Is Insomnia Un-Natural?

In terms of modern-day living to be awake through the night is not helpful. We mostly lead very hectic, switched on life-styles, meaning the only chance we get to be quiet and still is at night when we are sleeping. As we shall see though, waking through the night is a natural phenomena, perhaps hard-wired in to our genetic make-up.

pre-industrial woman about to sleepIn terms of the history of humans, waking up in the night is absolutely normal. In the pre-industrial world (over 200 years ago) we typically went to bed for a few hours then woke around 1am. We would then do chores or talk quietly and muse on our dreams and ideas for a couple of hours. We would then go back to sleep to then wake at dawn. This known as Bimodal Sleep and is typical of many animals in the wild.

In 1990 sleep researcher Thoma Wehr conducted an experiment in which the volunteers were deprived of artificial light and any of the stress of having to get to work/ earn money etc. Within 3 weeks they had fallen into the bi-modal pattern of sleep – waking in the night for a couple of hours of quiet contemplation. In addition to the couple of hours in the middle of the night they also got a couple of hours of quiet contemplation in the dark before falling into a deep sleep. Most of the participants reported feeling much more relaxed, less fatigued and more at ease.

Wehr postulates that insomnia may be more prevalent as we age, because our body struggles to “over-ride” its innate need for bimodal sleep. The bi-modal sleep pattern takes over and then we are labelled suffering insomnia. I would say it is the anxiety about not sleeping that is more harmful to our health than actually being awake for a couple of hour a night – which is a normal phenomena.

Its amazing that this information has only been around since 1990. It was only unearthed when Dr Ekirch of Virginia Tech, a Professor of History, started to research the history of sleep. As he probed back further in time to pre-industrial times he found references to “first sleep”. On investigation he found that these people were indeed sleeping in two distinct, bi-modal, patterns. This was natural sleep, unaffected by electricity and all the distractions it brings of lights, computers, TV’s etc.

REM & Non REM Sleep

During sleep we cycle between REM and Non REM states.

REM: The REM State typically starts 90 minutes after you’ve gone to sleep. Heart rate and breathing speed up and your eyes start to move rapidly – hence the name Rapid Eye Movement. The brain is highly active during this phase. Busy dreaming. Humans are born dreaming. The typical newborn dreams for about 10 hours a day. Whilst your brain is busy dreaming and processing information and storing memories from the day, your muscles are very relaxed or in some cases paralysed.

Non REM: During the deep state of Non REM sleep the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.

Whats the problem with not sleeping enough

Its not necessarily the quantity of sleep but also the quality that matters. Research has shown that any deep sleep, be that 8 hours of block sleep or a 30 minute nap enables our brains to function better. The increased function can manifest as improved creativity, intelligence and memory.

On the other hand poor sleep can lead to:

  • Weight Gain: The effects of insomnia on weight gain are two fold: 1. Your metabolism slows down. 2. Increased feelings of sleepiness may predispose you to poor diet choices – reaching for high glucose foods to give you an instant energy boost.
  • Compromised Immunity: When you don’t get enough sleep your immune system is compromised. It doesn’t release enough protective proteins, meaning your less able to fight invading viruses and also recover once you’re ill.
  • Depression: Depression can be directly caused from not enough sleep. Equally the pressure to “sleep well” can also induce a type of sleep anxiety also harmful to your health.

Some Tips To Help Banish Insomnia

Whilst waking through the night is normal. Skipping 2 hours of precious shut eye is not very useful when you’re staring down the barrel of a 10 hour shift at work. So how can you improve on your sleep?

1. Exercise

Regular moderate exercise can help you fall asleep faster and deeper. Be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime as the rush of feel-good endorphins flooding your body isn’t likely to pre-dispose you to sleepiness.

2. Nap

Limit daytime napping if possible to under 30 minutes. If you’ve had a terrible nights sleep and aren’t functioning well a nap may be just what you need to feel refreshed again.

3. Manage Stress

Being overloaded isn’t going to help you sleep. Try to set some time aside in your day to just be. Go for a walk, do some tai chi, sit on a bench. Write lists out and delegate tasks to remove some stress from your life. Stress is insidious and not only wreaks havoc on your sleep but also your health.

  • Acupuncture stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and can help alleviate stress by balancing the sympathetic nervous systems “fight or flight” mechanism that puts us in a state of anxiety.

4. Relax

Try not to be on your computer or laptop up until the moment your head hits the pillow. Try to enforce a no laptop and no TV rule after 9pm. There is an argument that the artificial bright lights flooding into your eyes isn’t conducive to sleep.

5. Eat Early

You want your body to be in as relaxed state as possible before you go to bed. This means not only giving your eyes and brain a break but also giving your stomach and intestines a rest. Eating late will test your digestive system and is unlikely to lead to a restful sleep so try to eat before 6pm if possible.

6. Eliminate Alcohol

While alcohol can help you fall into a slumber it also can lead to frequent wakings through the night. Needless to say don’t drink caffeinated drinks before you go to bed and be aware that caffeine can stay in your system for up to 24 hours.

If you’re still having problems sleeping and have tried all the techniques above, it may be time to bring out the big guns…

7. Go Back To Pre-Industrial Times

This is extreme, but anecdotal experiments on keeping all lights off in the house permanently have vastly improved subjects sleeping patterns (and lowered their electricity bills…). Try keeping all lights off for a week. That also means the laptop, TV, iPad and phone all need to disappear after dark as well.

8. Make Yourself As Uncomfortable As Possible

A bit counter-intuitive this one. If you find yourself awake at night unable to sleep. Get out of bed immediately. Don’t reward yourself with TV and cookies. Instead you have to let your brain know that getting up in the middle of night is not a good thing.

Pick up the most tedious book you can lay your hands on. Find the draughtiest part of your house and start reading the book… standing up. The idea behind this is that you aren’t sub consciously rewarding yourself for waking up. You’re punishing yourself. What you’re doing is both uncomfortable and boring and you will likely find that you get pretty tired pretty quickly.

9. Get back to nature.

Why not try camping. The constant barrage of light from computer screens, tablets, TV’s and… lights can interfere with your circadian rhythm (simply put – the rhythm that tells you to sleep when its dark and wake when its light). Camping forces you to live by these rythms more. If you’re going to do this try and leave your phone, ipad etc at home or in your car.

10. Don’t Lie In.

Apart from messing with your sleep routine lying in has been linked to chronic fatigue, increased irritability and even increased risk of heart disease. If you lie in at the weekend in an attempt to win back hours lost during the week this can cause particular problems in the form of social jetlag. This is a term coined by Dr Till Roenneberg, professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Munich.

…And Don’t Do This…

If all else fails it can be tempting to reach for sleeping pills (hypnotics) when you can’t sleep. In small doses, to get you through a purple patch, they can be very useful. Don’t get into the trap of taking them long term though.

It’s not only me who thinks this, the Joint Formulary Committee 2009 warns that hypnotics should only be used in acute cases and limited to a short course of therapy. Despite this about 10 million prescriptions for hypnotics are dispensed every year in England (PCA 2007). Remaining on these tablets for long periods of time presents hazards for patients, including risk of dependence, accidents and other adverse effects on health.

Key Points

  • If you’re suffering poor sleeping patterns or feeling un-rested in the morning try keeping all the lights off for a week and see how you feel.
  • Can’t get enough sleep – try cat napping through the day. Try not to exceed 30 minutes though as you go “too deep” and can feel fatigued on waking.
  • If you’re feeling stressed and tense trying to get to sleep – try acupuncture.