Remember when you were a kid and you’re parents forced you to take a nap on Sunday Afternoon or when you had mandatory nap-time in kindergarten, and you hated every minute of it? I certainly remember those times, and now as an adult I’m kicking myself for not relishing every second of those naps in my youth. (Is it just me or should “mandatory nap time” be a thing at college and in corporate workplaces? Maybe we should start a petition.)
The painful irony of the situation is that as kids, we didn’t want to sleep but we had the ability to doze off pretty much anywhere we lay our head down…but now that we’re adults, getting a good night’s sleep is all we want out of life but a lot of us aren’t able to do so. Why is this?
Why is Insomnia so Common?
About 6 percent of the American population is diagnosed with a case of chronic insomnia, but the need for good, refreshing sleep in this country is far greater than that. As they age, some people start noticing that they can’t fall asleep as easily as they used to or that they can’t stay asleep all night. Others seem to sleep normally but they still feel tired upon waking. Some experience sleep apnea, sleep-walking, or snoring, all things that may negatively affect your quality of sleep. And then there are the poor souls (like yours truly) who have the a “worst-of-both-worlds” scenario, meaning that they have chronic health conditions that make them absolutely exhausted during the day but they also suffer from severe insomnia at night!
Why is sleep so important? Well, there are about a trillion different answers to that question, but the easy answer is that if you don’t sleep you don’t heal. Even if you don’t have a chronic health condition, your body uses sleep to activate the immune system and to repair damage that our bodies sustain during the day. Sleep is also essential to memory formation and storage as well as for maintaining good mental health.
The biggest problem for Spoonies is that we often can’t fall asleep because of pain (we call this “painsomnia”), neurotransmitter imbalances, medication side effects, or for other reasons, and then we can’t heal and restore due to lack of sleep, which in turn, causes us to get sicker. And that cycle keeps turning until you bottom out and your health is completely devastated. Long story short: humans need sleep, but we’re often not getting it!
Now, to answer the question: why are sleeping problems so common in our country? I’ll do my best to summarize several reasons why insomnia is so rampant in our culture.
1. The Problem: Exposure to the Wrong Light at the Wrong Time of Day
- The “circadian rhythm” is your body’s internal clock that runs on a 24-hour circuit, and this rhythm can be easily disrupted through modern day technology. When your eyes are exposed to light (especially blue-light) then you’re body knows it’s time to “be awake” because it’s daytime. When you’re not exposed to light, your body says “it’s time for bed” and you start to get sleepy. This is because when you’re eye catches lots of light, it tells a gland in your brain (the pineal gland) to release melatonin into the rest of your body, and melatonin makes you sleepy. A hundred years ago, people were not staring at a glowing laptop or smartphone screen at 11 PM, nor were they exposed to bright LED lights in their homes all the time. So, when it was nighttime their bodies knew that it was sleepy-time. But now, we stay up late to do homework or watch Netflix, and the blue-light from our screens tell our brains that it is still daylight outside, so we don’t need to be sleepy!
- There are several ways to combat this problem in our modern world. Firstly, it’s recommended that we stay away from any “interactive screens” like a laptop or smartphone for a whopping two hours before we intend to go to sleep. I know this seems impossible, but I promise you will be shocked by how much of a difference this hack, alone, will change your life!
- Next, you can easily block the blue-light from electronics! You can download a free program for your laptop called “f.lux” that starts dimming the blue-light in your screen during the evening. You set the program up once and then it automatically takes care of your screen every day. Just google it, it’s awesome! There are also several free apps for smartphones that are “blue-light filtering” that cancel out some of that bright light that keeps you awake. I have one for my phone and I just keep it running all day. A bonus is that lowering the level of blue light on your electronics can also help prevent migraines if you are prone to them.
2. The Problem: Erratic Sleep Schedules
- This one is so simple, but we tend to forget about it. When you were a kid, it’s likely that you had a very strict bedtime as well as a bedtime routine that you stuck to without question. Now that you’re older you have all kinds of things going on at night: homework, research, social activities, shift-work. All these things screw with that internal clock that I talked about earlier. Human bodies like consistency, and if you’re going to sleep at 9PM some nights and 2AM on other nights then your body doesn’t know when it’s supposed to start preparing you for sleep. This is especially true if you have an erratic work schedule that swings between day and night shifts.
- If you are able, get a sleep schedule going. Start by making a schedule that’s realistic, that you could actually adhere to, and write it down. If you’re really hard-core, you can print out and use a copy of the schedule that I used to use, given to me by a sleep specialist (shown below). It is recommended that you let your bedtimes and wake-times differ by only one or two hours on the weekends, but you can give yourself a little bit of grace.
- A note about naps: Try not to take naps during the day if you can help it, because this can further mess up your circadian rhythm if you’re sensitive. But if you must nap, keep it short (under 45 mins) and make sure it’s in the middle of the day and not anywhere close to your bedtime.
3. The Problem: Too Much External Stimuli in the Environment.
- Some people are very sensitive to external stimulation like the noise of a snoring spouse or the cracks of light that slip through your window blinds at night. If you’re sensitive, these very small things can keep you awake and further the insomnia.
Fortunately, this problem has a pretty simple fix; just figure out how to control the external stimuli. If you have an alarm clock with bright red numbers on it, turn it away from you so that you don’t have to see it. If you have a pet that jumps on the bed and wakes you up all night, find another place for the pet to sleep. If you need a very dark room in order to sleep you can buy blackout curtains online or in a store. There are some fashionable black-out curtains on amazon that are pretty inexpensive! You will be amazed at how much light they cut out if you live in a neighborhood with streetlights.
- Another option is simply getting a sleep mask.
- If you are noise-sensitive, there are two options. Some people like using earplugs to muffle any noises, while other people like to use white-noise such as a fan or a white noise machine. I highly recommend the white-noise approach if you have tinnitus/ringing ears!
So there you go! I will address more sleeping problems and insomnia hacks in another post, later, because there are too many resources out there to list all in one sitting. Now, keep in mind that these approaches are for milder cases of insomnia or can be used alongside medication, so if you have a severe sleeping problem don’t be afraid to seek medical help! Many people get relief with prescription medication, but for the average bear, these hacks should help you get a good night’s sleep when you are struggling.
Once again, thanks for reading and I wish you happy sleeping!
Em the Silver Spoonie