Good Nights, Bad Nights

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time. “I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea.

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time.

“I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea. A long-time insomnia sufferer, Mary appreciates the good days in part because they’re rare, coming maybe one in 10. Yet when they occur, her productivity as a poet soars. The ideas are fresher and flow faster. The right word, elusive on a bad day, comes quickly. “It just feels wonderful,” she said.

Waking up stressed

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

At my house they’re pretty grim. Awakening begins with a jumble of thoughts nattering away inside my head. It’s as if my brain never fully disengaged, so much does it seem to be stuck where it left off the night before. Half a dozen aches and pains clamor for attention, too: throbbing forehead, dry eyes, aching arms and shoulders, and a racing sensation in my stomach and chest. Thinking about the day ahead is overwhelming. I feel spent before the day even begins.

Is There a Pattern?

I’ve known all my life that these bad nights occur more often during times of stress. Beyond that, it never occurred to me to wonder if there was a pattern to the good nights and the bad.

Researchers in recent years have wondered just that: is there a predictable rhythm to insomniacs’ poor sleep? Their findings may be helpful to people with sleep problems.

  • Annie Vallieres and colleagues (Journal of Sleep Research, 2005) looked at the sleep diaries of over 100 insomniacs and found there was a predictable pattern of good and bad nights for about two-thirds of the subjects. The majority of them could count on a good night’s sleep after 1 to 3 bad nights. It could be reassuring to know that a better night’s sleep is just a day or two away, the authors write. Predictability of good and bad nights might alleviate some of the anxiety associated with poor sleep.
  • Cindy Swinkels, reporting in 2010 on a study she conducted for her PhD thesis, found that insomniacs can expect a “better-than-average” night’s sleep within 3 days. But “good” sleep may come only 1 night in 6.

What’s the take-home message here? One thing the research suggests is that people who worry about their sleep would do well to keep sleep diaries for a few weeks. If you find you sleep better after 1 or 2 days of bad sleep, recognizing this pattern could ease some of the worry, which may improve your sleep. Download and keep this two-week sleep diary recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to see if there’s a pattern to your bad nights.

But there’s nothing reassuring about having to slog through 5 nights of bad sleep to get to a good night. If this is your situation (or if your situation is worse, like Mary’s), then it’s time to look for help.

Short Sleep Affects Personality

Short sleep—sometimes defined as sleeping less than 6 hours a night, and other times defined as sleeping less than 5—is associated with a higher risk of hypertension, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, investigators at Penn State Hershey have said. Some research has even shown there’s a link between short sleep and increased mortality.

Now a new study finds that short sleep also has effects on personality.

short-sleepShort sleepers get short-changed in more ways than one. Short sleep—sometimes defined as sleeping less than 6 hours a night, and other times defined as sleeping less than 5—is also associated with a higher risk of hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes, investigators at Penn State Hershey have said. Some research has even shown there’s a link between short sleep and increased mortality.

A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine finds that short sleep also has effects on personality. European investigators Sakari Lemola and colleagues, after evaluating medical data on about 1,800 Americans aged 30 to 84, concluded that people who sleep less than 6 hours a night are less optimistic than people who sleep 7 to 8 hours a night, and that short sleepers have lower self-esteem.

Pessimism and low self-esteem are also characteristic of depression. But even when the researchers controlled for symptoms of depression, the relationship between short sleep and decreased optimism and self-esteem held up.

The Upshot

This study supports a growing awareness that the amount of sleep people get can affect their sense of well-being. And it adds to the body of research suggesting that short sleep is linked to poorer health. “Longitudinal studies indicate that optimism and self-esteem are predictors of better health rather than just consequences,” the authors write.

One limitation of the current study is that, unlike the protocol followed at Penn State Hershey, short sleep was assessed subjectively rather than being objectively validated in a sleep lab. And a major caveat in all the short-sleep studies is that none of them allow for assumptions about causality. Whether short sleep actually leads to lower optimism, lower self-esteem and poorer health or vice versa is not known.

Still, it gets harder and harder for anyone to say that people who consistently experience short nights should just buck up and bear them. If there’s any silver lining to the cloud, this is it.