About a quarter of the population suffers from some form of sleep-related problem. There are different types of sleep disorder. Insomnia covers a range of problems associated with going to sleep and staying asleep. Psychological causes include stress, depression or mental illness. Physiological causes include pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and high blood pressure. Insomnia can also result from restless leg syndrome, sleep apnoea, jet lag and side-effects of prescription medications. Hypersomnia causes excessive sleep, as in narcolepsy, where sufferers can fall asleep mid-conversation. Parasomnia or dysfunctional sleep is the category that I believe you come into; symptoms include sleepwalking and bedwetting, plus excessive dreaming and nightmares.
Sleep is a state of unconsciousness in which you can still respond to external stimuli such as a loud noise or being pinched. Although we think of sleep as a passive process, it is in fact active both physically (our bodies move frequently) and mentally – brain activity is even more varied than when awake.
There are two states of sleep, differentiated by the electrically recorded brainwave patterns they produce: deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In deep sleep, the entire body relaxes – blood pressure, metabolic rate and breathing drop by about one third. In REM sleep, active dreaming occurs, accompanied by a rise in blood pressure and breathing rate plus a rapid blinking movement. REM sleep brainwave patterns look as if you are awake and conscious, but in fact your response to external stimuli is minimal- the eyeballs may move, but your muscles are in a paralytic state.
Throughout the night, cycles of deep sleep, which last for 90 minutes or so each, alternate with REM sleep, lasting from five to 20 minutes. Every night we spend about two hours out of eight in REM or dream sleep. Children, though, have more REM sleep, while extremely tired people have less.
Dreams last or one to two minutes, sometimes more. Generally they are forgotten, as the deep sleep cycles can erase the memory of even the most vivid visual experiences, so if you wake from one of these, you are unlikely to remember your dreams. However, if you wake up at the end of a REM period, you are likely to remember everything.
In your case, I suspect that you are having an abnormal number of REM sleep periods and hardly any deep sleep. You feel tired because your brain has been active during the time you should be sleeping restfully.
Here are my suggestions:
- Avoid foods and drinks that excite the mind, such as coffee, excess salt and sugar, spices such as chilli and ginger, monosodium glutamate, and excess nutritional supplements including guarana, ginseng and royal jelly.
- Don’t watch overstimulating TV programmes just before you go to bed.
- Adjust your bed so that your head points north. Choose loose-fitting bed wear, and make sure that the duvet is light as you may be getting overheated, which causes brain agitation.
- Drink six to eight large glasses of still room-temperature water daily – if you are dehydrated, your pulse rate goes up.
- Avoid alcohol and puddings or sweets before bedtime – a sugar rush can stop the brain feeling rested.
- Ask a flatmate or partner to massage your neck and shoulder area to help release tension and improve circulation of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, which bathes the brain.
- Take one tablet of Biorelax at bedtime for one month.
- Listen to a relaxation tape or CD before bed, such as Dr Ali’s Relaxation CD (Integrated Health Group).
- Yoga is useful at bedtime, including retention breathing and/or corpse pose – more details are in my book Therapeutic Yoga, co-written with Jiwan Brar. See page 77 for a special five-minute yoga routine.