The problems caused by interrupted sleep — in particular, prolonged wakefulness up to four times a night — can be worse than even the damage caused by insomnia.
If this sounds like no surprise to you, the good news is that there may be a few things that can help you sleep more soundly.
Waking up in the middle of the night? Interrupted sleep causes
The impact to the four-stage 60 to 90 minute sleep cycle (over 8 hours) may actually be harder on your body than simple insomnia — an inability to fall asleep — because when a sleep cycle is interrupted, the cycle has to start over again — potentially inhibiting your deeper and more restorative sleep phases.
Worst of all: Poor sleep not only makes us grumpy, hungry and lethargic — it can be deadly.
A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for 18 hours produced an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of .05, and .10 after 24 hours. (In most states, .08 is considered legally drunk.) Consider that over 73% of Americans drive to and from work, that is a lot of people on the road potentially impaired from poor sleep.
What can you do to make sure you get to sleep and stay asleep? Here are 7 tips.
1. Eat consistent balanced meals throughout the day, and especially at dinnertime.
Your blood sugar may be dropping in the middle of the night causing your body to wake you up.
Nighttime hypoglycemia caused by eating too many carbohydrates such as pasta and bread, skipping meals, eating large meals and eating late at night can lead to a blood sugar surge and plunge that cause you to wake as the blood sugar drops.
2. Watch alcohol intake at dinner and after.
Your wine or alcohol at night may be the culprit.
True, alcohol often reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increased deep slow wave sleep (SWS) in the early part of the night that is restorative but it impairs the later sleep stages and the ability to get into REM sleep where memories and learning occurs. Keep your alcohol to no more than one alcoholic drink at dinner if you’re a woman, and two if you’re a man. This should reduce the likelihood alcohol may affect your sleep.
3. Check your hormones.
Fluctuations of hormones — such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone — during women’s cycles, pregnancy, and during menopause are likely culprits for interrupted sleep. This points to why women are more than twice as likely to have interrupted sleep and insomnia than men.
However, men are not immune to hormone changes that may affect sleep. There is strong evidence that falling testosterone levels increase a man’s chances of having sleep apnea — a sleep disorder where the airway is obstructed.
Stress causes a surge in adrenal hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are designed to make you alert and ready fight or flee. Normal adrenal activities are highest in the morning and lowest at bedtime.
Chronic stress can cause abnormal fluctuations in adrenal function, low blood sugar and an inability to stay asleep as will abnormally high or low cortisol.
5. You may have gastrointestinal reflux (GERD) and your only symptom is interrupted sleep.
GERD occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, sometimes causing a burning sensation or chest pain. However, not everyone gets shows these signs, and interrupted sleep or chronic cough might be your only symptoms.
Before you run off to take an antacid, a doctor should check your esophagus for damage, as this can lead to other health issues. Then, look into potential diet and lifestyle triggers such as eating too much and eating late, eating spicy or acidic foods, and checking for undiagnosed food allergies and sensitivities. (Also see “New Studies Reveal that Nighttime Acid Reflux Can Impact Sleep.”)
6. You may be low on vitamin co-factors and the proteins required to make your sleep neurotransmitters melatonin and gaba.
Sleep is regulated on a circadian rhythm by the brain and adrenal glands. Melatonin, the sleep neurotransmitter, is made from serotonin, which comes from the amino acid tryptophan and the vitamin co-factors vitamins B6, B12, folate, niacin and the minerals iron and magnesium. A shortage of these nutrients will leave you with fewer ingredients to make your sleep chemistry.
Additionally, gaba, the most abundant calming neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a role in keeping you asleep as well as convert glycogen into glucose in the brain. Gaba also depends on adequate B6 levels.
7. Your medications and or supplements might be leading to interrupted sleep patterns.
Beta-blockers for high blood pressure or asthma medications are well-known culprits for sleep issues.
Opioid drugs often prescribed for pain can lead to sleep apnea. Supplements known to be stimulatory — like ginseng, gotu kola and licorice — can also put the breaks on getting a good night’s sleep. Vitamins B12 and B6 taken at night can lead to vivid dreams that can wake you up. It is best to take those in the morning.