Help! I haven’t slept for eight hours since ever! I cannot even remember when I last had a good night’s sleep. I’m literally having the worst sleep of my life. I couldn’t fall asleep for hours last night and I’ve been up since 4 a.m. I’m not functioning and I’m falling apart. I can’t focus. I’m anxious and I think it’s affecting me socially, too. It’s making me a lot less happy with my life. Please give me a prescription for sleeping pills.
I have heard this countless times from patients over the whole lifespan - from the student to mom with her baby, from the stressed office worker to the elderly. For that matter it happened a few times to me as well. Sometimes even by choice. But sometimes, what keeps us up at night isn’t entirely under our control. Anxiety about college applications, for example, or a car alarm that goes off in the middle of the night.
Nobody knows why sleep is so important. We all sleep for around a third of our time on the planet. While it might seem like a huge waste of time to some people, it turns out that sleep is pretty important for many areas of health as it is a reset for hormones, the immune system and particularly for a healthy, functioning brain.
There's a reason only one night's sleep deprivation makes your brain stop working: Research suggests that our brain is doing very important housekeeping work during deep, restful sleep. Adequate sleep is necessary as it is the time for our brains to flush out the waste that builds up naturally throughout the day, as well as form strong memories. If you burn the midnight oil, experience insomnia, or just sleep poorly for a few nights, your brain's nightly routine is disrupted, and you'll feel it in three different areas when you wake up. We know that reaction time slows down and we speak in a slow monotonous way. We know that emotionally we can get a little bit more over-emotional and our faces become more droopy, and we know that cognitively, we have a tendency to slow down.
Having a good night’s rest may not seem like much, but the effects are profound. We have to remember that sleep is one of the things that happens in life to the human form that allows for that balance to occur. Sleep affects every organ system and every disease state and we know that when your body’s out of balance because of a lack of sleep, it doesn’t react well.
We also know that immune function starts to decrease markedly if you don’t sleep well for extended periods of time. A great study out of the University of Chicago reported that when flu shots were given to people who were sleep deprived and people who weren’t sleep deprived, then exposed to the flu virus, almost twice as many people who were sleep deprived got the flu. So being sleep deprived can have a pretty traumatic impact on our ability to fight disease.
What does a successful night of sleep look like?
Sleep is a very precise movement structure that you go through in your brainwaves. And as you go through that, different things happen. One moves from awake to Stage 1, then to Stage 2, down into Stages 3 and 4, back to Stage 2, and then into REM sleep. That’s one cycle of sleep and we have five of those across the night. But here’s the interesting thing, all the cycles aren’t the same. In the first part of the night, during Stage 3 and 4 sleep (called “deep sleep,”) we get the repair-the-body sleep, where growth hormone is emitted and all the cellular repair occurs. In the last third of the night, we get REM sleep where mental restoration occurs.
And how long is the cycle?
Anywhere between 80 and 120 minutes, but on average, 90 minutes, with the average person having five 90-minute cycles, that equals 7½ hours. So, just looking at the pure structure of sleep alone, you probably only need 7½ of sleep. This means that eight hours is a myth.
However some people’s sleep structure cycle might be longer than 90 minutes. Even 100 minutes, and then they might need 8 hours of sleep — or maybe it’s shorter. Everybody’s sleep need is a little bit different. For example, I’m a 6½- to 7-hour girl, but I’ve got patients who might need 8, 8½, even 9 hours of sleep. If they got the amount of sleep that’s good for me, they would be sleep deprived, whereas I would be doing just fine. What’s interesting is that sleep cycles and sleep need change over time at different stages of our lives. Keep in mind that too much sleep, like too little sleep, is bad for you.
That was a lengthy way of saying, no, dear patient, I will not give you a prescription for a sleeping pill without finding out your reason for not sleeping, as it will not help. In addition to being highly addictive, sleeping tablets don’t give the deep or dreaming sleep that we need— and like alcohol they only sedate us and sedation is not sleep. It also blocks our REM dream sleep, an essential part of the sleep cycle. Even if they make us feel like we’ve been asleep, we haven’t been sleeping in the way that we need to, and so we’ll still suffer from the same problems that insomnia causes.
But you are right. Sleep deprivation is miserable. A poor night’s sleep is the ultimate mood killer, and over time those bad moods add up. And people who regularly sleep poorly at night are far more likely to develop depression or severe anxiety. When we are sleep deprived we are lonely, unhealthy and anxious.
Luckily “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep.” Sleep in the right dosage is a miracle drug with no side effects.
However the quality of your z’s is as important for you as the duration. So practice good sleep hygiene. Here are five helpful tips for a restorative night’s sleep:
Sleep should be consistent, no matter what. Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even after a bad night’s sleep or on the weekend.
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
Turn off electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
Exercise regularly. If you lead a sedentary live and don’t exercise regularly you are missing out on an excellent sleep remedy.
Greet the sun. Get outside in the sun for 15 minutes each morning. Your internal body clock (the circadian rhythm) runs on a 24-hour schedule and functions best when you are exposed to a regular pattern of light and dark.
Like me, you and the people in your life may want to get enough sleep to be healthier and full of vitality in 2020. So we at Zenzile Life wish you many sweet dreams—as well as deep and healing sleep.
This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.
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