The Sleep Challenge

Hoping to find some answers to my on again, off again challenge of a good night’s sleep, my busy February included a two hour presentation by Clemson University Professor June Pilcher on catching some zzz’s. When I worked, getting a good night’s sleep was rarely a problem. Most nights regardless of a bad day or what I may face the next morning, I was able to sleep through the night awakening refreshed. According to Professor Pilcher’s insights, when I left the traditional working world behind, I unwittingly set myself up for sleepless nights.

I’m retired, right? My decades old regimen of going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking at 5:30 a.m. is no longer necessary. I can sleep in if I want. I can stay up late or go to bed early. Everyday is Saturday. Wrong! By giving up my routine, I confused my brain.

When it comes to sleep our brains apparently like a set pattern right down to the very minute. They like us to have a going to bed ritual signaling them to get ready to sleep.  When it comes to sleep, our brains are creatures of habit.  For me, then, the most important advice from Professor Pilcher was going to bed at the same time every night and rising at the same time every morning, just like I did when I worked. Train the brain and you should have a better night’s sleep.

In fact, I learned my 7-1/2 hour sleep from my working years was perfect as it’s divisible by 90 minutes. We go through the five stages of sleep every 90 minutes cycling into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the last and most important stage, throughout the night. Getting REM sleep is imperative for waking feeling rested. Curiously, REM sleep is also of short duration the first 90 minutes of the night — as little as 5 minutes. It becomes progressively longer and longer with each 90 minute cycle up to 45 minutes by the last cycle.

Should you wake during REM sleep as with an alarm clock or a pet needing attention, it’s known as ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’. You will be off to a grumpy start to the day. It seems our bodies and brains know we need REM. Disrupting it irritates us on some primal level.

During REM sleep our body becomes limp like a rag doll. However, our brain remains active. We dream. Our brain races through some pretty weird stuff at times, little of which we remember upon awakening. Apparently, there are hundreds of books written on the hidden meaning of dreams. However, sleep researchers doubt there is any meaning to our dreams. They believe it is simply a matter of the brain remaining awake and uncontrolled while our bodies descend into our deepest sleep.

There is also a ‘switch’, as Dr. Pilcher referred to it, in our brains, which turns the body into the limp rag doll at the beginning of REM sleep and turns the body back on at the end. Then, we cycle once more through the first four stages of sleep before entering REM sleep again. When people die in their sleep, they were most likely in REM sleep and the ‘switch’ malfunctioned.

Dr. Pilcher also advised against using sleep aids as they disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, but (disclaimer) mentioned seeing your physician about that. We had a couple of people in the room who are addicted to sleep aids. Another good reason to stick with a natural approach.

In order to train your brain, you may need to go a few days with a sleep deficit. For example, if you go to bed at 11 but wake up during the night, instead of sleeping in the next morning, force yourself to get up at your appointed time for rising. And no afternoon naps! The next night you will, of course, be more tired. Naturally, you should be more apt to sleep better.

If sleep is interrupted and you can’t go back to sleep within 30 minutes, get up. However, no ‘blue’ lights. No TV, computer, cell phone or anything else well lit. Dr. Pilcher advises read a book — the more boring, the better. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed.

I’ve been working on training my brain by going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time. It seems to be garnering positive results. We’ll see if it continues to give me a good night’s sleep or it’s another case of on again, off again.

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11 comments on “The Sleep Challenge

  1. Several years ago when I was working weird and unpredictable hours I began using a sleep mask. It’s amazing how my sleep quality improved. Now I’m retired I continue the practice. You might take a few nights to grow accustom to a mask but give it a try.

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    • I’ve heard that a sleep mask helps as it blocks out all light. In our modern world light is something that’s hard to get away from. I doubt our ancestors had the sleep issues we have because they had no digital clocks, alarm panels, smoke detectors or outside lights shining in the night.

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  2. Hi Kathy
    During my work years I was addicted to the sleep medication, Ambien. This was over the course of about 10 years. Not surprisingly, my addiction did not go away just because I wasn’t working. I was able to cut down the dosage, but could never quite stop myself from reaching for that little sliver of a pill just before turning off the light. I have kept everything else the same, as I am a total creature of habit. Same go to sleep time, same wake up time (well, maybe a little later!). I just happened to mention my sleep issues to my Naturopath a few months ago. She suggested a 5-HTP supplement before bed, along with Magnesium. Guess what? No more Ambien, and I’m sleeping as well as dreaming! I haven’t had dreams the whole time I was on Ambien. I’m happy to have them back! But each of us is different. Good luck to you. Thanks for the post.
    Deanna

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    • Thanks to you and Cindy on the mention of magnesium. I’ll check that out. It may help me. I’m also glad to hear you are off the Ambien. I knew someone many years ago who became addicted to it after an accident. At the time I had been in a terrible car accident myself and my doctor prescribed it to help me sleep. When this woman told me her story, I immediately stopped taking it. Ambien is not supposed to be used for more than 2 weeks because it is addictive.

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  3. Did the doctor also mention the fact that our bodies sleep differently as we age? I’m still working, I still go to bed by 9:30 and up by 5 a.m., but I wake up several times during the night. I get much less non-interrupted sleep than I did when in my 30s and 40s. Many believe that hormones (or the lack of them) are one reason.
    Lastly, I really enjoyed this post. But I don’t agree that dreams mean nothing. I think research has proven that we can get answers to perplexing problems through our dreams, many writers wake up with the plot to their book, and others find that dreams sometimes help them see the future (or remember something from the past). I’m definitely a believer in the power of dreams! 🙂

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    • Yes, Doctor Pilcher did mention that our sleep needs can change with aging…specifically that we may need less sleep. For example, instead of 7-1/2 hours, we may only need 6 hours. When it comes to dreams, I always think of Edison who often took naps. He would then wake up with the answer to a problem he was having with an invention. Is there a difference between dreams and the brain problem-solving during sleep? I recently read that new research suggests the brain is ‘cleaning’ itself during REM sleep such as a computer re-aligns data. Despite the research, there’s still a lot we don’t know.

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  4. I’ve found my brain racing with what-if scenarios and/or creating to-do lists in the middle of the night. Writing them down helps me put them aside and go back to sleep. Yes, I do that without turning on the light and there’s an 70% chance I can read it in the morning. 🙂

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    • Pat thank you for reminding me of another of Dr. Pilcher’s recommendations. She advised doing exactly what you do as writing it down apparently causes our brains to let it go and get back to sleep. Congratulations on being able to write legibly in the dark! 😊

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