Can’t Sleep at Night? Guidelines for Improving Sleep Quality

In our modern lifestyle, I see that many of our lives are like cars throttling forward 24-7 nonstop, with the brake pedals irreparably broken. And we only slow down because our fuel tank is empty, or by driving off a cliff. I use these metaphors to illustrate how some of us fall unconscious from sleep deprivation, or realizing that sleep is desperately needed only after a major mistake is made because of the lack of sleep. So I would like to ask ourselves: Why do some of us choose to skimp on sleep, when we know we will regret it later on?

It is no surprise, with many of us having to juggle work, commute, education, and cram in college for that last minute exam. Our schedule forces us to skip sleep just so we can enjoy ourselves, whether it be spending time with our loved ones or playing videos games… However, others don’t have the option to sleep if afflicted with insomnia. But there is a way out.

Why is Your Sleep Important?

Sleep improves cognitive function. We need sleep so that we understand what we are doing. Being sleep deprived is the equivalent of a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of up to 0.1%

Memory and Learning are Consolidated during Sleep. We need sleep to store our newly made memories in the Hippocampus of the brain, and to restore brain equilibrium by removing toxins that accumulate in the brain cells during the day. In this way, sleep prepares the brain for learning.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation is accumulative. That means your mental acuity & health deteriorates the longer you go sleep deprived. Your brain needs sleep time to repair, move out toxins from the cells, and re-map newly made memories for long term storage. Note that although a person can bounce back from short term sleep deprivation, chronic sleep deprivation accrues the damage.

Long Term Potentiate (LTP) diminishes with sleep deprivation. Long Term Potentiate refers to the strengthening of synapses and neuronal connections that allow long-term increased signal transmission between two neurons. LTP occurs when a piece of information is repeated and relearned multiple times. LTP is strongest in children; that is why rote memorization is still a commonly implemented learning method for children. In layman’s terms, LTP is the process that knowledge is imprinted or carved into the brain. The end result is that you can work with that piece of knowledge quicker and learn related information faster.

Sleep regulates our appetite. We need sleep to avoid overeating and therefore to stay thin. Less sleep means more stress, and more food to cope with that stress. Note that less sleep affects the hormones that make us hungry. For example, less sleep causes less leptin to be secreted, and more ghrelin is produced as a result. Leptin is the hormone that makes us feel “satiated” when we eat, telling us to stop eating when we are full. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone that tells the brain that we are hungry and that we need to eat. So sleep deprivation in the long term can cause significant weight gain.

What Harms Your Quality of Sleep?

Sleep apnea, or when you stop breathing temporarily, can quickly ruin your quality of sleep. Sleep apnea can last from between a few seconds to minutes, and can happen up to 30 times within an hour of sleep. The most common cause of sleep apnea is when the airway is temporarily collapsed or blocked, called obstructive sleep apnea. Signs of this condition include snoring and long pauses in breathing. Another type of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea, which happens when the brain does not send signals to your lungs to breathe. The result is that your body will make no effort to breathe for a brief period of time.

Sleep apnea harms your quality of sleep because when you can’t breathe, your body detects the lack of oxygen and interprets it as a danger. The body quickly reacts by releasing fight or flight hormones. The result is that you either wake up prematurely or your sleep becomes shallow, so that when you wake up in the morning, you are left feeling groggy and tired.

Exposure to EMF may disturb your quality of sleep. I learned this from another person’s personal experience, moving to a home located near a power line. The power line emitted electromagnetic frequencies that gave her migraines during the day and insomnia at night. Moving to a different area, she found out that she didn’t suffer the same symptoms.

Polyphasic sleep is an inefficient sleeping pattern. That’s because disrupted sleep cycles lower the quality of the sleep; the restorative value. Normally, we sleep at night without break, resulting in high sleep quality. But the Polyphasic sleep is sleeping with multiple breaks, lowering the quality of sleep. Another thing that is bad about polyphasic sleep is that it ignores the circadian rhythm; the sleep schedule that is hardwired into our bodies. The circadian rhythm amplifies the quality of sleep at certain times in the day, such as during nighttime and mid-afternoon. And at other times, the circadian rhythm promotes wakefulness. The problem with polyphasic sleep is that it places sleeping time when a person is hardwired to be awake, and waking time when a person is hardwired to be asleep. The result is an overall loss of sleeping quality.

Also, sleeping late and exposure to blue light from electronic devices harms your sleep.

Guidelines for Improving Your Quality of Sleep

  • Sleep earlier. The first few hours of sleep are the most restorative, and missing the first few hours of the night is more devastating than missing sleep time in the morning. Specifically, your body produces the biggest spike in Growth Hormone (GH) in the first part of your sleep, so sleeping later on meaning missing out on that spurt of GH. Where GH is responsible for the restoration and recovery of the body.
  • Drink caffeinated beverages only in the morning. You need to allow time for the body to eliminate the caffeine; caffeine’s half-life is on average 5-6 hours for adults. That means after 10-12 hours, you have a quarter of caffeine left in your system. Additionally, when caffeine is broken down by the liver, it produces the by-products Paraxanthine, Theobromine, and Theophylline- which all have similar stimulating effects as caffeine. So that means you should keep your dose of caffeine low in order to prevent caffeine and its by-products from lasting for a long time in the body.
  • Exercise. By exercising, you make micro-tears in the muscles. This signals the body that it needs restoration, so you sleep deeper. That’s why after a heavy workout a person typically feels exhausted and sleeps deeper that night.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight (specifically blue light spectrum) in the morning. This configures your sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) in such a way that your body knows to wake in the morning and sleep at night. Otherwise, you’ll find that you don’t feel sleepy at night and end up staying awake.
  • On the same vein, install f. lux for the electronic devices you use at night. Typically, electronics like TV and computer screens emit blue light, telling your body that it is day time, thus keeping you awake.
  • Use a Melatonin supplement to restore your sleep cycle. Melatonin is naturally secreted by the human body when it is dark. This hormone tells your body it is time to sleep, and makes you feel sleepy.
  • Eliminate all light in your bedroom. Any lights on will not only distract you from going to sleep, but also delay your sleep cycle.
  • Use a white noise generator in your bedroom. Usually when you go to sleep, both sudden noises and absolute silence can disturb your sleep. For example, in absolute silence the smallest noises are magnified, like the ticking of a clock. Personally, my family and I use a humidifier or a fan as a white noise generator.
  • Use herbal teas before bed to de-stress. Stress keeps a person awake because of the circulating fight or flight hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (both commonly known as adrenaline). I personally recommend:Chamomile, Lemon Balm, & Passion Flower
  • Taking magnesium will also improve your quality of sleep if you are magnesium deficient. Magnesium is the mineral that helps our muscles relax and is involved in all of the body’s energy pathways.
  • Another supplement that is known to improve your quality of sleep is xyrem or GHB. This particular drug significantly boosts the amount of deep slow wave sleep you experience at night while you snooze.

Related Links

Sources:

Sleep deficit BAC comparison – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1739867/

Less sleep → weight gain – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/

Sleep Apnea – http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea

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