Asking For A Friend: Should I be worried that my sleep is terrible?

We all know sleep is an important component of our wellness. So should we be freaking out if we can't sleep?

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read April 1, 2022
Sleep disorder, insomnia concept

Lying in bed, worrying about not being able to go back to sleep, is a disaster and a recipe for more sleepless nights. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

Help! Why do I keep waking up at 3 a.m. and what can I do about it to get a good sleep?

Signed, Tired of Counting Sheep


Dear Tired of Counting Sheep,

No question, sleep is a basic human need, just like eating and drinking. But as many as one in every two adults in Canada has trouble going to sleep or staying asleep, and one in five of us do not find our sleep refreshing, which makes it challenging to get out of bed with a can-do attitude.

Some of the many factors that contribute to poor quality sleep are lifestyle-related, including more sedentary time, chronic stress and poor mental health. And studies show the caffeine we drink to keep us alert during the day might be making our sleep even more troublesome.

But don’t get alarmed if your sleep habits aren’t perfect, says Dr. John Peever, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Toronto. He heads the sleep research lab where he’s investigating the brain circuitry that triggers sleep and wakefulness.

“There’s been all this push about how important sleep is, and if you’re not getting this sweet spot sleep, you’re thinking your life is going to unravel,” he says of emerging research on poor sleep linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and mounting evidence over the past decade that sleep is just as important as diet and exercise.

But here’s the important point: “If you’re not sleeping well at night, but your daytime is fine, it’s not something that you should be anxious about.” Unless you’re not able to capably function in your daily life, you are likely getting enough sleep.

Peever also says that waking up in the middle of the night is fairly common and part of the natural sleep pattern as you cycle through different types of sleep. At the beginning of the night, you go into deep sleep, called slow-wave sleep or non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. About 80 to 100 minutes later, you transition into stages of REM sleep or dreaming sleep. After REM sleep, you wake up.

“That awakening is normal and it does occur around two in the morning. Because REM sleep becomes more frequent as the night moves forward. The closer you get to morning, the more you will arouse from sleep, but you might not even know it. People tend to wake up more in the morning and that’s just natural – but the problem is that a lot of people wake up and can’t get back to sleep.”

Peever himself regularly gets up at 4 a.m. and goes to bed at 9 p.m., satisfied with his seven hours of sleep a night.

He does stress that if your daytime activities are impaired by being awake during the night, there are things you can do to help improve your sleep. Lying in bed, worrying about not being able to go back to sleep, is a disaster and a recipe for more sleepless nights.

“Many people will be thinking ‘I don’t want to be awake.’ It’s dark. The house is quiet. They lie in their beds and they become quite anxious. They [start to] associate their bed with anxiety, and it’s just a vicious cycle.”

The best strategy is to actually get out of bed and do something relaxing that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower that further wakes your brain. Peever recommends sitting somewhere quietly in a dim light reading or looking at your phone on night mode. Once you feel sleepy, go back to bed for a little more shuteye. He also suggests not sleeping with pets because their movements tend to be disruptive to sound sleep.

What’s interesting, too, is the historical data on night waking and segmented sleep as a normal biological phenomena, says Peever.

“In times before artificial light, people would wake up between 2 and 3 a.m. and they’d stay awake for several hours before going back to bed for what has been called ‘the second sleep,’” he says. Clearly, our waking up in the middle of the night is nothing new.

“They might have a little meal, they may get together and socialize because of course in those times people slept together. Families would sleep in one bed.”

The key takeaway? Whatever you choose to do about your sleep, “roll with it and don’t fight it.”

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