Reframing Occasional Sleep Difficulty

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We think of nutrition and exercise as foundational for good health but sleep is equally as important. Prioritizing sleep is vital for your overall health and getting good quality sleep depends on a variety of factors. Our bodies have primary drives including the need for food, water, and sleep. Even though it may feel like our bodies turn off during sleep, your body is engaged in a range of complex functions associated with memory, the ability to learn, brain development and cleaning, appetite, immune function, and aging. Our drive to sleep is so strong that it will supersede the drive to eat.

At some point in your life, you have experienced difficulty sleeping. If you haven’t, I’m not sure you are a real human. You probably have heard that poor sleep hygiene and things like heavy meals, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime all contribute to less restful sleep. This can be a helpful list to run through if you are experiencing occasional sleep difficulty. Evaluate these items and try to determine the likely culprit to make a note for the next day/night.

Many are also aware that there are three important stages of sleep–light sleep, deep sleep, and dream or REM sleep. Light sleep is the doorway to both deep sleep and dream sleep. Individuals usually spend about half of the night in some form of light sleep, a quarter of sleep in deep sleep, and the remaining quarter in dream sleep. But did you know that light sleep is not very restorative? If you are spending a disproportionate amount of time in this stage (more than half the night) this may make you feel like you aren’t sleeping at all 1

The next time you can’t sleep consider the following:

  • Your perception of your sleep quality may not be reflective of your sleep reality1.  Remember that your sleep drive is strong and your body has the ability to force you to sleep–sleep is inevitable at some point. 
  • Stop the “what if” scenario spiral. Guess what, anxiety-provoking thinking is going to ratchet up your fear and keep your brain aroused and keep you awake. Know that you are probably getting more sleep than you perceive and while being sleepy the next day is not ideal you have survived sleepy days in the past. Try to stop the spiral with a simple breathing technique or a category game. 
    • Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and breathe out for 6 counts. Do this 4 times and then return to normal breathing. 
    • Distract your brain with a category game. This is similar to counting sheep but more fun! Think of a category like fruits or vegetables and start with A and see if you can work your way to Z. 
  • Your bed should be your sleep haven, don’t work out your stress in your bed. When you cannot sleep do not get on a device and expose yourself to bright light. Instead, get out of bed and do something naturally calming in low light for 10-15 minutes until you get sleepy again. 

A consistent lack of sleep negatively impacts almost every part of your body. Poor sleep impacts our ability to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation increases the hormone ghrelin which makes us hungry and decreases the hormone leptin which makes us feel full. This will make you hungrier and less able to feel satiated which makes you more prone to overeat. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to weight gain and impaired blood sugar control–both increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

  1. Winter WC. The sleep solution: Why your sleep is broken and how to fix it. 1st ed. Berkley; 2017.

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