Dr Tom: Sleep problems - has your bedtime become a nightmare?
It seems a bit pointless writing an article on how important sleep is to us humans. It's a bit like writing an article on how important breathing or the sun is to our survival. Having said that, it's likely that one in three people reading this article has some sort of sleep disorder, which can range from irritating, to irrational and downright dangerous. It's almost like we normalise poor sleep as acceptable.
I'm often asked as a doctor how to fix sleep problems. It's not an easy topic or an easy cure. It largely depends on what is causing your sleep disorder. There are physical, mental, environmental and social triggers that can disrupt the delicate balance of getting a good night's kip and waking refreshed and ready to take on what the day throws at us.
One of the more common causes is BMS, or Busy Mind Syndrome. It's hard to switch off the hard-drive when the mind is busy planning, worrying, analysing, checking and loading updates while you are supposed to be asleep. Raised cortisol levels prevent us from getting into the deep sleep cycle and we are easily roused.
Raised cortisol can blend into the anxiety and depression states just like the myriad coffee blends that ramp up our hard drive and the neurotransmitters that jangle our senses and sensibility in the wee hours.
Light pollution, poor sleep hygiene (bad habits, not odours) breathing problems like OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnoea), parasomnias like sleep walking plus a plethora of pain syndromes add to the mix of sleep disorders that can deprive of us of what we need to stay safe and sane.
Drugs and alcohol add fuel to the flames while sleeping tablets are mostly addictive and usually cause more problems than they are worth. The key message I have is: Get your sleep problems sorted early and properly.
To treat your sleep problem you need to work out what the cause is. If it's Busy Mind Syndrome then relaxation techniques may help if you can slow your mind down to the speed it requires to shut down and stay down for a good six to eight hours. If it's a physical problem, such as snoring and sleep apnoea, then seeing a sleep specialist is important. Being tired and grumpy during the day is no good for anyone, and falling asleep at the wheel could signal the "big sleep" – and never waking up to see the carnage you may have caused.
One sleep solution may work for some but not others so it's important to keep trying until you get a solution. The aim is to wake refreshed and looking forward to the day. It's good to look forward to a decent sleep, a comfortable bed and environment, We shouldn't fear our slumber and let anxiety fuel our wakefulness. It's all about a state of deep relaxation so you can back up your hard drive, cement some memories, and dream great dreams. Going to bed shouldn't be a nightmare.
Taking naps during the day may help fatigue but may contribute to your poor sleep cycle as can exercising at night. The body's hormones need a rhythm that is often challenged by our increasing busy lives.
If you are to "seize the day" then it's important to claim the night as your own. It's one of the most important foundations of feeling well and good.
Dr Tom Mulholland is an Emergency Department doctor and GP with more than 25 years' experience in New Zealand. He's currently on a mission, tackling health missions around the world.