Why Sleep is So Important and How I Conquered My Chronic Insomnia

Why Sleep is So Important

Do not believe the hype of some influencers that 5-6 hours of sleep is sufficient. Countless studies have now shown that high quality and proper duration sleep of 7 – 9 hours is one of the most important factors to good health. Insufficient and poor-quality sleep have been associated with higher risk of sports injury, car crashes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, ADHD, human errors, dementia and more. With 70 million Americans having chronic sleep problems and one-third getting less than 7 hours / night, what can be done to change this? Having suffered from chronic insomnia most of my life, I have tested the best advice and used it to improve my own sleep to 7.7 hours a night. If you want to learn how, read on.

Challenges with insomnia, parenting and global travel as VP of global R&D for a large technology corporation wreaked havoc on my sleep for many years. It was common for me to immediately fall asleep the moment I sat on a couch at friends’ and families’ houses. My wife and daughters like to remind me of the time I fell asleep on a recliner in the middle of a furniture store while shopping. The crowd of fascinated people I awoke to was initially jarring, but quite amusing to my daughters as drool dripped from my chin. The sales folks didn’t mind at all as they touted the sheer comfort of their offerings with a live demonstration.

However, I didn’t realize there was a problem until one day I drove directly through a stop light in a daze and nearly caused a serious accident with my daughters in the back seat. I was fortunate that the alert drivers I cut off compensated for my complete lack of judgement. Furthermore, I began to see such decline in my memory that I thought I was in the beginning stages of neurodegeneration at age 47. For a couple of months, I was afraid to even tell my wife.

It wasn’t until I completed the sleep module as a health coach that I began to understand both the positive and negative health consequences influenced by sleep. This led to extensive research and a complete change in my life making proper sleep a much higher priority.

Before we learn the best strategies for a good night sleep, it is important that we understand the three predominant cycles that drive sleep:

  • Release of melatonin
  • Circadian rhythm
  • Sleep drive

These are illustrated in the diagram below:

Predominant Sleep Cycles

The release of melatonin causes the desire to sleep. It essentially starts the race but does not participate in the actual function of sleep. LED, blue light sources at night can shift the release of melatonin to later in the evening making it harder to fall asleep. Our circadian rhythm is our internal sleep clock that tells our body when it’s time to go to bed. The sleep drive is the build-up of adenosine in the brain during waking hours which can only be lowered through the process of sleep. You have the strongest urge to sleep when your circadian rhythm is close to minimum, melatonin begins to release and your sleep drive is at a maximum.

There are five stages of sleep with each having its importance. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep works to help us process emotions and store pieces of information in detail. NREM (Non-rapid eye movement) stages 3 – 4 are associated with the consolidation of newly learned facts and experiences. The following diagram shows how we progress through these stages of sleep during the night.

Stages of Sleep

Insufficient or poor-quality sleep can affect any one of the five stages causing us to feel unrested and not achieve the cognitive, memory and physiological benefits.

So, what can we do to ensure we get sufficient quantity and quality sleep each night? Here are the top five strategies I extensively use to combat my insomnia.

Strategies for Better Sleep

When viewing the Milky Way, it is best to view it from a very dark location with minimal noise as the moment is so surreal. Similarly, the mind and body love darkness, cool temperatures and minimal noise when you sleep. Use “do not disturb” function or move all electronic devices with lights and noises to another room.

Set an alarm clock to go to bed and wake up (including weekends). A consistent schedule is most important for deep, quality sleep. Allow yourself to sleep for 7 – 9 hours. This may require a much earlier bedtime. For example, if you are required to wake at 6 AM, going to bed at 9:30 PM gives you ample rest.

Avoid caffeine after mid-morning and nicotine all together. This includes sodas, teas, coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, etc. The half-life (50% removal from the body) of caffeine is 5 hours on average. However, caffeine’s elimination half-life may range between 1.5 and 9.5 hours (longer side for pregnant women). Caffeine works to block adenosine receptors. When most of the caffeine is eliminated, a person can experience a crash caused by the elevated levels of adenosine which are now able to attach themselves to the brain’s adenosine receptors. This is why driving late at night is so dangerous.

Avoid large meals and beverages late at night as it may cause indigestion or you to wake to go to the bathroom, respectively. It is better to stay well hydrated during the day and restrict fluids after 6 PM. Also avoid alcohol use before bed as it may help you initially fall asleep but heavy use will reduce your REM sleep keeping you in lighter stages of sleep. 

You can also do a bedtime ritual to relax and unwind to prepare your body to sleep. Examples include a warm shower, reading from a paper book, meditation, listening to music, sketching or light stretching. It is also best to turn off electronic LED, blue light sources 30-60 minutes before bed and put them in nighttime mode in the evening.

Here is a bonus tip – if you wake in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep within 15 – 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity. I like podcasts as this enables me to keep the room dark. However, I have found reading and stretching also works. Once you feel tired again, go back to bed. As a last resort, I have found nature shows very relaxing and will watch one if all else fails. This is against the no LED rule, but it has a greater than 50% chance at working and helps me some nights. A second bonus tip that is more obvious is getting proper exercise. Physical activity tires our body and makes it easier to sleep. However, it’s best not to exercise right before bed (greater than 1-hour is best) as this raises your core temperature and makes it harder to go to sleep.

Additional strategies and information can be found in Sensibly Academy or with sleep tips from The Sleep Foundation. If all of these methods fail to help, you can also try cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia CBT-I. This has proven to be highly effective and is a far safer alternative to sleep pills which are not recommended for longer than six months. Here are two reputable on-line sources for CBT-I: 1) a free app developed by Veteran Affairs and 2) a paid option by Cleveland Clinic ($40). Another method is going to a physician who specializes in sleep and CBT-I in your local area.

A good night sleep is possible with the development of positive habits. However, like anything else it takes practice and consistency to work most effectively. It really comes down to priority. Given its significant influence on quality of life, I have learned to give proper sleep the respect it deserves and make it an integral part of my daily routine.

Photo credits: woman asleep by Kinga Cichewicz, the alarm clock by Insung Yoon, cheese cake by Dilyara Garifullina and reading in bed by Somnox Sleep on Unsplash.

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