Understanding Insomnia

Sleep is as essential for the normal functioning of the human body as food and drink. Doctors do not completely understand why we need sleep, but we do understand what happens when we are asleep.

There are two types of sleep: deep sleep and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movements. Several times a night, the level of sleep lightens, and while the eyelids remain closed, the eyes themselves move around rapidly. It is during this stage of sleep that dreams occur, and it is the more valuable form of sleep. If a volunteer is woken every time he or she starts REM sleep, he or she will remain tired and irritable and obtain little benefit from the sleep.

REM sleep does not start until an hour or so after first falling asleep, and long periods of deep sleep occur between each episode. Unfortunately, many sleeping tablets induce deep sleep but tend to prevent REM sleep, so that people using them do not benefit from their sleep as much as those who sleep naturally. This is one of the reasons that doctors are reluctant to use them until all other avenues have been explored.

The amount of sleep needed varies dramatically from one person to another. Some require only three or four hours a day; most require seven or eight hours; others may need ten hours. As we age, our sleep needs change too. An infant requires 16 or more hours of sleep a day; in middle age, eight hours is normal, but the elderly need only five or six hours sleep. The problem here is that older people may have less to occupy their days with and look forward to the escape of eight hours sleep every night, but then find they cannot obtain it because their bodies do not require that much. The low activity levels of many elderly people and any midday naps they take further complicate this.  As a result, some elderly people seek help in obtaining extra sleep from their doctors by means of sleeping pills. This is not true insomnia; merely a desire for extra sleep above what is biologically necessary.

There are of course those who genuinely cannot get to sleep for a variety of reasons, and 15% of the population falls into this category. There are many things other than medication that can be done to ease the problem. Simple steps that anyone can use to aid sleep include:

  • Avoid exercise immediately before bed. Take time to wind down before going to bed.
  • Avoid drinks containing caffeine such as tea, coffee or cola. Caffeine is a stimulant.
  • Lose weight if you are obese. A slight weight loss can significantly improve sleep.
  • Avoid eating a full meal immediately before bedtime. Give your food a couple of hours to settle.
  • If you cannot sleep once in bed, get up and read a book or watch television for half an hour before returning to bed. Never lie there tossing and turning.
  • Learn to relax by attending specific relaxation classes, which your doctor may recommend. Follow up by listening to relaxation tapes.
  • Instead of counting sheep or worrying about your problems, focus your mind on a pleasant incident in your past (such as a holiday, adventure or party) and remember the whole event slowly in great detail from beginning to end.

If all else fails, and you still find you are unable to sleep, consult your doctor. They can prescribe medications that can be taken, ideally for a short time only, to relieve the problem.

Photo by Nara Vieira da Silva Osga


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Glen Road
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Rachel Ellis
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Posted on Dec 6, 2009