Early Bedtime a Setup for Insomnia

Talk of earlier bedtimes for teens calls to mind my own experiences with an early bedtime, which didn’t work out so well. Rather than helping me get more sleep, it set me up to become a card-carrying insomniac. Let me explain.

reading-in-bedTalk of earlier bedtimes for teens calls to mind my own experiences with an early bedtime, which didn’t work out so well. Rather than helping me get more sleep, it set me up to become a card-carrying insomniac. Let me explain.

By age 12 or 13, I didn’t need as much sleep as my younger sister, but my parents insisted on a 10:30 bedtime for both of us. So dutifully I crawled under the covers. But I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. Bedtime was when my evening program began. These were the main activities:

  • Reading. Mom’s or Dad’s retreating footsteps was the all-clear signal that meant I could turn on the wall lamp beside my bed and grab a book from my bedside table. Nancy Drew gave way over the years to biographies and books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.
  • Reviewing the day to try to make sense of experiences I had trouble understanding.
  • Planning tricks to play on my sister. The two of us went through a phase where the aim was to scare the other, for a laugh.

Eventually I fell asleep.

A Different Bedtime Story

If my nights awake in bed don’t sound disagreeable, they weren’t. Until I went to college. Then, the reading and thinking I did in bed gave way to another bedtime program that wasn’t nearly so nice:

  • Cramming for tests with books and notes strewn over the bed.
  • Stressing out over piano performances I wasn’t quite prepared for.
  • Mentally rehashing arguments with my roommate.

These were the years in which sleep got harder and harder. And trying to sleep only made things worse.

Insomnia: A Theory

Engaging in non-sleep activities in bed is a contributing factor in insomnia, the experts say. If you read, study, watch TV or do work in bed, so the thinking goes, you come to associate the bed with wakefulness rather than sleep.

Count me as a true believer. Getting in bed when you’re wide awake leads to doing things and to rumination. If you’re prone to insomnia, this is a set-up for lousy nights. In my case, a pattern set in motion by to a too-early bedtime doubtless made my sleep problem worse.

In the future, scientists may establish evidence-based guidelines for the amount of sleep kids need, but the idea of setting sleep norms makes me nervous. When it comes how much sleep we need, we’re all different, and that includes kids. There’s no magic number of hours all kids need to function best.

A Flexible Approach

Parents should be the arbiters of the right bedtime for young children, who have no clue that their crankiness has anything to do with lack of sleep. But at some point in their growing up, maybe adolescence, parents should tune in to their kids’ natural sleep proclivities and adjust their bedtime accordingly. Yes, help them choose appropriate wind-down activities in the hour leading up to bedtime: a shower in the evening rather than the morning, a book rather than Facebook. Yet keep those wind-down activities away from the bed.

Only when the yawning and drooping eyelids begin is it time, finally, to slip under the covers and turn the lights out.

What bedtime habits did you have during childhood, and were they conducive to sleep or not?

 

 

Sounder Sleep with Regular Exercise

For several years, I jogged, rode a bicycle or worked out at a gym three days a week. This physical activity was both a duty and a pleasure. It kept me healthy, and often it made me feel good. But it didn’t seem to affect my sleep one way or the other.

A new survey suggests that exercise generally tends to improve sleep.

Exercise-and-sleepFor several years, I jogged, rode a bicycle or worked out at a gym three days a week. This physical activity was both a duty and a pleasure. It kept me healthy, and often it made me feel good. But it didn’t seem to affect my sleep one way or the other.

A new survey suggests that exercise generally tends to improve sleep. Data from the National Sleep Foundation 2013 poll released on Monday show that

  • Exercise correlates with better sleep quality. About 83 percent of the survey respondents who got vigorous exercise reported their sleep quality to be “very good” or “fairly good,” as well as 76 to 77 percent of the respondents whose exercise was light to moderate. Only 56 percent of the non-exercisers reported good sleep quality.
  • Exercise helps you fall asleep faster. Non-exercisers reported taking nearly twice as long to get to sleep as those who exercised vigorously.
  • Exercise cuts down on feelings of sleepiness during the day. Nearly twice as many non-exercisers (24 percent) as exercisers (12 to 15 percent) experienced excessive daytime sleepiness.

Walking the Walk

Everyone knows we should get more exercise (just like we should eat more fruit and vegetables and pass on dessert). But finding the motivation to actually do the exercise is another matter. It can also be hard to find the time. After a day’s work, fixing dinner, playing with Junior and then getting him to bed, when can you fit it in?

The motivation issue can be tough to contend with, especially if you’re not convinced there’s a relationship between physical activity and your sleep, which is how I felt.

Keeping a Sleep Diary

Then about five years ago a sleep therapist suggested keeping a sleep diary for a couple weeks. I did, recording daily the time it took to fall asleep, the number of times I woke up, how long I slept and the amount of exercise I got.

The diary revealed a clear pattern. Overall, I slept better and longer, and fell asleep more easily, on nights following afternoon workouts on the elliptical trainer. There it was in black and white—the facts spoke for themselves.

This motivated me to start exercising every day, and it’s clear now that daily exercise really helps my sleep. So one way of tackling the motivation issue may be to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks to see if there is in fact a relationship between exercise and your sleep.

Finding time to exercise may be a harder problem to solve. I’ll consider this in a separate blog but, for now, the National Sleep Foundation poll concludes that “exercise, or physical activity in general, is generally good for sleep, regardless of the time of day the activity is performed.”

National Sleep Foundation – 2013 Exercise and Sleep Poll

 

1001 Sleepless Nights

Before I decided to take the bull by the horns and actually do something about my insomnia, I was convinced there was little TO do. I believed my fate was sealed from birth: on top of being short and stubborn, I was destined to be on shaky terms with the night. I could curse the gods, or I could settle down and make the best of it.

sleepless-nightsBefore I decided to take the bull by the horns and actually do something about my insomnia, I was convinced there was little TO do. I believed my fate was sealed from birth: on top of being short and stubborn, I was destined to be on shaky terms with the night. I could curse the gods, or I could settle down and make the best of it.

At the same time, the dreamer in me hoped that insomnia was something I would outgrow, like acne or my crush on Paul McCartney. By process of osmosis, I would absorb enough wisdom to slough off my sleep problem and one day be able to drop off with ease.

My Sleep Pattern

For years my insomnia was episodic, occurring in periods of stress and excitement, so there were times when this dream seemed close to attainment. For as many bouts of sleeplessness as I had (three or four a month? two dozen a year?), I also experienced periods of smooth sailing. I would find myself dropping off the minute my head touched the pillow and notice I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a sleeping pill. Then this thought would occur: I have achieved it! The luxury of steady work followed by sound sleep at night. Finally my body is working as nature intended.

Disturbing Questions

In this new state of enlightenment, I could look back at my former self and wonder: why had sleep once been so undependable? And why had fear of sleeplessness taken hold of me at the sight of the afternoon fading into twilight or the sound of evening birdsong? What malicious force had the power to turn things of such beauty into things of dread?

But surely it was better not to probe too deeply. A sleeper doesn’t need to trouble herself with why the restless lie awake.

At some point, though, the jig was always up. The next day or the next week, some blip or wrinkle would interrupt my day, news of misfortune fallen on a family member, or signs of a clash brewing at work, and I was off and crawling through another slew of sleepless nights.

Insomnia: A Family Affair

Is a insomnia a heritable trait? Family and twin studies—and my own experience—suggest that vulnerability to insomnia is indeed passed on genetically.

Insomnia is more likely to develop if another family member has it“How did you sleep?” was my father’s conversational gambit in the mornings of my adolescent years, as regular as his toast and Bran Flakes.

Dad was ill at ease talking about most personal issues, and unwilling to spoil the day with talk of politics, which nightly footage of the Viet Nam war thrust on us at dinnertime and which created friction between us, so he asked about my sleep. My replies were often noncommittal, but that did not keep him from continuing the conversation.

His sleep, Dad would go on to say, was “fair to middling.” And then he would explain: a thunderstorm woke him up and it took some time to fall back to sleep. He woke up at 5 a.m. to thoughts about the day and never got back to sleep. A frightening dream awakened him just after midnight and he had to get up and walk a while before he could fall back to sleep. His sleep was interrupted by too many trips to the bathroom. He offered an insomnia sufferer’s litany of complaints.

But the word “insomnia” never crossed his lips. When he asked the family doctor about his sleep, the doctor – highly respected around our house — assured him that “rest was as good as sleep.” Dad believed this and repeated it many times. “When I can’t sleep,” he’d say, “I just lie in bed and rest.” As if to model good behavior for me and my siblings, who might one day fall prey to the same trouble.

Growing Up

Soon enough the proverbial apple fell, and sleep became an object of scrutiny for me too. It happened when I went away to college. Once there, I switched from major to major, eventually graduating with no marketable skills. But I did embark on a lifelong career as an insomniac.

No surprises there, I found out recently while researching the genetic aspects of insomnia. Having a first-degree relative with insomnia increases the odds that you, too, will have problems with sleep. You’re 7 times more likely to have insomnia than you would be coming from a family of good sleepers, a group of French researchers says.*

I grew accustomed to talk about sleep at the family breakfast table. Years later, when my husband first took me home to meet his parents before we got married, I realized that one of the many ways our families were different was that his parents didn’t talk about sleep. They sat down to breakfast eager for conversation, but were no more inclined to ask us about our sleep than they would be to inquire about our digestion or our breathing.

Of course not, I found myself thinking, looking at the pair of adults facing me at the table, who even in their seventies looked vigorous and alert. Who talks about sleep except people who struggle with it? To become part of this family of good sleepers would be to marry into a different tribe.

*Family studies in insomnia

In Praise of Sleeping on the Couch

Sleeping on the couch isn’t always a bad idea. Some insomnia sufferers are light sleepers prone to high-frequency brain activity even during the deeper stages of sleep, or so the experts say. We pick up on information in the environment that normal sleepers readily tune out.

The problem may be that there are disturbances in the bedroom itself.

It’s a telltale sign of denial in people with insomnia, as far as sleep experts are concerned. To sleep anywhere but the bed is to avoid facing up to your real problem with sleep: namely, the fact that your bed has become Enemy No. 1. The frustration of going to bed and being unable to sleep has become associated with the bed itself, so that merely setting foot in the bedroom can make you anxious. Just thinking about B-E-D makes your stomach clench.

Hence, the cowardly retreat to sleeping on the couch.

Well, OK. Most of us would rather sleep in our beds, and if the bed triggers negative associations, there are treatments you can undergo to relieve the situation and they’re worth checking out.

But sleeping on the couch isn’t always a sign of denial. Some insomnia sufferers are light sleepers prone to high-frequency brain activity even during the deeper stages of sleep, or so the experts say. We pick up on information in the environment that normal sleepers readily tune out. The problem may be that there are disturbances in the bedroom itself.

•  Snoring husband? Now, which is the more rational approach to sleep, arguing with an unresponsive husband (“Turn over, you’re snoring.” “Was not.” Were too.” “My head’s already under the pillow.” “Is not.” “Is too.”) or tiptoeing out of the bedroom and into the arms of a nice mute couch?

•  Thrashing wife? Same thing. She may be fighting tigers in her dreams, but are you going to stick around to discuss the fact that she may be the one with sleep problem and shouldn’t she finally go in for that sleep study after all? No way. Head for the couch.

•  You wake up roasting in the sheets? It’s time to take a leaf out of Ben Franklin’s book. Franklin knew heat could sabotage sleep and had a second bed to go to when the first got too warm. Why toss and turn amid sweaty sheets when you can stretch out on a nice cool couch?

•  Moonlight awakens you at 2 a.m.? Is it your fault that your partner leaves the blinds open so he can awaken to sunlight and an alarm clock chanting, “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe?” No, señor! The simple way to solve this problem is to head to the couch in the den.

A couch with all the right accoutrements can be a godsend for insomniacs in a pinch. Do not underestimate us, sleep experts. Sometimes we’re smarter than you think.

Clocking the Hours at Night

Does the sight of a clock at night make you anxious?

Here’s my solution to that.

Clock watching at night fuels anxiety and insomniaA student once described to me the lengths he had to go to in order to get to work on time. He was in my night class, and he was always struggling to stay awake.

“I get up at 4 every morning,” he explained. Or, he added, he was supposed to get up at 4. But often he overslept the alarm. So he’d devised a system where he set four alarm clocks – one at the head, one at the foot, and one on each side of the bed, all facing toward him – to go off at the exact same time. That’s what it took to wake him up. This was one sleep-deprived man!

A quadrumvirate of alarm clocks standing sentry at my bed is my personal vision of hell. Never mind that the piercing clamor in the morning would blast me through the roof. What the mere presence of those clocks would do to my nights is even worse. Knowing that their luminous faces were trained on me like four sets of malevolent eyes, waiting for a flicker of my eyelids to broadcast the passing of time, would seal the deal: I’d never get to sleep at all.

Clock-watching and sleep don’t mix, I’ve discovered through the years. It’s not that otherwise I’m unaware that time is passing. It’s that coming fact to face with a clock at night triggers tension, a reflexive response I haven’t been able to shake despite the many ways I’ve succeeded in improving my sleep in recent years.

I’m not the only insomniac who feels this way. “When you have to work the next day, I think its hard not to watch the clock,” Liz said in an interview on the phone. “You try not to. But when the hours are rolling by, you start to count the hours you’ve got left. It gets to be 3 or 4 in the morning, and you think, ‘Christ, I’ve got to be up by 6!’ That is anxiety …

I’ve learned to turn the clock in my study to the wall an hour or two before bedtime. And the alarm clock on my bedside table is a Brookstone, one of those back-lit types that don’t shine in the dark unless you press down on the top. It’s a small thing, but it’s done wonders for my sleep.

Night and Sleep Don’t Mix

Sleep scientists are still trying to figure out why 10 to 15 percent of us have trouble sleeping at night. Normal sleepers are in the majority; people with insomnia are the deviants.

But is insomnia really so odd in view of all the crimes and disasters that have occurred at night?

Sleep scientists are still trying to figure out why 10 to 15 percent of us have trouble sleeping at night. Normal sleepers are in the majority; people with insomnia are the deviants.

Nights in Ancient Greece

But looking back 2,700 years to the time when Hesiod wrote his Theogony has made me see the issue in a different light. Night, says Hesiod, was the mother of a spectacularly unsavory brood. Not only did she produce the brothers Sleep and Death. She also gave birth to the forces of Doom, Ridicule, Woe, Deception and Strife. And wouldn’t you know it, Strife went on to outdo her mother in pernicious progeny, giving birth to Famine, Combats, Contentions and Murders, not to mention Lawlessness, Lies and Recklessness.

Did many ancient Greeks sleep through the night in peace and tranquility? I have my doubts.

Let’s not forget the famed Trojan horse, whose hidden warriors emerged at night, opened the city gates to their warrior fellows, and so conquered Troy. Or the frightful nights of the Middle Ages, when the rear watchman patrolling the streets by torchlight offered scant protection from evil supernatural forces or criminal and political violence.

More Infamy at Night

“Night,” the Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney has written, “has been the traditional shelter for revolutions, military attacks, freedom fighters, and various insurgencies but it has also covered pogroms, suppressions and vigilantes. The lynch mobs of the American Wild West rode at night, as did the Ku Klux Klan.” Kristallnacht occurred at night, Dewdney points out, as did many Nazi atrocities committed against Jewish families in the Warsaw ghetto.

What about disasters caused unintentionally by human hands? The poison gas leak in Bhopal began shortly after midnight. The Exxon Valdez ran aground shortly after midnight as well. The partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island began around 4 in the morning.

Most murders occur at night. A majority of domestic violence and rapes do, too. Most deadly residential fires occur between midnight and 6 a.m.; most sudden infant deaths, between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.

The mystery is not that 10 to 15 percent of us have persistent insomnia. It’s that normal sleepers sleep so well.