The Importance of Healthy Sleep (and How to Get It)
Americans’ lack of sleep may represent a greater risk to health than previously thought. Some studies even suggest that up to 76 percent of people in the United States suffer from sleep-related issues or do not get as much high-quality sleep as they need.
Doctors must take a comprehensive approach towards understanding and treating sleep disorders, like insomnia, because sleep is such a vital human process. A sleeping pill is not the answer, because that doesn’t solve the underlying cause of the lack of sleep.
There are several underlying causes of sleep deprivation or lack of sleep, and there are several practical solutions to these types of problems.
Dangers of Unhealthy Sleep
There are some serious reasons why a lack of sleep can cause health problems for people. Lack of sleep can reduce people’s immunity levels and make patients more susceptible to getting sick, Lack of sleep throws off hormone balances, and that can stunt growth, cause metabolic problems and prevent the natural healing that occurs during sleep. Both of these things are dangerous on their own, but when put together it can lead to serious medical consequences.
Up to 8,000 annual automobile deaths are caused by drivers who are too drowsy while on the road. The deaths alone can be prevented with better sleep patterns and improved health. People who work with heavy machinery or dangerous materials can fall asleep on the job and cause major workplace accidents. Both of these instances indicate that a lack of sleep harms more than just the person who isn’t resting well at night.
The best solution to a lack of sleep is to get better and more sleep. Treatment for sleep disorders like insomnia is not necessarily quick, once patients start making some changes they should notice a pattern of improved sleep and better overall health. It should be comforting to know that no matter how bad things get, the human body can always bounce back and start to heal.
Identifying Sleep Habits
As with any treatment, the best way to figure out how to reverse the negative effects lies in understanding what exactly causes a particular. So many variables and factors come into play when talking about sleep. Therefore, no two patients are identical with regards to what is causing unhealthy sleep to take place. Doctors must consider diet, lifestyle, genetics, stress levels, work habits and daily activities that could all contribute to someone’s overall lack of sleep.
One of the most important questions that can help point to a cause is whether or not someone has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. There is a critical difference between both symptoms, which means that it’s imperative for doctors to take a comprehensive look at someone’s sleep to come up with a personalized care strategy for each patient.
There may not be a single factor that affects a person’s sleep. Sleep deprivation may stem from physiological issues to psychological problems or environmental factors. Usually, a combination of things contributes to sleep disorders. The more information a patient provides to a doctor, the better the care team becomes at pinpointing the source of the problem ahead of recommending corrective measures.
The first thing a doctor suggests after diagnosing a patient with a sleep disorder is to conduct a sleep study. This may involve something as simple as keeping a journal for a week to note someone’s sleep habits. For more serious issues, a sleep study might include monitoring someone’s sleep in a controlled setting with electrodes, video monitoring and health monitors in a doctor’s office or specialized sleep center.
After the sleep study, a doctor has a better idea of what goes on with a patient’s sleep patterns in order to find a root cause and a treatment regimen.
Stages of Sleep
The stages of sleep combine several complex neurological and biological processes. If any one of these things is out of whack, it might throw off someone’s sleep. That’s why doctors must try to pinpoint the problem by looking at several factors.
There are five different stages of sleep, and it’s crucial for everyone to enter each stage at the right point during the night so that the quality of sleep is as natural as possible. The stages are listed below.
- Light sleep
- Deep sleep
- Very deep sleep
- REM sleep (dreaming)
Most people who suffer from sleep deprivation or insomnia report having high levels of sleepiness, especially at night when they are supposed to be nodding off. However, the issue becomes that many of these people do not access all stages of sleep or do not get as much of each stage as they should. That reduces the overall quality of sleep while resulting in negative side effects.
Starting Versus Staying Asleep
Sleep disorders usually affect people as they try to stay asleep during the night. These patients can fall asleep rather quickly or normally, but wind up waking up multiple times and having a hard time falling back asleep after they awaken. Some common factors that could lead to sleep deprivation for both those who can’t fall asleep right away and those who can’t stay asleep.
Issues With Falling Asleep
What happens when someone can’t fall asleep is that the sufferer is unable to turn his or her brain off. He or she lies in bed thinking and going over problems without being able to fall asleep. The problem could stem from anxiety or other factors that are keeping someone’s mind active when it should be drifting off to dreamland. These factors include the following:
- Artificial light
- Hormone imbalance
- Addition of stimulants into a diet
- Excess noise
- Pain or discomfort
One or more issues may keep someone’s brain awake, meaning that the doctors should have an easier time of locating the source of the problem and finding a solution. For example, if background noise, such as highway sounds, keeps someone awake, then someone might want to investing in earplugs or some other method of keeping the noise out might be prudent. If light is the culprit, then the patient should remove all light sources from the bedroom (including blue indicator lights) to see if that helps. An eye covering at night can help, too.
Issues With Staying Asleep
If falling asleep is not the issue, then it can be harder to find out exactly what is causing this to happen. Basic factors such as overstimulation during the day or adding stimulants into someone’s diet can affect someone’s sleep patterns. Because the body may have a delayed reaction to something that happens during the day, it might be more difficult to pinpoint a direct cause of the insomnia. Doctors may have to try several different treatments before finding the right one in this case.
One important thing for patients to remember is that many people report having a period of wakefulness during the night, which is actually a natural part of our sleep process when we are on a proper circadian rhythm. Patients might get up for an hour or two between sleep sessions, which is mostly normal. As long as the person can get back to sleep relatively quickly afterward, this isn’t necessarily insomnia.
Melatonin Balance and Sleep
One crucial factor in our natural sleep patterns is a chemical created by our brains. Melatonin is a major part of regulating how awake we feel, and it is a direct response to light entering the brain. Because we associate light and brightness with daytime and alertness, we suppress our melatonin production when we are exposed to light.
That means that if a patient tries going to sleep with a light on, it can be incredibly difficult because the brain thinks it needs to be awake. Blue light is especially troublesome as it has a more profound effect on our pineal gland (where melatonin is made). Unfortunately, many of our electronic devices use blue as a constant indicator of power, which can lead to insomnia if a person has several such devices in the bedroom.
Finding a Natural Rhythm
There is one question that science cannot answer, and that is a definitive reason as to why we sleep. While most people seem to think that the process is restorative in nature, the fact is that there is little evidence to support that claim. It’s widely known that human beings are naturally drawn to sync ourselves with the 24-hour light and dark cycle. This is what’s called a circadian rhythm, and it dictates when we should be awake and when we should sleep.
For most of human history, people were unable to stay up at night due to lack of artificial light available. Even with fire as a main source of light, it was not feasible to burn it through the whole night, which meant that most people still followed the natural day/night cycle of the Earth.
It wasn’t until the creation of electric light that our world shifted drastically, which eventually gave birth to the concept of a 24-hour awake cycle as our cities and civilizations became much more illuminated. Humans could stay awake all night without worrying about losing the light, which meant that more activities could be done and the era of overstimulation and enhanced productivity began. Since we have only had a few generations of this abundance of light, our bodies have not adjusted to it, which is one reason why there is such an epidemic of unhealthy sleep.
Another significant issue that plagues modern society is the fact that we are exposed to so many different stimulants throughout the day. Not only are we relying more on caffeine and energy drinks to stay awake, but we are bombarded with imagery and stimulation in the form of advertisements, games, videos, and other electronic media that competes for our attention. How many of us go to bed with our phones by our faces? This overstimulation has a profound effect on our sleep patterns as our brains are both exhausted by this abundance of media as well as addicted to it. Studies have shown that checking a phone just before going to sleep can cause people to wake up more often as the brain thinks about checking for updates and spurs itself awake as a result.
One thing that people have to realize is that modern society is overloading our minds with stimulants, both nutritional and electronic, so one potential solution could be to reduce the stimulants. Limit the amount of information a person takes in with the eyes and ears as well as the amount of stimulants someone ingests with regard to coffee and caffeine.
Everyone Is Different
Everyone is different when it comes to sleep. While medical science says eight hours is the standard amount of sleep someone should get, the fact is that while many people can benefit from that length of quality sleep not everyone has to have that exact amount. Some can profit from less sleep while others need more to ensure proper energy levels throughout the day.
Thus, no one should assume that what works for one person will work for another. Patients should focus on what each person’s body needs and what factors preventing someone from getting quality sleep. Someone may figure out seven hours is the ideal amount, so then that’s what will work. Everyone is different and unique, so doctors must keep that in mind when figuring out the best treatment for a patient’s sleep disorder.
Treating Sleep Disorders
After a doctor understands the underlying cause of sleep deprivation, it’s time to address those issues and see what the care team can do to reverse the process. There is no “magic bullet” that can cure insomnia. Rather, a doctor may find it is a lengthy treatment process that could involve a lot of trial and error to figure out what’s going on in the long run. As we age, our hormones and physiology will change. That results in different needs for our sleep patterns. Patients should realize that treating sleep disorders is a lifelong process, much like anything to do with someone’s bodily health and well-being. Once someone figures out what works in terms of sleep, that should become a lifelong habit.
Dangers of Drugs for Sleep
One huge side effect of this lack of quality sleep is that more people than ever are relying on drugs to get the sleep that they need. This approach does not lead to any significant breakthrough and could actually result in more harm than good. Some potential dangers of relying too heavily on drugs are that patients could develop a dependence on them, they can disrupt someone’s mental activity and capacity, and they can throw off the hormones or bodily functions through various side effects that come along with taking the drug.
For the most part, sleep aids should only be used in situations where it’s imperative for someone to get enough sleep or if a patient is dealing with a temporary problem that is causing much more severe insomnia than usual. As a general rule, it’s never a good idea to use drugs to fix a natural process in the body that can’t be solved by more natural means.
Is Insomnia Curable?
One thing to keep in mind is that sleep disorders are rarely considered a disease. That means that while they are certainly treatable, there is nothing that doctors would call a cure because that would imply that doctors could stop insomnia immediately or with a single, one-time treatment.
Patients should consider unhealthy sleep lifestyles as a condition that needs to be corrected over time. Much like losing weight, there is no single method for enhancing the quality of sleep. Insomnia is technically curable, but the patient must pay attention to insomnia constantly to bring about the cure in the right way.
Noise and Insomnia
When doctors talk about noise, they aren’t necessarily referring to auditory sounds. Based on the research of Dr. Rubin Naiman, doctors can ascertain that three primary categories of ourselves can affect sleep. Humans experience noise in any or all of these categories as a result of various factors and conditions.
The three classifications are the mind (psychological), body (physiological) and bed (environmental). Each aspect is unique and valuable in its own way. Each person needs to address any noise issues within those categories to ensure better sleep overall.
For example, if someone listens listens to their favorite music during the day, there is nothing wrong with that. However, if someone is playing that music at night while the person tries to sleep, then it becomes noise. This will be an example of bed noise since it is an environmental issue rather than one with the mind or body.
Another example could be brain activity as someone tries to work out problems and solve them. During the day this is normal and healthy, but at night it can become mind noise. This noise in a person’s mind can prevent someone from sleeping or staying asleep.
Noise can appear from a variety of sources, so it’s imperative that patients and doctors properly identify where the noise is coming from and which category it falls under. That way, doctors can figure out the best treatment for reducing it. Environmental factors, such as too much light or sound in the bedroom, can be identified and addressed much easier than noise that occurs in the mind or body. Internal noise can come from a variety of internal issues rather than external ones.
Most insomnia sufferers don’t claim lack of sleepiness as a factor, but rather than they have a hard time falling or staying asleep. Thus, instead of focusing on treatments that increase our level of sleepiness (such as drugs), we should target the noise that is in our lives and concentrate on reducing or removing it entirely.
Doctors can help people figure out and pinpoint whether they have excessive mind, body or bed noise. Physicians instruct their patients to take inventory of sleep and wakefulness habits to see if someone has a specific problem or set of challenges to address.
These are all questions patients can ask themselves when figuring out their sleep inventory. For accuracy’s sake, everyone should be completely honest with the physician so as to find a comprehensive approach towards treating the sleep disorder.
How is someone’s daytime energy? Does the person stay energized throughout the day without the use of stimulants such as caffeine or energy drinks?
Our daytime energy fluctuates naturally throughout the course of the waking day, so people shouldn’t think that because they feel a little sluggish at certain times that it means they have a significant problem. The bigger issue is if someone has to rely on stimulants or adrenaline rushes to maintain a steady level of energy.
Does the person rely on sleeping aids?
If someone uses drugs or alternative medicine to fall asleep at night, then the patient does not address the core of the issue. These treatments focus on making someone sleepier rather than eliminating any noise that is keeping the person awake in the first place.
How long does it take someone to fall asleep?
As a general rule, it shouldn’t take more than about 20 minutes to fall asleep if the person is sufficiently tired or drowsy. If it takes significantly longer than that, it could be an indication of mind, body, or bed noise keeping the patient awake.
Does the person awaken often at night before having a hard time getting back to sleep afterward?
Does the person fall asleep as soon as the head hits the pillow?
Falling asleep quickly could actually be a symptom of a larger issue where someone lacks so much sleep that the mind compensates by entering deep sleep almost immediately. Essentially, the person builds up so much sleep debt that the person cannot ease into normal sleep cycles.
How much does the person’s body co-operate with sleep?
The patient should think about whether he or she can relax and remove all tension from the body as the person tries to drift off. If someone cannot do that, it could be a result of overstimulation or some other physiological noise.
How does the brain cooperate with sleep?
Does the person stay awake because the brain is too busy thinking about stuff? If so, then it is a sign that of too much mind noise. This could be a direct result of overstimulation (phones in bed) or something else, but the patient should focus on calming his or her brain when it’s time to sleep.
How does the bedroom cooperate with sleep?
Is the person in a stable environment that allows someone fall asleep quickly? Are there any artificial lights or sounds coming in? If someone has an ideal sleep environment, then the person probably doesn’t have any bed noise.
When it comes to figuring out how to improve a patient’s sleep quality, the doctor and patient need first to identify the underlying issues that are causing the sleep deprivation in the first place. Whether it’s the diet, lifestyle, or environment that prevents a good night’s sleep, the care team can’t treat it until someone pinpoints the exact problems that prevent sleep. After that, the care team develops a treatment plan that works for the patient.