I have this weird thing; a sleep phenomenon that started about 5 years ago. I will fall asleep just fine, but my sleep feels very superficial. I don’t know how else to describe it, it is like I am not getting into the deeper more restorative phases of sleep. And then, around 4 o’clock in the morning, I wake up.
It used to be that I could not go back to sleep, but now I can. I can, but only when I stop doing the bad behaviors I know are the cause.
See, we all have sleep triggers and most of us are completely unaware of what ours are. I found mine, and I want to help you find yours.
Many people complain about not being able to sleep. Of course there are all kinds of drugs and remedies that are marketed for sleep. Ambien and Lunesta are two of the most popular pharmaceuticals. Melatonin and Valerian are used in many natural health circles.
There are also some of the more ridiculous things people are willing to try like amethyst crystals on your chest while you snort lavender pellets; although lavender does help sleep (see research here, here and here)
But when it comes to sleep, none of these things solve the cause of sleep disturbances.
Maybe you are just scared?
Sleep is really not as confusing as you imagine. Think about it this way, if you saw a ghost in your room would you be able to go to sleep? No, right? You would be too damn scared. Being frightened by Casper is incompatible with sleep.
How about if you traveled across time zones? For example, at the place where you came from it’s mid afternoon, but the time where you just arrived it’s midnight. Are you going to be able to sleep?
No, right? Well, that is your first, and perhaps most important, lesson on sleep.
Fear & Rhythms
There are two major causes of sleep issues. They are:
- Sympathetic overdrive (another name for the “fear response” or “stress response”)
- Circadian rhythm disruption (the natural ebb and flow from wake to resting)
Think about your body like the earth: half the time of each day it is light and half the time it is dark. For this reason, your physiology evolved with a day setting and a night setting. This is called the circadian rhythm.
If your body is set to day, it does not matter if the sun is shining or not, you will feel stimulated. And that is exactly what can happen, sometimes your setting gets stuck in day mode.
Let’s say I have a magic device where I can immediately teleport you to anywhere on the planet. It is one o’clock in the afternoon, and just to mess with you I decide to teleport you to China where it’s the middle of the night.
Are you going to be able to go to sleep when you get there? Of course not!! Your circadian rhythm is not programmed for China time. So while the rest of China sleeps, you are going to be wide freakin awake. This circadian rhythm can become altered too. Are you with me so far?
Another thing to consider is that our body can immediately be thrown into a “scared shitless state” (or in more scientific terms a sympathetic state).
Have you ever been driving late at night while you were tired? And maybe you shut your eyes for a second and hit the rumble strip on the highway? What happened? You were jolted awake right? And probably stayed wide-awake for the rest of the drive home.
That happens because you stimulated your stress or fear response (the sympathetic response). That response releases adrenaline and other stress hormones that wake you up, get you alert and prepare you to fight or run.
It would be like getting an IV full of caffeine while being slapped in the face 100 times and then trying to take a nap. It just is not going to happen. (want to see what 100 slaps looks like? check out the video below…why? Because its completely random and fun to watch someone get smacked in the face)
Why most people can’t fall asleep
For most people, the reason they can’t fall asleep is because one of these two systems has been altered somehow. Either the circadian rhythm/clock has been altered or the fear response is stuck in the on position.
In either case, you can take all the sleep meds and supplements you like, but until you fix this issue sleep is going to continue to be a challenge.
So what are some of the things that can alter the sympathetic response or the circadian rhythm? You might be surprised by some of them. Here is a small sampling:
- Acute Illness
- Traveling across time zones
- Electromagnetic exposure (clock radios, phones, computers, TVs)
- Menopause or andropause (i.e. aging)
- Allergies (environmental and food)
- Emotional stress and worry (especially extreme or prolonged)
- Chronic disease
- Nightshift work
- Late night TV or computer work (it’s the lights and the EMF)
- Dieting (are you surprised by that one?)
- Sleep medications (yep, the very things you take can make it worse)
- Natural supplements (yep, they can cause issues too)
- Staying up too late or sleeping in too long
Changing how you think about sleep
Interesting right? It’s odd to see things like dieting, sleep meds, health supplements and allergies on the list, huh?
What you have to understand, and what I am going to teach you, is that sleep is almost always about what you are currently doing that you need to STOP doing versus about something you aren’t doing that you need to START doing.
In other words, if you are feeling stimulated at night the most likely cause is NOT that you need to start taking magnesium or Ambien. The most likely issue is that you need to stop sleeping in so late or stop drinking an entire bottle of wine for dinner.
That might confuse you because you have likely heard that you need to get 8 hours of sleep. That certainly is a good goal, but if you are trying to retrain your body to sleep when it is dark, and be awake when it is light, you need to teach it to do that.
Think of your nervous system like a dog. It is going to do what you train it to do. Go to bed at 2am and sleep until 11am, and do that for any length of time, and you just may find yourself in a stuck pattern of sleep disturbance. You trained yourself this way
Think about when your sleep issues started? Did they start during an especially difficult time at work? Perhaps after your second child? Or maybe after a long vacation overseas? That is the first step to solving your sleep issue.
Your homework is to think about and write down all the things that were going on around the time your sleep issues started. In that sea of stuff, you will find your sleep trigger or triggers. When you do, you are on the road to dramatically increasing your sleep.
For the next couple of blog posts, I will be giving you all the tips I have learned over the years related to sleep. Next blog we will talk about how to use food to sleep better. Check that blog out HERE.
PS if you have a friend or family member who is having sleep issues make sure you forward them this blog and the ones to follow. If you or someone you know is really in need of sleep help, then think about signing up for our 8-week sleep program. We can help you find and fix your sleep issues.
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