Let’s say you grow up in a family of champion sleepers, yourself included. At college, you sail through rowdy dormitory life sleeping like a log. Job interviews, stressful to some, don’t faze you. By 27, you’ve landed a good job and in a few years earned enough for a down payment on a house. Sleep is still dependable and stays that way for a decade.
Then, coinciding with a move and the birth of a second child, you find yourself wide awake at your normal bedtime, staring at walls. Soon this becomes the rule rather than the exception. Before you know it you’ve developed chronic insomnia. How can sleep go from good to bad so quickly?
Can chronic insomnia make you less attractive? speed up the aging of skin? cause irreversible damage to your face?
I heard these concerns as I interviewed insomniacs for my book. But recently I decided to check into them after receiving an email from a woman whose anxiety about her appearance was extreme:
Rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) is when most dreams occur. Episodes of REM sleep also help defuse negative emotions and improve the learning of motor skills.
Until recently, insomnia wasn’t thought to be a problem of REM sleep. Insomnia, the thinking went, was caused mainly by phenomena occurring—or failing to occur—during quiet, or non-REM, sleep: insufficient deep sleep, for example, or wake-like activity occurring in other stages of non-REM sleep, resulting in insufficient or poor sleep.
In the past few years, though, REM sleep has become a suspect in the quest to identify what causes people to wake up frequently in the middle of the night and too early in the morning. (This type of insomnia is called sleep maintenance insomnia). Here’s more about this intriguing proposition.
Psychophysiologic insomnia: This was my diagnosis when I finally decided to see a doctor about my sleep. I didn’t like the sound of it. “Psycho” came before “physiologic,” and to me the implication was that my trouble sleeping was mostly in my head.
My insomnia felt physical, accompanied as it was by bodily warmth, muscle tension, and a jittery feeling inside. I was anxious about sleep, too, and my thoughts weren’t exactly upbeat. But surely putting the psycho before the physiologic was putting the cart before the horse?
Ever notice that on some days you’ve got better impulse control than on others? I see this when it comes to my resolve to avoid certain foods.
Sometimes my reserves of willpower feel abundant. That last piece of chocolate cake? Save it for the husband. Other times I turn into a slavering Homer Simpson. The cake is so enticing that in a red-hot minute it’s down the hatch.
A new review article by researchers from Clemson University suggests that not just impulsive eating but a lack self-control in general may be attributable to poor sleep habits and poor sleep. This claim will resonate with many insomnia sufferers, so here’s a summary of the authors’ key points.
It used to be that the only predictable thing about my insomnia was that it occurred at times of high drama. Anticipation of a trip to the Canary Islands? Nothing like a little excitement to keep me awake at night. Difficulties with a colleague at work? Stress, too, was a set-up for trouble sleeping. Whenever my life got the least bit interesting or challenging, sleep went south.
But sleep is easier to manage now that I’m able to see more patterns in my insomnia and the insomnia of others.
People usually think of insomnia as a problem of the night, but it’s more than that. Poor sleep puts a damper on the day and affects our performance on the job.
This week is Sleep Awareness Week. To call attention to the fact that the effects of chronic insomnia are 24/7, I’m posting my final book trailer, where I discuss the daytime symptoms of insomnia and offer a few tips for coping after bad nights.