Can’t Sleep: Why You’re Still Awake

The Science Behind Sleep
    1. REM & Non-REM Sleep
    2. Circadian Rhythms
    3. Sleep Drive
    4. Benefits of a Well-Rested Brain
    5. Sleep Deprivation 101
    1. The Rise of Sleep Aids
    2. Prescription Sleep
    3. "Natural" Sleep Supplements 

For part two of this blog, visit Can't Sleep: How CBD May Help!

Some of us spend as much as ⅓ of our lives asleep! And some of us… don’t. Some of us probably read that first sentence and let out a sigh of desperate longing or even a whisper of “only the lucky ones get that much sleep”. 

Sleeping or not sleeping shouldn’t be based on luck. Although it may seem easy to forget in this modern world of I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead mentality, sleep is a necessity for life and a vital biological function.

The ugly truth is the opposite of the ideal: today, most of us don’t get the sleep we need.

The worst part is that we all live in the 21st century, a time period driven mad by work-work-work mantras and tech with loud, bright screens.

How are we supposed to sleep well when we’ve forgotten what good sleep even looks like?

The Science Behind Sleep: What Are We Doing Wrong?

Before the mid-20th century, most humans thought that the body during sleep was more or less equal to a corpse, something dead and empty of function.

Yes, that's right! For thousands of years, sleep was so incomprehensible to us that we allowed what we saw and knew physically to dictate our understanding over the 1/3 of human life spent sleeping.

Since we don't see much of anything at all while asleep, it probably seemed only natural to conclude that nothing happened during sleep.

We have since realized how very wrong we were.

Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D., a John Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist, put it best when he said: “But it turns out that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life—which are closely linked to quality of life.”

The Two Stages of Sleep: REM Sleep and Non-REM Sleep

Scientists and sleep experts have identified two stages that our bodies and brains loop through after hitting the sack.

  • NON-REM SLEEP: Early research stressed the importance of REM sleep over non-REM sleep. More recent research has revealed the opposite. Non-REM sleep is not only vital for learning and memory. It’s also the most restful and restorative state of sleep.
    • Non-REM sleep happens in four parts. The first exists in that half-awake space when you’re neither 100% awake nor 100% asleep. 
    • As you enter the second part of non-REM sleep, your body temperature drops while your heart rate and breathing regulate. 
    • The third and fourth stages of non-REM sleep are deep sleep.
  • REM SLEEP: This is when you dream (whether you remember it later or not). Your eyes start to flicker underneath your lids, your breath quickens, and your brain waves look the same as they do when you’re awake.

You repeat this cycle about 4 to 5 times on a good night.

This is the kind of night you should be having every night.

As the night progresses, the latter half of non-REM sleep gets shorter and the bulk of REM sleep generally gets longer.

Bad Sleep: Blame it on Genetics or Bad Habits?

When it comes to humans and how we've been programmed for sleep, it turns out that while we can easily blame half of the poor sleep we get on genetics or predetermined biology (“circadian rhythms”), half of the fault still rests with our bad habits (“sleep drive”).

Circadian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms come from a sort of biological clock located in the brain. This clock sets the standard for motion in our everyday life, dictating when we eat, fall asleep, wake up, feel energized, you name it.

A good example of the circadian rhythm at work comes from how the human brain processes light. 

  • When the sun rises, our brain senses the light and tells us to wake up and
  • When the sun sets, our brain senses the darkness and tells us to prepare for sleep by releasing melatonin.

Sleep Drive

You can think of your sleep drive in the same way you think of your hunger drive.

Like the time in between meals, the time in between waking up and going back to sleep is crucial for building up the desire to crawl back into bed. That’s why mid-day naps, no matter how good their intentions (or how necessary the nap), can really damage your ability to sleep. 

When you nap, you temporarily satisfy your sleep drive. In doing so, your body reschedules sleep for later and you end up falling asleep that night at an hour that may easily throw off your entire sleep schedule.

It’s important to note here, of course, that the reverse of feeding your sleep drive isn’t always a positive. Many of us try to ‘re-set’ our schedules after a bad night of little to no sleep by forcing ourselves to zombie through the next day. Two wrongs never make a right, especially when it comes to sleep.

Lack of sleep isn’t like hunger. Your body can’t force you to eat when you’re starving (even though it will do a bunch of other things to get you to eat, that’s for sure). 

Your body can and will force you to sleep if you’re exhausted. So be wary of the famous idea of “re-setting” your sleep schedule by not sleeping; it’s very likely your body may read your exhaustion from the day before and force you to sleep anyway... whether you like it or not. 

Get Some Sleep: Your Brain on No Sleep is Closer to Zombie Than You Think

Sleep significantly impacts brain function. In fact, we process most of what we learn during sleep (both short-term or learned that day and long-term or learned in life up until said day). Healthy sleep is as vital for remembering what you’ve learned as it for remembering how to learn tomorrow. 

  • Lots of studies like this one support sleep’s ability to help you improve both your procedural memory (skills and things we do on automatic- like socializing, driving, riding a bike) and declarative memory (recall of facts).
  • Sleep is vital for “brain plasticity”, or our brain’s ability to adapt to new input and life changes. 
  • Research suggests that your brain is much more effective at self-detox during sleep.
    • This study supports this idea; clearly, the sleeping brain likes to clean (a lot). 
    • Our brains even have their own Clorox and it's called a "cerebrospinal fluid". 
    • During sleep, the flow of this cerebrospinal fluid increases dramatically, helping to sweep away all kinds of harmful waste products built up in the brain during waking hours. 

Insomnia and the 21st Century: The Costs of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation (defined as being awake for 24+ hours) can do a lot of strange things to the brain and body. Some of these changes are temporary. Some unfortunately are not.

While scientific research has struggled to define the parameters of what counts as the point of no return during a period of prolonged sleep deprivation, the general consensus is that over a long enough period, continued abuse of one’s health in the form of sleep deprivation can and does lead to long-term, seemingly permanent, damage to the brain and body.

  • Studies like this support a long list of literature on how sleep deprivation is the ideal recipe for loss of focus, terrible memory recall, and loss of cognitive function in general
  • The less sleep you get, the more you compromise your immune system, and the more likely you are to get sick.  
    • Pre-existing conditions and symptoms of things like depression, seizures, anxiety, high blood pressure, migraines all get worse.
    • Because of sleep’s importance to maintaining metabolism, even one night of missed sleep could be enough to create a prediabetic state in an otherwise healthy person.
  • Given the costs to cognitive function, it should come as no surprise to learn that sleep deprivation can severely impact motor function as well. An estimated 21% percent of fatal car crashes involve drowsy drivers!

The Technology Trap: “Yes, Brain, It’s as Bright as Day”

Are you sleeping well? 

If you aren’t, don’t jump to conclusions and blame genetics, your workload, or any external factor just yet. Ask yourself (and answer honestly): have you been trying to fall asleep with the same amount of effort that you put into complaining about not being able to fall asleep?

Try this: dedicate a month, just thirty days, to rediscovering better sleep. Plaster post-it notes everywhere you can. Jot down friendly reminders in your planner. Take a picture and make the picture your phone’s background. For 30 days, make the effort to remind yourself 24/7 that you need to sleep and, most importantly, you need to sleep well.

    • LAW #1: Start by establishing a schedule. Don’t forget to stick to it. Be honest with yourself when making this schedule. No use saying you’ll wake up at 8 am when you’re a night owl, work a night job, and haven’t woken up before noon for maybe a decade, yes?
    • LAW #2: Sleep starts an hour before bedtime. If you want to be “asleep” by 11 PM, you better start getting ready for bed at 9:30 PM and crawl under the covers by 10 PM.
    • LAW #3: Don’t eat things that will keep you up after dinner. Coffee? Bad idea. Pint of ice cream? RESIST!
    • LAW #4: Keep dinner light. Try salads or something similar. Meat-heavy dishes take a long time to digest. 
    • LAW #5: Read before bed. Or just… you know, don’t stare at a glaring screen. Remember circadian rhythms and how they tell our body to go to sleep based on light cues? Yeah, well, when you’re shoving a bright LCD screen into your face right before bed, you’re not telling your brain to go to sleep. Instead, your brain thinks the screen equals daylight and takes on the role of the dreaded rooster that can't be shut up. We don’t want that. 
        • Set boundaries. Remember Law #2? This includes saying no to electronics an hour before bedtime. If you don’t like to read, buy a Sudoku book or support your local newspaper and do their Sunday crossword. Instagram can wait. We promise.
  • LAW #6: Move your body during the day. Don’t like the gym? That’s okay! You don’t need a gym membership OR a pair of running sneakers to get your body moving. If you don’t have a go-to physical activity, take this month to discover it.
    • Our writer likes the combination of yoga with random improv dancing to blaring electronic music. Let loose. Get moving. The only person with judgment you at the end of the day... is you.
  • LAW #7: Watch your sugars and caffeine. Artificial sugars, especially those found in things like convenience store candy, soda, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s, can keep you up for hours without you even realizing it. Try cutting off all energizing sugars and caffeinated drinks (and pastries!) a couple hours before dinner. 
    • If you’ve got a sweet tooth that won’t quit, try a tea with a wallop of honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon (or your favorite sweet spice) before bed. A little bit of sugar can actually help you get to sleep. 
  • LAW #8: Create a routine. Humans are driven by patterns. If it helps, define what you do when you wake up and what you do in the hour and a half before sleepy-time. Set reminders or alarms on your phone. Work with yourself, not against yourself. 

The Rise of Sleep Aids: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why

With widespread insomnia looking to define the 21st-century human, it’s no wonder that going to sleep is foremost on the minds of many traditional and alternative health practitioners. Those of us that aren’t struggling with sleep deprivation are still suffering from fatigue and the costs of an irregular sleep schedule. 

When we’ve decided that we’re fed up with insomnia and determined to get to sleep, it’s important to remember the things we’ve learned about our state of mind (and body!) when we’re lacking sleep. This is especially important to remember when we’re trying to find something that can help us get back to a sense of normalcy (and sanity). 

Lack of sleep, as we’ve shown, can really muddle the brain’s decision-making abilities. While it may be tempting to take a pill as a quick fix for sleep issues, be wary. Sleeping pills can be addictive and if you’re struggling to fall asleep every night, sleeping pills will only mask the problem like a band-aid.

Insomnia and the continued inability to fall asleep or stay asleep is often indicative of underlying issues (whether that’s anxiety, pain, or you staring at your phone).

Before jumping for the pills, ensure that you’re educated on all your options. And if sleep is an ongoing issue, talk to a therapist or doctor before starting any sleep aid medications (natural or not). 

Prescriptions for Sleeplessness

Antihistamines are the most popular over-the-counter sleep aid option.

The problem with antihistamines is that they’re potent. A good night’s rest shouldn’t leave you feeling sluggish the next day, YET... antihistamines can and will make you groggy. When they do, you may be tempted to compensate for your lack of energy with coffee, sugar, and energy drinks. This will inevitably continue the cycle of bad sleep and force you to build a dependence on the antihistamines.

Another popular option for the sleep-deprived comes in the form of prescription pills called benzodiazepine. Sometimes used for treatment of anxiety, sometimes for relieving insomnia, benzodiazepines come with the same problems as over-the-counter antihistamines: next-day grogginess, tolerance build-up, and dependence. 

REMEMBER: most prescription and over-the-counter sleep solutions are easy to use because they’re so strong. 

  • Using a pill to fall asleep every night won't work forever. At some point, that pill will stop working because the receptors in your brain will become less sensitive to the pill's effects. 
  • Many prescription and over-the-counter sleep solutions can help you fall asleep faster. Falling asleep faster doesn't guarantee you the quality of sleep that you need.
  • Studies suggest that long-term use and sleeping pill dependence can lead to a decline in the amount of restorative sleep and REM sleep your brain goes through.

Our outlook on non-benzodiazepine sleep aid prescriptions is a little more positive.

  • Medicines like Sonata and Ambien have been specifically tested for long-term use and don’t seem to have as many of the drawbacks as antihistamines and benzodiazepines do.
  • Still: dependence, tolerance, a decline in effectiveness over time, and daytime grogginess remain real concerns.

Natural Alternatives for Restful Sleep

Melatonin and herbal remedies are typically the go-to for those of us looking to sleep, sleep longer, and sleep better without using over-the-counter or prescription pills. 

Melatonin is very accessible. It's easy to find in most convenience stores and doesn't carry as heavy of a price tag as most other natural supplements.

If you are looking into melatonin as a solution for sleep, this is a great resource for education.

If you are shopping for melatonin, remember these things:

  • Melatonin isn’t categorized as a drug. The melatonin that’s easily accessible is synthetic, made in factories, and lacks any regulatory oversight by the FDA because of its categorization as a natural supplement.
  • Listed doses on store-bought melatonin bottles are rarely accurate
  • Melatonin can do more harm than good if you do not take the correct dose at the correct time. Vet the brands and product contents before you buy and consult your doctor before starting melatonin as a supplement for sleep. 

Others have found relief using more herbal remedies like chamomile tea.

The effectiveness of a natural sleep aid depends on your body’s unique biology, your pre-existing relationship with sleep, and your daily wellness. Things that work for you may not work for your best friend, your father, your work colleague, and vice-versa. 

To discover our preferred method of natural sleep, head over the part two of this blog post, Can't Sleep: How CBD May Help.

Disclaimer: This blog post and any recommendations made within this blog post have not been approved by the FDA. This blog post should not be regarded as making any medical claims, offering any medical advice, or as offering criteria for diagnosis. CBD research is ongoing and any strong statements made within this blog post should be regarded as the opinion of the writer.

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