Many people experience sleep problems. For some, this is a sporadic occurrence while others struggle with this problem nightly.  It does not take much to develop poor sleep habits, but it takes work to unlearn these habits and improve your sleep.  However, before you can fix your sleep, you need to understand how sleep works.

There are three components to sleep that people need to be aware of.  Two are “sleep forces” and one is a “wakeful force.” The first sleep force is Sleep Drive.  From the moment you wake up, you begin to build sleep drive, which will make you fall asleep the following night. Thus, the longer you are awake, the more sleep drive you build.  This is why several things that people do to “make up sleep” after a bad night do more harm than good:

  1. Going to bed early : This means you had less time during the day to build sleep drive.
  2. Sleeping in: This also leaves less time to build sleep drive for the following night.
  3. Taking a nap: Once you fall asleep, all of you sleep drive is released, and after you wake up, there will not be enough hours for you to adequately build sleep drive.
  4. Resting all day: The more active you are, the more sleep drive you build. Taking it easy all day will lead to weaker sleep drive.

The other sleep force is Biological Clock.  This is the mechanism that dictates your body’s optimal time to be awake and asleep.  You can help your Biological Clock by setting and sticking to a consistent routine.  Preferably, this routine corresponds to your ideal time to be asleep.  Going to bed and waking up at the same time helps teach your body when it should be asleep and when you should be awake.  To illustrate how important this is, know that moving your regular sleep time by two hours is equivalent to jetlag, and you should expect to experience the symptoms associated with jetlag.

Nevertheless, your body’s sleep systems can be overridden by the “wakeful force,” which is your Arousal System.  Have you ever been very sleepy while driving, but were able to keep yourself awake? Can you imagine being able to stay awake had you been sitting on the couch watching television instead of driving?  This system allows you to stay awake despite sleepiness when there is an emergency.  However, if this system is disrupted, it can interfere with sleep on a regular basis.  Thus, when trying to fall asleep, it is not only about taking care not to intervene with the sleep forces, but you also need to turn off the arousal system.  The two main ways that arousal is activated is:

  • Conditioned Arousal: Ever experience being so sleepy you cannot keep your eyes open, but the moment you get into bed, you are wide awake? This happens when you spend a lot of time in bed being unable to sleep or do wakeful activities in bed, like working or watching TV.  To turn off this arousal when going to bed, you need to break this association by teaching your body that the bed is for sleep only.
  • Cognitive Arousal: Ever get into bed and the only thing that you can think of is how are you ever going to be able to fall asleep and what you need to do to make yourself sleep? If this happens, try engaging in relaxation exercises to still your mind.  If you cannot, get out of bed, so that you can have these thoughts somewhere else and stop associating them with being in bed.

Understanding how sleep works prepares you for more targeted sleep interventions, which we will tackle next week!  Stay tuned!

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