Sleep is a natural occurrence in every human being and indeed in almost all living things including some plants!
In the case of human beings, there are good reasons why we need sleep. Our brain and our mind (wherever the mind may be) is the driving force of all our activities. The activities of the brain are similar to a typical machine or a processor and a gate keeper. It, the brain, receives information from the inside of us and from outside in our environment around us and it, brain processes the data/information in a complex network of nerves. Overactive brain is a hyper-vigilant and sleepless brain. On the other hand, oversleeping may itself be a disease. I will not be dealing with oversleeping here as there are distinct causes for this.
Some Terms: Insomnia and sleep deprivation are the same thing as sleeplessness.
Why do we need to sleep?
Like any machine, human brain has its own limit: It too wears and tears. It gets fatigued and need re-tuning. The brain can break down due to overwork, lack of adequate rest, or break down due to poor sleep. In short, the brain, in every 24 hours needs to be “re-charged” like a battery that has been used or discharged.
How much sleep do we need?
The amount of sleep that an individual needs varies remarkable but there are in general some guidelines. A new born will spend almost all of his/her early life sleeping. Such babies can sleep as much as 20 hours or more in 24-hours, only waking to eat and be cleaned! The older child of fewer than 10 may need sleep up to 10-12hours! For an adult of 18years and over will require about, on average, 8 hours. In the elderly, over 60 years, the amount of sleep may be as low as 4-6 hours!
Quality versus Quantity of Sleep
Sleep in general is divided into phases: About four of them. For our purpose, let us divide it into rapid eye movement (REM) and others.
REM sleep represents the time of deep sleep and when we may also dream: A time when our eyes move very rapidly even when we are sleeping! It can be as short as a minute. This is the most crucial part of the sleep phases. It represents a time when our muscles are relaxed and brain is much rested. Note also that a disturbed dream or fearful dream can also cause us concern and impair our sleep while a good or pleasing dream will have opposite effect. Such dream and relaxation takes place at the REM. One cannot bring the REM on.
In general, it’s the quality of a sleep that matters rather than the quantity of it. A long superficial sleep marked by anxiety is a poor sleep. While a short sleep of one hour with good muscle relaxation and restful mind is a good quality sleep.
When does most sleep occur?
Except when our nature of work and study alters our sleep pattern, most people in the world do follow the natural dark-day pattern. We are made to sleep at night in the same way that the world’s activities come to a somewhat restful “halt” at night. There are exceptions as mentioned that some people also sleep during the day.
What causes poor sleep?
In general there are certain events that may harm our sleep. Let us list some of them here. The list is not exhaustive but it points to the reason of why we may experience poor sleep.
a. Change in sleep pattern (as mentioned above)
b. Mental health issues: Anxiety, depression, paranoia, mania, schizophrenia and other psychosis certainly causes poor sleep.
c. Pain: Psychological pain including despair, fear, and disappointments. The other is physical pain of any cause.
d. Other physical diseases such as high blood pressure and brain injury, obesity, asthma, sleep apnoea and so forth may disturb our sleep. Diseases such as diabetics or prostate illness that causes the person to visit the toilet often may cause disturbed sleep.
e. Medications: There are some medications that are legally prescribed that may impair our sleep and or cause frequent visit to the toilet.
f. Illegal drugs and alcohol. Ironically, while they may help a person to sleep initially, these substances in the long term causes damage to the brain and may therefore disturb our sleep.
g. Other substances such as caffeine, tea, nicotine will stimulate the brain to keep alert especially if they are taken at close to time of sleep.
h. Poor environment: Noise, excess light, high humidity and hot environment should be avoided as they affect our sleep in a bad way.
i. Poor personal management. Over-work, poor time management, irregular sleep patterns such as they say “being on the air plane today, office in the morning and train the following day!”
j. Relationship and family disturbance: Intolerance amongst couples/spouses may cause sleeplessness.
Consequences of poor sleep
1. Irritability. You simply become intolerant of others and your environment.
2. Poor productivity. You cannot be your best at work and at home.
3. If there is a prolonged sleep deprivation over a certain number of days, anxiety, depression and possibly psychosis may result.
How do I improve my sleep?
If you are dissatisfied with your sleep, then examine the causes of poor sleep as listed above. First, how much are you sleeping, Have a diary, or sleep chart. If you can, record your sleep: sleep and waking. Record it if you wake in-between sleep. Why did you wake you? What went through your mind on waking? How long did it take you to regain your sleep?
a) Are you mentally or physically unwell? Then, see your doctor.
b) Do you take illegal or legal substances (not medically recommended) that contributes to your insomnia? Consider stopping it. If you need help, talk to your healthcare worker.
c) Do you consume nicotine (cigarette), coffee, and tea late in the evening and night? Then, think of either stopping or do not take it for 4-6 hours before your sleep time. This is a rule of thumb. Note: Alcohol too may not help you in the longer term.
d) What about your environment? Good, if environment is cool, calm, noiseless, and dim or dark.
Is your bed comfortable? Are you worried and over-working? Consider these factors and think of improving on them. Why not try some shower shortly before bed-time? It may help. Certainly feeling good and clean about yourself (body and mind) is a positive contribution to good sleep.
e) Crucially, physical exercise is good for the brain, mind, and body. It aids good sleep.
f) Food: The type of food you eat and when you eat it may impact on your sleep. Consider not eating late. Can you avoid heavy meal and meat at night and instead eat light easily digestible meal? Light meal is good for your sleep and is good for your weight. Light meal will help your sleep.
g) Having a large amount of drink or water late at night may cause you to wake up for toilet and thus impair your sleep. Some people have advocated drinking milk or chocolate at night to help sleep. One is doubtful about this for reasons given under frequent waking and under tea.
h) Try not to sleep during the day if you can avoid it. A short nap in mid afternoon may help your brain to calm down and thus aid your night sleep.
i) Resolve, if you can, any lingering issues of disappointments at home between spouses and issues relating to work.
j) Pregnant women may need to adjust their sleep pattern and sleep positions as the pregnancy demands and as the pregnancy advances with the growing baby.
k) New baby may require, gentle handling, songs (lullaby), cuddling, calm, and cool environment to aid them to sleep.
l) Avoid being intellectually active late in the night. This is to make the brain less alert. Overactive brain may result in poor sleep and can occur through such things as computing, receiving bad messages via telephone, emails, TV, movies and so forth.
m) If all else fails, medically recommended medication for a short while may be called for. This is where medical doctor and sometimes medications over the counter (OTC) with the help of attending pharmacist comes in handy. Ask for help when you need it.