By Dr. Mara Karpel
“Sleep is the best meditation.” ~ Dalai Lama
Have you ever had any periods in your life when you were persistently unable to get a good night of sleep? If so, you’re certainly not alone! I’ve had my share of sleepless nights at times. Maybe you’re dealing with this very issue right now. How do you feel when you haven’t been able to sleep? Usually, if I haven’t had enough sleep, especially for an extended period of time, I’m more likely to feel stressed out, even over small inconveniences. I have trouble thinking clearly or solving problems, and everything in my body aches. I also feel uncoordinated and am more likely to trip or stub my toe. If this difficulty with sleep persists, I am more prone to catching a cold.
Insufficient Sleep – Public Health Epidemic
Many of the clients that I see have chronic sleep problems, making it difficult for them to work on the other emotional issues that they might have come to talk to me about in the first place. In fact, one of the most common problems that I hear about from clients, friends, and family is that of having episodes when they’re unable to get enough sleep.
Recently, the Center for Disease Control (the CDC) has declared insufficient sleep as a public health epidemic in the U.S. Lack of sufficient sleep has been linked to a higher risk for chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, as well as emotional conditions, such as depression. It’s been found to decrease productivity and quality of life and to actually be the reason for a shorter life span. A few years ago, the CDC and the National Center on Sleep Disorders began to collaborate in studying the U.S. population’s sleep patterns. They found an estimated 50-70 million U.S. adults reporting sleep or wakefulness disorders. In addition, drowsy driving has been found by the National Department of Transportation to be responsible for approximately 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries every year in the U.S.
Getting Enough Restful Sleep is Important for Physical and Emotional Health
Getting enough restful sleep is an extremely important factor for physical and emotional health, no matter your age. Sleep is critical for good concentration, memory, and disease prevention, as sleep helps to repair any cell damage that has occurred while awake. It’s necessary for keeping the immune system intact. As we age, getting enough restful sleep is even more important. For older adults, the health, cognitive, and emotional risks of poor sleep are magnified, adding to that the higher risk of falling––with all sorts of dire consequences for an older person, such as the breaking of a hip.
Optimum Quantity and Quality of Sleep
The optimum amount of sleep needed for us to function at our best is different for every person, although, on average, it appears to be 7½ to 9 hours per night. More important than the actual number of hours you’ve slept, though, is how you feel after a night of sleep. If you wake up feeling tired or you feel sleepy during the day, it’s very likely that you haven’t had enough “good sleep.”
In order for all of that good stuff to happen while we sleep––the regeneration of cells, the strengthening of our immune system, the feeling of being rested, the sharpening of our brains, the boosting of our mood, and so on––we need to have approximately 4-6 complete cycles of sleep during the night. A complete cycle of sleep consists of having what’s called REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, when we dream, and four stages of non-REM sleep or N-REM sleep. Typically, when we fall asleep, our brain goes into the four stages of the N-REM sleep, each lasting for anywhere from 5-15 minutes. These stages are:
- Stage 1: a very light sleep, when we are just falling asleep
- Stage 2: still a light sleep, when our body prepares for deeper sleep
- Stages 3 and 4: deeper levels of sleep, with stage 4 being the deepest level of sleep.
These are followed by a brief period of REM sleep.
The older we get, the more likely we are to sleep less deeply and to have more fragmented sleep, with more frequent awakening during the night. Therefore, as we age, we may need to spend more time in bed in order to obtain the needed hours of sleep we need. Or a nap during the day may be needed to make up for the lost time during the night.
Common Causes for Not Getting Enough Good Sleep:
- Anxiety or sadness can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. This in turn can lead to increased anxiety and/or to a more serious depression.
- Poor habits, such as keeping erratic hours for going to sleep.
- Drinking alcohol before going to sleep. (Read the section on Alcohol and Sleep, in my blog from last week, “Alcohol: The Good, Bad, & Ugly.”)
- Physical pain often can interfere with sleep. (See my blog, “Mindfulness Meditation to Break the Pain Cycle.”)
- Medications can often be the culprit for not getting a good night of sleep. This is especially true for older adults. If you’re taking medication and you’re having trouble sleeping, check with your doctor to see if this is a side-effect of your medication. If so, see if it’s possible to replace it with a different medication that may not have that side effect. This isn’t always possible, in which case use some of the other tips given here to compensate for the effects of the medication.
- Lack of exercise can increase the risk for poor sleep. Obviously, the antidote to that is to exercise regularly. The recommendation is to do some aerobic exercise during the day, but at least three hours prior to sleep, as exercising too close to bedtime can be another cause for difficulty falling asleep.
- Caffeine too late in the day will often interfere with sleep. (See the section, Coffee May Be the Cause of Your Anxiety, in my blog, “I Love Coffee,” for more on this.)
- Organic disorders, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea, may be culprits. These disorders tend to occur more frequently in older adults, although they do also occur in younger adults, and they should be treated.
Next week, I’ll share some tips on “How to Get Better Sleep.”
[For more information, and interviews with expert guests, be sure to join me LIVE every Sunday, 5-7pm CT/6-8pm ET for “Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years.” Join the conversation by calling in, e-mailing, or tweeting, or you can listen any time on podcast.]