairs itself, jots down memories permanently and makes you feel rested. But the big question for today is; what kicks off this whole process? What happens to lead you to the Theta state in stage one, where it all begins? So there are two main factors that control sleepiness. One is sleep pressure, something that increases the longer you’ve been awake, and is created by the release of. The level rises while you’re awake and then you break it down when you sleep. The next factor is the light. We may now have 24hr supermarkets and skype calls at 3am but we’re not designed for this. We’re supposed to get up at sunrise and sleep at sunset, like the Tellytubbies. This is done through melatonin which is released when it’s dark, helping you to feel sleepy. As the sun rises, your body releases cortisol which gets you up and ready for another day in your repetitive and pointless existence. Okay, so what happens to interrupt this complicated process? One day you’re snoring like a pig in a blanket and then bam! you’re up at 4am watching youtube for the fifth night in a row and, although this video is both entertaining and educational, you’re welcome by the way, you’d probably rather be dreaming of chocolate dinosaur land and riding a Tyrannosaurus Twix, and not waking up feeling like you’ve been in a cage fight. Stress is probably the main cause of “why can’t I f’in sleep”, because stress just throws all of your systems out of whack; hormone levels go all over the place, heart rhythms change, it’s a mess. So you need to manage this through tackling the cause of your stress. Not saying that’s easy, but there’s plenty of professional support out there. Sorry I can’t help you on that front. Then there’s drugs; both illegal and legal. Caffeine, for example, works by attaching to the adenosine receptors, and speeding up nerve cell activity, where adenosine would slow it down. So no tea before bedtime, unless it’s one of those herbal monstrosities. If you want to call some salad in hot water “tea”, that’s your prerogative, I’ll be over here with my comforting beige brew. When insomnia strikes, some people turn to alcohol or marijuana but neither is really a great option. Both can help you to get to the early sleep stages fairly quickly but they reduce the amount of time in stage 5, REM sleep, so you won’t wake up feeling refreshed, and your room will smell of fosters and domino’s pizza. When it comes to melatonin, the biggest enemy is your phone screen. It’s thought that the biggest obstacle to most people falling asleep today is technology. The light from a smartphone or a laptop is enough to trick your brain into thinking it’s still daylight so you won’t produce the necessary melatonin. It can increase the time it takes you to fall asleep by over an hour. It’s important to give yourself a good 30 minutes before bed with no screens. You should try that new app, where people take all of the subtitles from famous movies and print them out on sheets of paper, except more articulately written. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about sleep, partly because there is so much we don’t understand. So let’s try to tackle a few of the more common myths. Firstly, the obvious one; counting sheep. It’s thought that this whole concept is derived from actual shepherds. They would worry about their flocks going missing at night so, to make sure all was well, they would go out and count up the little land clouds. For you and me though, with our worries being decidedly non-ovine, counting sheep is completely unhelpful as it stimulates the active parts of your brain. You’re much better off picturing a relaxing scene, like a beach or a waterfall. And sure, that can include sheep if you like, just make sure nobody else is in attendance. Exercise is important to keep you healthy and a good active day will help you nod off. But if you’re restless, doing some sit ups is only going to make things worse since you will increase adrenaline and, more importantly, raise your core temperature. Heat equilibrium is important for sleep and you should be aiming to keep your extremities warm, like with socks, but your core cool, which is easy if you have a frosty heart. And finally, we’re often told that you can train yourself to need less sleep. Well, you can’t. You can learn to put up with it and maybe control your mood a bit better but the fact is, we each have a typical sleep requirement, which differs from person to person, often 7-8 hours, and with any less than that, we won’t be running at our optimum; concentration will drop, your temper will be shorter and you’ll find Janice in human resources that extra bit annoying. Sure, she’s irritating on a good day but without a good sleep, she’s like listening to Paris Hilton reading 50 Shades of Grey over a severely bad Skype connection. But no matter how much sleep you manage to get each night the best way to wake up feeling refreshed is to avoid waking up during deep-sleep. Doing so will make you feel groggy and sleepy for hours afterwards; wake up during light-sleep and you’ll feel awake and refreshed. But it’s not down to luck, you can actually plan to wake up during light-sleep, every morning. It takes the brain 90 minutes to go through one full sleep cycle. So try to always set your alarm in 90-minute intervals, giving you the best chance of waking up during light-sleep. So you could set your alarm for 6 hours after you go to bed, or 7 and ½ hours or 9 hours, all are divisible by 90 minutes. Just make sure you factor in the average of 14 minutes it takes for a person to fall asleep. So, I hope this has helped some of the insomniacs out there; although I’m not sure it was too smart of me to tell my entire audience to stop staring at screens. No staring after midnight, deal? And for those of you who do sleep like a baby, I hope you have someone to change you in the middle of the night, because you really should have grown out of that by now.

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