Most of us spend close to a third of each 24-hour day sleeping, so it’s natural that sleep is a frequent subject of scientific study.
Sleep and how it relates to cognition—our mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses—which includes our moods, has been a focus of research for quite some time. Over the years, researchers have debated whether quantity or quality is more important to achieving better sleep.
Recently researchers at John Hopkins University compared two groups of individuals. One group had its typical sleep time reduced, while researchers interrupted the sleep of the other group. The results, published in the journal Sleep in November 2015, demonstrated that those with induced sleep interruptions showed an increase in negative emotions—including emotions often described by people experiencing clinical depression—as compared to those whose sleep was reduced in length, but uninterrupted.
3 Steps to Better Sleep
The importance of these studies is that when you evaluate your own sleep patterns, including what you consider insomnia, think about the following three steps:
Step 1: The first step in assessing insomnia, defined as any difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep, is to rule out a primary sleep disorder. There might be many reasons people experience fragmented, interrupted sleep patterns in their daily lives.
One of the most common sleep disorders is obstructive sleep apnea, which is associated with a history of loud snoring and daytime sleepiness. According to a 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that surveyed close to 75,000 individuals, 48 percent of respondents reported snoring. Another condition related to disrupted sleep patterns is restless leg syndrome, which causes the body to make jerking movements throughout the night.
Step 2: The second step in assessing insomnia is to determine whether anxiety or depression is its root cause. According to a 2008 study in Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, depression and anxiety can contribute to difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep and early morning awakenings. Might you be depressed because you have a sleep disorder that is interrupting sleep, or are you having trouble sleeping due to depression or anxiety? It is crucial to determine this with the help of a sleep specialist or primary care physician experienced in sleep disorders.
Step 3: Once a primary sleep disorder, depression or anxiety are ruled out, the third step is seeking help to determine other causes of your interrupted sleep patterns. These could be related to medical conditions, environmental factors, or lifestyle and dietary habits, according to the National Sleep Foundation, the American Sleep Association, the CDC and the Mayo Clinic, which all maintain online guides to improving sleep hygiene.
Medical conditions that can cause sleep disturbances:
- Chronic pain, such as that related to arthritis, neck or back pain
- Neurologic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease
- Medications, including beta blockers, antihistamines or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
Lifestyle and dietary habits that diminish sleep quality:
- Alcohol close to bedtime, which can cause sleep disruption in general, but specifically during the restorative second half of the nightly sleep cycle
- Eating heavy meals close to bedtime, which can lead to increased gastroesophageal reflux during sleep
- External sources of disruption, such as pets moving around in the bed
- Light, especially from electronic devices such as TVs, computer and mobile phones
Promote Healthy Sleep Patterns
In addition to modifying any conditions listed above, try these tips for improving your sleep quality:
- Eat a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate snack at night; in a 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, such snacks were found to increase tryptophan, an amino acid that enhances sleep onset.
- Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. Turn off your smartphone, and avoid using electronic devices close to bedtime.
- Try to wake at the same time every morning to help reinforce your circadian rhythm. Exposure to early morning light upon waking can also help.
The importance of healthy sleep patterns is essential to optimizing health. Inadequate sleep contributes to a multitude of health issues, including diminished immune response, depression, and decreased happiness and overall well-being. Getting a good night’s rest, combined with healthy eating and daily physical activity, is the foundation of good health.
About the Author
Timothy Schwaiger, N.D., graduated with his naturopathic medical degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, and completed a two-year residency there in family medicine. He holds a certification in HeartMath® interventions and is clinical associate professor and lead clinical faculty at Bastyr University California.