Are you waking up feeling tired? Do you need constant doses of caffeine to get you through the day?
If the answer to one the two questions is YES, then you might have a sleeping problem that you don't know about.
And these problems can take as much of a toll on your health as insomnia. Knowing what I know about sleep, I would take insomnia any day before any of these subtle, low-paced problems that might be robbing of your health for years.
Simply because with insomnia you know you have a problem, you can tackle it head-on and look for a solution. The other sleeping problems I'll be talking about here can be compared to being an alcoholic who's getting drunk during the night against their own will and waking up completely unaware of it.
The problems are:
1. Sleep Phases Imbalance
2. Sleep Apnea
Sleep Phases Imbalance
Waking up 7 or 8 hours after you go to sleep is not enough. If you listen to your body and it's telling you that it's not fully recovered, if you feel nervous, if you have mood swings and need "buckets" of coffee pumped into your bloodstream before you can start your day, then something is wrong. You can bet your house on it.
Why do we sleep in the first place?
Such a basic question and yet, most of us would give a vague answer implying that we don't fully understand what happens while we sleep. You might say something like:" To recover my body", or:" Because I'm tired". In a sense, both of these answers are correct, but they don't really explain what really goes on in those 7 or 8 hours.
To fully understand where the problem might be, we have to understand that sleep is not just an unconscious chunk of our day. Quality sleep goes way beyond that - it's an equilibrium of phases of the recovery of our body and that of our brain.
The Sleep Phases
Let's take a minute here and look at the basic sleep phases:
You can divide sleep into two basic parts: quiet sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
During the quiet sleep, the brain is tranquil while the body is active. This is the part of sleep when all the damage in our body is being repaired. The pituitary gland releases growth hormones into the bloodstream that rebuild damaged tissue and reestablish the right order in our immune system. I am omitting any technical talk intentionally here, just because I don't want to confuse you, the reader. I just want to focus on the basics we need to know to recognize a problem if we have one. To get to deep sleep where all the "magic" happens we have to get through 3 phases:
1. Relaxed Wakefulness - you are relaxing and your brain is preparing your body for sleep.
2. Theta Waves Sleeping - your body is relaxed, your body temperature drops, your eyes move slowly side to side. Normally this lasts for about 5 minutes.
3. After the Theta Sleep, the sleep transits into a phase which is characterized by what is called spindles and K-complexes, which are, in plain terms, short bursts of brain activity that keeps the sleeper in a state where they could still be easily awoken. A healthy sleeper will spend about half of the sleeping time in this phase.
This brings us to the stage of deep sleep. Deep sleep is when most of the repairing in the body takes place. The brain is barely active, your breathing and heart rate slows down. This is where the whole story above comes together - if you are feeling sleepy during the day, or if you are a caffeine "junkie" there are high chances you are not getting enough of deep sleep.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleeping
REM phase of our sleep is completely different than the deep sleep. In this phase, the body remains still and the brain runs in full gear. This is when we dream. Much like the body repairs itself in deep sleep, the brain repairs itself during REM by getting rid of all the clutter of unnecessary information it receives during the day. I like to say that REM is like brain going to the toilette.
The takeaway - for healthy nourishing sleep, you need just the right balance between the deep sleep and the REM phase.
I know this from experience. After getting a sleep monitor and keeping track of my sleep patterns for about a month, I concluded that my problems stem from the fact that I was not getting enough of deep sleep. And when you know you have a problem, you can start addressing it. I personally found my solution after a period of experimenting with various mattresses, air mattresses, pillows and relaxation techniques.
Long story short, I kept track of what the sleep monitor tells me and saw that I slept best when:
* all the stimuli is removed - I used to believe that the dimmed light from my Himalayan salt lamp and soft sleeping music helps me, but when I monitored my sleep I saw that I sleep best in complete dark and silence
* I found just the right bed - to my surprise, it was an air mattress with adjustable firmness
* I found just the right pillow - it was a gel-filled pillow
I know it sounds like much ado about sleeping, but take a moment here and think about the fact we spend third of our lives sleeping and the rest of our day is largely influenced by the quality of our sleep. What could be more important?
Dealing with sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a common disorder characterized by breathing pauses that disrupt your sleep patterns. These pauses can last for up to a minute and can happen multiple times during the night. Normally, breathing restarts with a loud snort. The problem is that you can't be diagnosed with sleep apnea during your regular doctor visit.
But what is apnea?
Apnea is nothing but the airways in our throat closing for briefs periods of time. If they don't close completely, you snore, and if they do, you stop breathing for short periods of time. In the vast majority of cases sleep apnea is caused by muscle malfunctions in the throat. It can also be caused by the brain not sending the right signals to the throat area - this is known as central apnea and is less common. Apnea increases the risk of heart problems, strokes and diabetes. It's a chronic condition that can be treated through lifestyle changes, sleeping masks and even surgery.
Sleeping masks for apnea
Mild apnea can be resolved through lifestyle changes like losing weight, and extreme cases call for surgery. Most cases, however, fall in the middle and a lot of people with apnea that's serious enough to endanger their health, try a mouthpiece or a sleeping mask. What a sleeping mask does is supply a constant positive air pressure in your airways so that they don't collapse or close.
A short resume
What you might take away from this short analysis of our sleep patterns and potential problems is not to dismiss your sleeping problems as we tend to do nowadays and say it's all just stress of our fast-paced lives. Whatever the reason is behind it, if you know you have a problem and you can measure it, you can do something about it.
Otherwise, it's downward spiral - your stress leads to sleeping problems, lack of sleep causes more stress that we try to drown in food, sodas and coffee, and before you know it, you need 5 cups of coffee to get you through the day.
This "I'll deal with it later" approach never works. Sleeping problems call for a calm, structured approach and a well crafted plan for solving them. There's just no other way.
Take care and sleep tight.
James Menta (BestAirMattressGuide.com)