Even those of us too young to have grown up watching “The Waltons” are familiar with the show’s famous closing lines, “…. ‘Night, Mama,” “… ‘Night, John Boy.”
We picture the large family, each in bed after the last lights are put out, drifting peacefully off to sleep. There is a comfort to the scene: only the house is visible, stillness surrounding it in the peaceful night. We can almost hear the soothing sounds in the darkness – a distant train goes past, leaves in the trees rustle easily with the night breeze, and crickets chirp.
It’s easy to imagine the calming effect of saying a peaceful good night to everyone you love, knowing they’re safe and that all of today’s problems can be safely put off until morning.
For many of us, circadian rhythm might as well be the name of a salsa band. Our bodies have been made to fit into a world where our schedules and stresses call all the shots. In cities, there is little evidence of natural nighttime. People endure too much light – neighbors klieg-light up their front yards to ward off intruders. We innocently watch television or computer screens until bedtime, unaware of their effects of blocking the production of melatonin, a hormone essential to good sleep.
There is plenty of science today that keeps me informed about sleep – how much we need and what we can do if it’s hard to fall asleep. Here’s a look at some things that explain normal sleep and how to gauge whether you are among those who suffer from occasional insomnia.
How much sleep is enough?
Renowned historian Roger Ekrich describes the pre-industrial revolution habit of sleeping in two “shifts.” People fell asleep when darkness descended, stayed asleep until midnight or so, and then awakened for a short time—to eat, talk, make love, pray and read—and then went to sleep again until the sun rose. Gradually, since the advent of artificial light, we have forced out bodies into a less natural state in which we sleep several hours after sunset and awaken with an alarm clock.
Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night in order to be focused and refreshed the next day. Lots of my patients sleep only six hours per night, “stealing” from the nighttime because it is the only place their busy schedules allow them to find an extra hour or two. Sleep researchers say that six hours is enough sleep for only about 3 percent of the population, and that the remaining 97 percent of us need more. Feeling tired during the day, nodding off in the afternoon during meetings (even if they’re boring), and falling asleep within five minutes of being in bed are signs of inadequate sleep.
Do I have a sleep disorder?
Everyone has nights when their mind plays movies about what went on during the day, or scary scenes of things that might happen. An occasional sleepless night is nothing to be concerned about. But if “occasional” turns into weeks, months and even years of insufficient sleept, a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, may be diagnosed.
There are lots of treatments available for the various forms of insomnia, and they are sometimes coupled with medication for a short time. The commonly prescribed Ambien and other “hypnotics” are designed for short-term relief from sleeplessness. The downside to these drugs is that they are habit forming and that dependence becomes a problem in some patients. Also, some people have a “hung over” feeling after using this class of drugs, so their helpfulness is only temporary.
Taking a look at your own “sleep hygiene” (this isn’t about the cleanliness of your boudoir, although having a cozy, inviting sleep environment is a requirement) will give you information about whether you have a sleep disorder or just a transient problem getting enough shut-eye. Everyone’s heard about the importance of using the bedroom exclusively for sleeping and, well, “the marital impulse” as it was called about a hundred years ago. Computers and television screens are best left outside the door in order for the body-mind to develop a habit of feeling sleepy and relaxed in the bedroom.
Turn off electronics about an hour or so before bedtime in order for your body to start getting dialed down to rest. A warm bath, scents which you have learned to associate with sleep, milk or tea – all of these act as prompts which wind you down from daytime into a peaceful state where you can gently fall into sleep.
Next time: more on sleep disorders, how to know when to go for a “sleep study,” and the best treatment for insomnia.
Dr. Ruth Wimsatt is a practicing psychologist who in Newport Beach. She can be reached at [email protected] or 949-222-3285.