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What's the Worst Thing You Can Do if You Can't Fall Asleep?

What's the Worst Thing You Can Do if You Can't Fall Asleep?

Story at-a-glance -

  • A large volume of historical evidence indicates humans used to sleep in two four-hour intervals, with about an hour or two of wakefulness between the first and second sleep
  • Those waking night time hours were oftentimes used for quiet contemplation and introspection, in addition to more active pastimes like making love. Today, many don’t take the time to contemplate their life and dreams anymore, which can increase anxiety, stress and depression
  • Sleep is the outcome of an interaction between two classes of variables: sleepiness and "noise.” The most common forms of “noise” making sleep elusive are “cognitive popcorn,” light, and the wrong temperature
  • An estimated six to 10 percent of US adults used some sort of hypnotic sleeping pill in 2010. But, as evidenced by a new study, using prescription sleeping pills can increase your risk of certain cancers—such as esophagus, lymphoma, lung, colon and prostate cancers—as well as increase your risk of premature death nearly four-fold

By Dr. Mercola

A growing body of evidence, garnered from both science and history, suggests the eight-hour sleep cycle may not be the most natural arrangement for humans after all.

One experiment conducted in the 1990s, for example, seemed to indicate that when completely left to their own devices, people would sleep for four hours, then wake for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

More recently, historians have uncovered a wealth of historical evidence that humans in fact used to sleep in two distinct segments.

Evidence includes diaries, court records, medical books and literature, in which these two sleep cycles are referred to in such a way as to make it clear that it was common knowledge at the time.

According to the BBC Newsi:

"... [R]eferences to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets... [B]y the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night.

Night became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time.... By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness."

Nighttime Wakefulness May be Perfectly Natural...

According to Roger Ekirch, historian and author of the book At Day's Close: Night in Times Pastii, the historically recent change to this pattern could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. Sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs agrees that we've strayed from our evolutionary pattern, and that waking up during the night is actually a normal part of human physiology.

"The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too," BBC News reportsiii.

"Russell Foster, a professor of circadian [body clock] neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view. "Many people wake up at night and panic," he says. "I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern." Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally."

According to Ekirch, those waking night time hours were oftentimes used for quiet contemplation and introspection, in addition to more active pastimes like making love. Many just don't take the time to contemplate their life and dreams anymore, which can increase anxiety, stress and depression. So, the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, instead of panicking or worrying about "not being asleep when you should," try to relax, and remember you may just be tapping into a very natural rhythm, and use that time for meditating on your dreams instead of giving in to worry.

Natural Stages of Sleep

According to sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobsiv from the featured BBC News article, you cycle through four stages of sleep every 60 to 100 minutes.

  1. Stage 1: A drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and sleeping
  2. Stage 2: Slightly deeper sleep state. Interestingly enough, here, you may still feel awake. So, you may be asleep and not "know" it
  3. Stage 3: Deep sleep stage. Once in deep sleep, it's quite difficult to wake up, as there's so little physiological activity going on
  4. Stage 4: After Deep Sleep, you briefly enter stage 2 again before entering REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the dream state

In order to understand why you can't fall asleep or stay sleep, you need to understand that sleep is the outcome of an interaction between two classes of variables: sleepiness and "noise."

  1. Sleepiness – Under normal conditions, your sleepiness should gradually increase throughout the day, peaking just before you go to bed at night. This is ideal, as you want your sleepiness to be high at the beginning of the night, leading you into Stage 1, as described above.
  2. "Noise" – refers to any kind of stimulation that inhibits or disrupts sleep. If noise is conceptually greater than your level of sleepiness, you will not fall asleep. "Noise" occurs in three zones: the mind level, body level, and the environmental level.

According to Dr. Rubin Naiman—a clinical psychologist, author, teacher, and the leader in integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams—one of the most common symptoms of insomnia is a condition called "cognitive popcorn." This is when your mind produces uncontrollable thoughts that keep you awake, and it is one of the most common forms of mental "noise." Other forms of noise include physical noise such as pain, discomfort, indigestion, or residual caffeine from drinking coffee too late in the day, and "environmental noise," such as a snoring partner, music, lights, or a bedroom that's too warm.

Download Interview Transcript

In order to easily fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night, you want your sleepiness level to be high, and the noise level to be low. According to Dr. Naiman, more often than not, the reason why people can't fall asleep is NOT because of lack of sleepiness, but rather because of excessive noise. Therefore, the FIRST thing you need to ask yourself when you can't sleep is:

  • "Where/What is the noise?" (Is it mind/body/environmental?)

Typically, you will find a number of different factors contribute to the noise burden keeping you awake, so it's important to carefully evaluate your environment and inner/outer state to determine ALL the contributing factors. If you address one problem, but not the others, you still may not be able to fall asleep, or stay asleep throughout the night.

WARNING: New Study Shows Sleeping Pills Increase Your Risk of Dying

Unfortunately, most people don't bother taking the time to determine what's really keeping them from sleeping soundly, and reach for a pill instead. An estimated six to 10 percent of US adults used some sort of hypnotic sleeping pill in 2010. But, as evidenced by a new study, using sleeping pills can be a dangerous, not to mention ineffective, solution. According to the new research, using prescription sleeping pills can increase your risk of cancer and premature death. In fact, the study, published in the BMJ Open, suggests that those who take such medications are nearly four times more likely to die than people who don't take themv.

According to MSN Healthvi

"During 2010, between one in 20 and one in 10 adults took a sleeping pill in the United States ... Those who were prescribed up to 18 doses a year were 3.6 times more likely to die ... Those taking the highest doses were also at greater risk of developing several types of cancer, including esophagus, lymphoma, lung, colon and prostate cancers."

Sleeping pills linked to these risks included:

  • Benzodiazepines (such as temazepam)
  • Bon-benzodiazepines (such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata)
  • Barbiturates, and
  • Sedative antihistamines

Adding insult to injury, most sleeping pills are also ineffective... In 2007, an analysis of sleeping pill studies financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared with sugar pills -- hardly a major improvement! And, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data, over-the-counter sleep products such as Tylenol PM and Excedrin PM do not offer any significant benefit to patients.

How to Optimize Your Sleep

Two common environmental "noise" factors that can make sleep elusive are light and temperature. Below, these two factors are addressed in a number of ways:

  • Avoid watching TV or using your computer at night—or at least about an hour or so before going to bed—as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on your sleep. TV and computer screens emit blue light; nearly identical to the light you're exposed to outdoors during the day. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion.
  • Under normal circumstances, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 or 10 pm, which makes you sleepy. When this natural secretion cycle is disrupted, due to excessive light exposure after sunset, insomnia can ensue.

  • Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the slightest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. Even the tiniest glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep and will also dramatically increase your risk of cancer.  So close your bedroom door, and get rid of night-lights. Refrain from turning on any light at all during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. Cover up your clock radio. If you need light to use the rest room you can use a RED light as those wavelengths will not shut off your melatonin production.
  • Make sure to cover your windows—I recommend using blackout shades or drapes.

  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees. Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. This is because when you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
  • Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready for sleep.
  • Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. This serves at least two functions. First, it can be stressful to see the time when you can't fall asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night. Secondly, the glow from a clock radio can be enough to suppress melatonin production and interfere with your sleep.

Being mindful of electromagnetic fields in your bedroom is also wise, as EMFs can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To measure the EMF levels in your bedroom, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200.

I also recommend avoiding using loud alarm clocks, as being jolted awake each morning can be very stressful. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, an alarm may even be unnecessary.

I gave up my alarm clock years ago and now spontaneously awake without an alarm. On those rare occasions that I do need to get up early to catch a flight, I have used a sun alarm clock. The Sun Alarm™ provides an ideal way to wake up each morning if you can't wake up with the REAL sun. Combining the features of a traditional alarm clock (digital display, AM/FM radio, beeper, snooze button, etc) with a special built-in light that gradually increases in intensity, this amazing clock simulates a natural sunrise. It also includes a sunset feature where the light fades to darkness over time, which is ideal for anyone who has trouble falling asleep.

For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article 33 Secret's to a Good Night's Sleep.

Melatonin—An All-Natural Sleep Aid

While sleeping pills will likely do you more harm than good, you could consider taking a melatonin supplement, which will help boost sleepiness, if you're really out of sync and can't fall asleep.

Ideally it is best to increase your melatonin levels naturally, of course, by exposing yourself to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum bulbs in the winter) and complete darkness at night. If you do this regularly, you will promote proper functioning of your natural circadian rhythm, which is essential for a proper sleep cycle. However, if that isn't possible, you can consider a melatonin supplement. It's is a completely natural substance, made by your body, and has many health benefits in addition to sleep. In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to increase sleepiness, help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep, decrease restlessness, and reverse daytime fatigue.

I prefer to use a sublingual melatonin product because it is absorbed much faster and therefore works more quickly. Keep in mind you typically only need a very minute amount. Taking higher doses, such as 3 mg, can sometimes have the reverse effect. So start with as little as 0.25mg or 0.5mg and play around with it to see what dosage works best for you.