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Insomnia: Part One

Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from thy repose: then hath the body the best temper; then hath thy soul the least encumbranceFrancis Quarles

Nothing refreshes like a good night’s sleep. And there’s little as frustrating, uncomfortable—and potentially debilitating and even dangerous—as a bad night’s sleep, or no sleep at all. The problem is common and growing, if we take as an index the astonishing increase over the last decade in prescriptions for sleep-inducing medications—including some with positively scary adverse effects.

Volumes have been written about insomnia. The field of sleep studies continues to unlock new discoveries every day. If you have trouble sleeping, you have probably been deluged by now with well-meaning advice from friends and family—whether based on folklore or the latest science—much of it perhaps contradictory, confusing or simply ineffective in your case.

In this space, we cannot do more than address some general principles, a few techniques, and some alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs. We hope you find at least something of value.

First Principle: Relax!

We’ll discuss below some specific relaxation techniques that can help prepare the body for sleep. More important to begin with, though, is the general principle that your expectations for sleep may be unrealistic or unsuited to your needs. Your first level of relaxation comes from accepting that the right amount and kind of sleep for you is the kind that leaves you rested and refreshed, and not some formula of a set number of hours between Time A and Time B. Individual bodies and individual needs vary.

There is fascinating modern research, consistent with testimony from literature dating back centuries, suggesting that a pattern of long unbroken sleep through the night is a modern invention of the industrial age and particularly an artifact of advances in artificial lighting to the point where, unlike the candles and lanterns of old, it now rivals daylight, and interferes with melatonin, a brain hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms.

For centuries people retired somewhere around 9 or 10 and would wake somewhere past midnight, without anxiety, knowing that the “first sleep” would be followed by a second. An hour of quiet wakefulness might be spent in prayer or contemplation, enjoying a pipe, conversation with a neighbor, some light household task, or making love.

Human subjects experimentally sheltered from artificial light replicate this pattern, and also show on waking elevated levels of prolactin, a complex hormone (named from its association with lactation) that also is associated in both sexes with parenthood, dream-related REM sleep, restful feelings and post-sexual afterglow.

Like Moths To The Flame, Getting Burnt

In the television and computer age, we don’t just bathe our surroundings in light, we stare fixedly into backlit screens for hours on end. Doing this just before bedtime seems to have a pronounced effect on quality of sleep. Heavy nighttime Internet users, even more than late-night TV watchers, report that they get less sleep even when their sleep is objectively not significantly shorter and that they feel less rested after sleeping.

The Body Needs Rest. The Body Needs Anti-Rest.

You will sleep better if your body has had a chance both to be active and to relax before you hit the sack. If your off-the-grid lifestyle has you doing non-mechanized farming, there’s a good chance you get enough exercise. (And if you’re raising livestock, the necessity of adapting to their circadian rhythms may keep your own more regular.) If your work is mostly sedentary, you probably need to maintain an exercise routine in order to have healthy sleep. Studies suggest evening exercise is not helpful, probably because of the lack of a break between the stimulation of physical exertion and the repose required for sleep. Both morning and afternoon exercise have been shown to contribute to a good night’s sleep (along with the many other well-documented health benefits of regular physical activity).

Think there’s no time in your busy day for exercise? Here’s a clue: It’s not uncommon for regular exercise to so improve the quality of your sleep that each minute spent working out in the day will be rewarded by an equal or greater number of minutes of tossing and turning, or of bad sleep, that you can take out of your nightly “schedule”.

Wakeful Rest and Restful Awakeness

Muscle tension can keep us tossing and turning. So can daytime thoughts and worries we can’t seem to shake off at bedtime. Fortunately, there are ways of dealing with these:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation, sometimes assisted by biofeedback, can be learned (one technique is discussed in greater detail below); it may take several weeks of practice to see steady effects on insomnia.
  • Likewise, meditation techniques can help clear the mind of obtrusive thought patterns that interfere with falling asleep; these also require continued practice to become effective.
  • A particularly powerful tool may be yoga, which combines muscle relaxation with a meditative element. As a bonus, many yogic poses exercise particular muscles by having them lift or balance the mass of the body—much as if working with free weights—and thus provide a kind of exertive strength training as well.

To Nap or Not To Nap?

Debate rages over the humble nap. If you are following a specific program designed to regularize your nighttime sleeping, you may be advised to avoid napping. And of course for many of us, the exigencies of the workday do not allow for napping. Still, there are arguments for this ancient human custom. In hot climates, of course, the nap has been institutionalized as the siesta, timed for the hottest part of the day when any attempt at normal activity is likely to be at best uncomfortable and in all likelihood unproductive. Even in cooler climates, napping seems to be standard behavior among our fellow mammals, and research suggests that humans naturally tire after about eight hours of wakefulness. Your best guide here is what your circumstances allow and how your body responds.

It is worth noting—and we refrain from the obvious cheap shots—that both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton napped while serving as president. Albert Einstein would doze in his chair, holding a pencil that would wake him when it dropped; Salvador Dalí used a similar trick with a spoon; both men wanted the brain refresh afforded by the dozing state without falling into a deep sleep. Other celebrated nappers include Napoleon, Leonardo, Edison and Churchill, and the world-conquering Roman Empire.

People with a history of sleep problems who wake unexpectedly early, and dread a day with insufficient sleep, may be able to alleviate that anxiety by the comforting thought that they have allowed themselves the safety net of a nap some time that day.

You may have read about the flawed conclusions drawn from a study that was widely and badly reported to show that napping may increase the risk of developing Type II diabetes. Although a statistical correlation was found, the researchers themselves point out that any such potential risk is less than that from being overweight, being over 40, or having a family history of diabetes. More significantly, the experiment failed to quantify the suspected reduced level of activity among the subjects, and merely hypothesizes, rather than demonstrates, that daytime napping may interfere with nighttime sleep. There is no way of knowing from the research whether napping is a cause or a result of lower activity and poor nighttime sleep.

Now that we know more about insomnia than we did before, in our next article we will discuss ways to battle the much elusive, all too formidable problem faced by millions of people each and every day.

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