AN “unconsciousness from which the person can be aroused by sensory or other stimuli.” That’s how science defines sleep.
A night’s sleep consists of four or five cycles, each of which progresses through several stages. During the night, a person alternatives from slow-wave sleep, also called nonrapid-eye movement sleep to rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. The entire cycle of slow-wave sleep and REM takes about 90 minutes. The entire cycle of slow-wave sleep and REM takes about 90 minutes.
“Sleep is a natural period within every 24 hours when the body repairs itself, tests its systems, consolidates memory, purges itself of cellular waste and stockpiles energy for the day ahead,” Charles B. Inlander and Cynthia K. Moran explain in their book, 67 Ways to Good Sleep. “On average, humans spend about a third of their lives asleep, or about 205,000 hours in a 70-year lifetime.”
Diane Hales, author of How to Sleep Like a Baby, explains that when you sleep, “you are not motionless like a car in a garage. [Sleep] is an altered form of consciousness, when muscles tense and relax, your pulse, like the temperature and blood pressure, rises and falls, the brain works and chemicals course through the bloodstream.”
According to sleep experts, approximately a third of a person’s lifetime is spent in the Land of Nod. Because of this, they urge that more attention should be given to this matter of sleep. “Between the ages of 20 and 70,” writes Don Hawley, author of Smell a Few Flowers, “you will likely spend more than 15 full years in bed. If you’re one of those who never quite rested, the statistic may be hard to believe.”
Perhaps, the most common question is: “How much sleep do I need each night?” Well, no one can provide a pat answer as each person differs in needs. Some people function on five hours’ sleep a night; others just can’t make it on less than nine or 10. The average seems to be about seven to eight hours.
Some people don’t care whether they sleep much or little. American actress Cloris Leachman sleeps only three or four hours a night because she has “so many things to do.” The only performer to win an Oscar for playing an actress of not getting the top prize often starts her day at 4:30 a.m., works until 8 to 9 p.m. and then goes out. When she finally gets home, she plays the piano or reads before bed.
Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa, the founder of macrobiotics, slept no more than four hours a night. There was a time that he slept only two hours. Said one of his students, explaining why Ohsawa died at age 74 of a heart attack, “That’s stressful, and stress, as we know, is not good for the heart.”
Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, was said to get by on only three or four hours of sleep. Sometimes, he would wake at 3 a.m. and would dictate to his secretary until dawn, snapping impatiently at the sleepy aide, “What’s the matter with you? You’re sleeping on your feet.”
Insomnia is how the medical science calls the problem of sleeplessness. Insomnia is a symptom – “not a disease,” declares Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld, bestselling author of The Best Treatment. “No one is born destined to become an insomniac,” he explains.
Like any other symptom (pain, itch, cough, fever), there’s always a reason of your inability to fall asleep, the most common being something psychological—you’re either worried, anxious, fearful, depressed or excited. Or, you may be perfectly content, but your sleep environment is at fault—your bedroom is too hot, too cold, or poorly ventilated; your bed is too short, the mattress is bad for your back.
Or, you may have developed bad bedtime habits, like trying to catch up on your unfinished office correspondence before turning out the lights; working out on your rowing machine; smoking that last cigarette of the day (the nicotine will keep you awake); even your sex habits can cause insomnia—it soothes most of us, but over stimulates others.
Can’t sleep? Then don’t go to bed. “If there’s one recommendation I would make for insomnia, it’s to delay bedtime by an hour, maybe two hours,” says Dr. Edward Stepanski, director of the Insomnia Clinic at the Henry Ford Hospital’s Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit, Michigan.
One of the worst practices people follow is to go to bed when they’re really not tired. “They don’t even feel sleepy, but they think it’s time they should go to bed,” he says. And few events can tighten the tension like lying in the dark, listening to the bathroom faucet drip and wondering why you can’t sleep.
Once you snuggle under the covers, if you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up, leave the bedroom and muddle through something mundane. “Don’t sweat it. Go ahead and watch the late show and ride it out,” Stepanski advises.
Practice good sleep habits. Sleep experts like to rattle off a list of what they call sleep hygiene tips: Don’t use the bedroom for anything but sleep or sex; get up at the same time every morning regardless of when you retire; don’t take naps; exercise in the late afternoon or early evening; don’t go to bed hungry. Most people trying to banish insomnia go down the list, trying each item for a day or two, then discarding it and returning to the old habit.
“They end up concluding that none of these things works, but you really have to try them all simultaneously and give them a chance,” Stepanski says. “Instant sleep won’t come the very first night you skip an evening cup of coffee or go to bed at 1 a.m. rather than midnight.”
Learn and practice relaxation techniques. The harder you try to sleep, the greater the chances are that you’ll end up gnashing your teeth all night rather than stacking some z’s. That’s why it is important to relax once you’re in bed. “The one problem with insomnia is that, people often concentrate too much on their sleep, and they press too hard,” says Dr. Michael Stevenson, clinical director of the North Valley Sleep Disorders Center in California. “The key to successfully falling asleep is to reduce your focus and avoid working yourself into a frenzy.”
Biofeedback exercises, deep breathing, muscle stretches or yoga may help. Special audiotapes can teach you how to progressively relax your muscles. It may not come easy at first, but as Dr. David Neubauer of the Johns Hopkins University Sleep Disorders Center says, “It’s like dieting; you must work on it all the time. It will take time to get results, but if you stick with it, it will pay off.”
What about sleeping pills? Sleep physicians are extremely reluctant to prescribe sedatives, says Dr. Suzanne Jaffee, clinical director of the Sleep Program at Hollywood Medical Center in Florida, except in the event of an obvious trauma, such as the death of a spouse, and even then only for a very temporary period. Improper withdrawal from sleeping pills can cause the insomnia the prescription was designed to treat, she says.
What about the occasional use of over-the-counter sleeping pills? “Don’t routinely take them,” Jaffe advises. “We don’t know the long-term effects of them. But they’re absolutely not benign. They contain ingredients that can cause addiction.”
Now, if the above still won’t “cure” your sleeplessness, nothing will. But men like Mark Twain could dismiss insomnia humorously: “If you can’t sleep, try lying on the end of the bed—then you might drop off.” Of course, he was just joking.