How Can I Avoid Sleep Problems and Sleep Better?

Do you have sleep problems, such as inadequate sleep, insomnia, or nightmares?

Whether you realize it or not, we sleep less or at least try to sleep less in exchange for more time. With such “extra” time, we may be trying to achieve higher productivity or simply spending time on networking.

Paradoxically, increasing evidence suggests sleep problems, such as insomnia and inadequate sleep, drag down productivity at work.

Poor sleep quality also affects students’ productivity in academic performance. A study shows that:

Overall, better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep correlated with better grades. However, there was no relation between sleep measures on the single night before a test and test performance; instead, sleep duration and quality for the month and the week before a test correlated with better grades.

In fact, not only does poor sleep affect our productivity, but it also disrupts our other daily functions hindering further our healthy personal development.

Resolving sleep problems gets serious.

To try understanding the resolutions systematically, before knowing how we can sleep better, we have to know what is affecting our sleep and how sleep problems can affect us.

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Common sleep problems and disorders

According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders-Third Edition (ICSD-3), there are seven major categories of sleep disorders:

  1. insomnia disorders
  2. sleep-related breathing disorders
  3. central disorders of hypersomnolence
  4. circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders
  5. sleep-related movement disorders
  6. parasomnias
  7. other sleep disorders

Instead of delving into the technical aspects detailing how to diagnose sleep disorders, like what ISCD-3 does, we will take a quick look into the most common sleep problems that we may have already experienced.

1. Insomnia

If you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep, generally, you have insomnia. However, we do not count as insomnia if it is caused purely by inadequate sleep opportunity (e.g. enough time to sleep) or sleep environment (e.g. brightness).

Insomnia can be long or short term. It is very common. In a study of 25,579 Europeans, 34.5% of them reported at least some difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep or non-restorative sleep at least 3 nights per week.

Its major symptoms include:

  • difficulty to initiate sleep or maintain sleep, waking up earlier than desired or resisting to go to bed on an appropriate schedule; and
  • negative bodily reactions related to sleep difficulties, such as daytime sleepiness, concentration impairment, and reduced energy.

2. Central disorders of hypersomnolence

Feeling sleepy during the daytime is common. It can be due to many reasons, e.g. the work we are doing is not so interesting.

However, it can be central disorders of hypersomnolence, which are generally featured by excessive daytime sleepiness. About 20% of the population is suffering from excessive daytime sleepiness.

You may be having this problem if you are constantly craving to sleep during the daytime even if you are having undisrupted good night sleep.

3. Parasomnias

Parasomnia refers to unwanted experience occurred at different sleep stages, including falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up. While there are many different symptoms, the more common ones associated with dreams, such as nightmares, sleep terrors, and sleep hallucinations.

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How do sleep problems matter?

While there are many kinds of sleep problems, we will focus on discussing how poor sleep quality and inadequate sleep would affect us.

1. Makes you stupid with lowered productivity

Inadequate rest leads to a preferential impairment of the prefrontal cortex (an important part of our brain supporting decision-making processes and cognitive functions).

Sleep deprivation lowers your memory and learning ability. For you to memorize something, your brain has to first encode the subject matter. At night time, your brain is “consolidating” what you learned in the day. Inadequate night sleep hampers this process.

Inadequate sleep is detrimental to thinking and judgment. The American Psychological Association reported this interesting experiment:

Dr. Roehrs and his colleagues paid sleepy and fully alert subjects to complete a series of computer tasks. At random times, they were given a choice to take their money and stop. Or they could forge ahead with the potential of either earning more money or losing it all if their work was not completed within an unknown remainder of time.

Dr. Roehrs found that the alert people were very sensitive to the amount of work they needed to do to finish the tasks and understood the risk of losing their money if they didn’t. But the sleepy subjects chose to quit the tasks prematurely or they risked losing everything by trying to finish the task for more money even when it was 100 percent likely that they would be unable to finish, said Dr. Roehrs.

With inadequate sleep, your productivity decreases drastically as you think slower, take a longer time to learn, and make poor judgments.

2. Increases stress and irritability

We all know stress affects sleep but we may not know sleep also affects stress level. The American Psychological Association reported people would get more stressed when they do not have adequate sleep. As you may also experience, when you lack sleep, you would feel irritable and have mood swings.

Read more for stress management techniques.

3.  Causes Obesity

Various researches indicate that sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality links to obesity. According to the School of Public Health of Harvard, short and poor sleepers (with less than 5 hours of night sleep) stand a 15% higher risk of getting obesity.

This is because sleep loss affects key metabolism and hormonal secretion. It leads to decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin. Ultimately, you will feel hungry with increased appetite and crave for food, especially high-fat and high-calorie food.

Also, when you lack quality sleep, you will get tired easily. Your desire to get physical exercise goes down, which lowers the rate of calorie burning.

4. Shortens life span

Professor Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep presents that the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

Inadequate sleep weakens our immune system. Our resilience to sickness generally decreased. This is exactly why we are asked to get more sleep when catch a cold. Poor sleep also hurts our cancer-fighting immune cells.

As mentioned above, poor sleep can cause obesity. Obesity, in turn, poses higher risks for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack.

Inadequate sleep also increases activities in our nerve system, which is showed to associate with higher risks of heart diseases and heart attacks.

However, this does not say you should spend a considerable time on sleep. It should be optimal (see further on the optimal time of sleep below).

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How to sleep better?

1. Establish a regular sleep pattern

Develop your sleeping and waking time

A consistent sleep pattern can soothe your sleep problems and improve your long term sleep quality. In other words, you should sleep and wake up at almost the same time every day (including weekends).

Your circadian rhythm (i.e. internal biological clock) generally follows the 24-hour cycle of the sun. It would be best if you can wake up with the sun. Sunlight can reset your circadian rhythm and make you feel afresh.

If you have difficulty in getting into sleep or developing a regular sleep pattern, you may try melatonin supplements. As cautionary always, check with your family doctor before taking any of them.

Sleep optimally long

Despite some people may be proud of their “special skills” in working productively while sleeping less, research indicates this is bad for health.

The National Sleep Foundation did a panel study and review. They concluded people of different ages should have different sleep duration to work best for health and development.

  • Older adults (65+): 7–8 hours
  • Adults (18–64 years): 7–9 hours
  • Teenagers (14–17 years): 8–10 hours
  • School-aged children (6–13 years): 9–11 hours
  • Preschoolers (3–5 years): 10–13 hours
  • Toddlers (1–2 years): 11–14 hours
  • Infants (4–11 months): 12–15 hours
  • Newborns (0–3 months): 14–17 hours

Therefore, it is incorrect to say the more sleep, the better. You should change that thought now. Any sleep outside the optimal range will create other health problems, such as heart disease.

2. Other tips

Here are some other most common tips which you may already know.

  • Stay away from display screens that emit blue lights before sleep. Typical examples of such screens are computer monitors, mobile phones, and televisions.
  • Avoid caffeine after 4 pm.
  • Adjust your sleep environment so that you can sleep comfortably. Consider aspects such as temperature, lights, noise, bed, pillow, and mattress.
  • Avoid eating late at night as it would affect hormone secretion and interrupt your internal biological clock.
  • Do something relaxing before sleep, such as deep breathing and visualization.
  • Do regular exercise. It expedites your sleep initiation time and help you stay asleep.
  • Consider whether the sleep problem is caused by other health issues.

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To sleep even better: Common misbeliefs about sleeping

We must decode some myths surrounding sleep so that we can better understand what helps us sleep better.

1. Daytime naps can make up for your inadequate night sleep

Many people think taking daytime naps can make up for their sleep loss at night.

No doubt a short power nap of less than 30 mins a day can enhance productivity and learning ability.

However, frequent and long naps can disturb your circadian rhythm (i.e. internal biological clock) and lead to the abovementioned dangers and further sleep problems.

2. Alcohol facilitates better sleep

Despite a little bit of alcohol may make you fall asleep quicker, contrary to some common beliefs, alcohol disrupts your good sleep.

Alcohol particularly affects your later stages of sleep as it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As a result, on the next day, you may feel more drowsy and find it hard to concentrate.

Also, alcohol affects the production hormones, such as melatonin, the hormone that associates with sleeping, and affects your internal biological clock.

As alcohol suppress breathing at sleep, it causes other sleep problems, such as snoring, and sleep apnea.

Therefore, if you have sleep problems, you should consider quit night drinks and clubbing.

3. Late-night exercise is bad for sleep.

While many people know the benefit of physical exercise, some believe evening or late-night exercise is bad for sleep.

However, research suggests vigorous exercise shortly before bedtime does not disturb sleep.

Despite the abovementioned research, Harvard seems to suggest while exercise at night is conducive to sleep quality, it does not suggest high-intensity exercise within one hour before sleep.

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