Why We Need Sleep and How to Get It

April 18, 2017

Why We Need Sleep and How to Get It

No matter how active we are during the day, sleep restores our minds and allows our bodies to recover. It puts us "on pause" and lets nature take control. Usually, we feel refreshed in the morning and ready for a new day.

In an ideal world, everyone would get a good night's sleep, but this is far from what happens. Insomnia affects millions of people and has numerous knock-on effects ranging from haggard appearance, daytime tiredness, irritability, and a general feeling of malaise

Everyone suffers from insomnia at one time or another. It's almost impossible to avoid in the twenty-first century, particularly in city environments. There's traffic noise, car and shop alarms, those noisy people next door, not to mention the new LED street lamps the local authority has just installed. Their white light will certainly keep you awake if your curtains are thin.

Three Types

It's quite common to suffer occasional bouts of insomnia and it's best not to worry about it during the night. If you worry, you'll only prolong the problem and instead of being "transient" your insomnia will become "intermittent" or recurring. Worst of all you can become a "chronic" insomniac, in which case there may be an underlying medical condition and you'll need to seek professional help.

In fact, it's best to consult your doctor if insomnia bothers you for just two or three weeks. A doctor can advise on appropriate medication.

What Causes Transient Insomnia?

The most frequent causes are from our modern-day lifestyles.

  • Our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) becomes upset when we jet around the world, racing against the sun.
  • Moving quickly from a hot climate to a cold one, or vice versa, can make us sleepless.
  • Technology, too, is a major cause, especially when we check emails late at night. Again, white light wakes us up and the content of what we absorb stimulates the mind when it really needs to calm down.
  • Evening drinks can wake us up during the night with a bathroom call -- and we may not get back to sleep unless physically tired.
  • Coffee, tea and alchohol can all deprive us of sleep if we drink them late at night.

How To Cure It

The best way to cure transient insomnia is to remove its causes. That, of course, is easier said than done, especially for people who work shifts, travel frequently, or enjoy a busy social life. With the best will in the world a normal person can encounter sleep problems.

Suppose you have to make a big speech the following day? It's hard to avoid running it through your mind as you lie in bed. Perhaps you're an athlete with a big race coming up, or an actor before opening night. Should you medicate? Or look for a natural cure -- for something that will gently ease you off to sleep?

For medicine: consult your doctor. For sensible, well-informed advice you're in the right place, so please read on.

Three Ways

There are three ways to address the problem of transient insomnia: physical, mental, and the use of natural supplements to encourage the production of sleep-inducing chemicals in body and mind.

Physical Solutions

Many people, desk workers in particular, are not tired when they attempt to go to sleep. When the body still feels active it sends signals to the brain that it wants to carry on, if only to burn a few more calories before allowing you to sleep.

So here are some physical solutions, or partial solutions to the problem of insomnia:

Take regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime.

Get fresh air, if it's available. It's easy to sleep well on a seaside vacation if other factors are favourable.

Don't overeat at dinner, but try not to go to bed on a completely empty stomach. A very light snack, an hour or two before sleeping, is ideal.

Mental Solutions

You can also use mental techniques which have much the same effect. Here are some suggestions:

  • Some people like to meditate; others say prayers. Both of these mental activities help the mind to relax.
  • Another solution is to engage the mind on a trivial task, such as a non-challenging word puzzle. It's the kind of activity which can take your mind away from everyday problems. Carry on thinking about the puzzle in bed and you're very likely to fall asleep.
  • Tell yourself it's OK to stay awake. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. It stops you worrying about lack of sleep, especially if you can reassure yourself that you're getting some well-earned rest. It may take you an hour or two, but hopefully you'll drift off before the noise of the early morning rush hour. Sleep tends to take place in three-hour cycles, so even three hours of sleep can be refreshing.

Natural Sleep Aids to Help You Snooze

The pineal gland in the brain produces melatonin, a hormone which regulates the body's circadian rhythm. It's at its highest level just before you sleep. If you can ensure it's at this level, you're more likely to cure your insomnia.

You can boost serotonin levels by eating foods rich in carbohydrates. Milk contains tryptophan, a precursor in the synthesis of serotonin. Other foods with tryptophan include turkey, cheese, nuts, beans, eggs, and milk.

Chamomile, normally taken as tea, has long been a popular sleep remedy. It has a soothing effect quite unlike most other drinks.

A supplement called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a derivative of tryptophan and may be taken as a supplement. It helps to boost the production of melatonin in the brain.

Finally, there's passionflower, a natural sedative that calms the stomach as well as making you sleepy.

Combine the Three Solutions

Your best chance of success is to combine some of the techniques and natural sleep aids recommended above. Bring together the physical, mental and supplemental solutions and you're very likely to cure your insomnia -- especially if you can persuade the neighbours to keep the noise down.

For further information:

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR)
https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/org/ncsdr/

The Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine
https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-clinics/sleep-medicine-center.html

National Sleep Foundation
https://sleepfoundation.org/

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
http://www.aasmnet.org/




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