With today’s busy lifestyles, a lot of people struggle with sleep deprivation, fatigue and insomnia. As a psychiatrist with the UC Irvine Health Neuropsychiatric Center, these are topics of great interest to me.
Signs you're not getting enough sleep
One way to know you’re not getting enough sleep is if you need an alarm clock to wake up.
With the right amount of sleep, you should be able to wake up on your own at about the right time each day. Of course, you might want to use an alarm clock just in case, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Another common clue: If you sleep a lot longer on your days off than you do on your work days, then you’re probably sleep deprived.
Understanding your sleep cycles
There are two processes that regulate when and how much we sleep:
- One is simply how long you’ve been awake. Normally, we function pretty well for about 16 hours and then sleep for around eight hours. The thing to remember is that you can’t force yourself to go to sleep. It’s being awake that helps to create a need for sleep.
- The other regulating factor is your circadian rhythm, or biological clock. It tends to be synchronized to the light/dark cycle, which encourages us to sleep during the dark and be awake in daylight.
The first part of the day we’re awake because we’re sufficiently rested. By afternoon, we often start to feel sleepy. It’s not just due to eating a big lunch. A small dip in the afternoon is fairly normal, but if sleepiness is severe, it may be a sign of being sleep deprived.
Later in the afternoon, our circadian alerting signal gets stronger. This “second wind” is biological and not just because we’re done with work or school and are now free to do fun things.
At night, we initially fall into a period of deep sleep as a response to having been awake all day. The later part of the night is when most dreaming occurs. This is after we’ve dissipated some of our sleep need and is due to the circadian alerting signal being at its lowest level. These two chunks of sleep — early deep sleep in the first part of the night and more dreaming in the second part of the night — are sometimes separated by a period of wakefulness. In this way, our day and night processes tend to mirror each other.
Simple tips for better sleep
Many of the most important sleep behaviors are ones you follow during the day.
- Keep a regular schedule: Don’t vary your sleeping and waking times too much. If you get up early weekdays for work, try to get up early on the weekends, not more than an hour or so after your usual wake-up time. Don’t confuse your biological clock.
- Limit naps: Naps interfere with the sleep deprivation you need to sleep at night. If you have trouble getting to sleep at night, try to keep any naps short and finish them no later than mid-afternoon.
- Get exercise: It’s good for your health and mood in addition to your sleep, and it actually makes you less likely to feel tired than it does to sit around all day. How to start an exercise routine ›
- See the light: In Southern California, we’re lucky that most days are bright and sunny. If you can’t get outside for 30 minutes or so, consider getting a “tunable light” that gradually shifts the color spectrum throughout the day (blues early, reds late) to approximate natural light. However, avoid bright lights for at least an hour prior to bedtime as they can disrupt your normal melatonin production needed for sleep.
- Avoid stimulants: Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol usage can all disrupt your sleep patterns. Limit or avoid them, especially in the evening. Keep in mind some medications (e.g., antidepressants, blood pressure pills) can interfere with sleep, too. How to quit smoking for good ›
- Relax: Don’t do anything too mentally or physically challenging in the last hour before bed. Our brains take time to wind down. The same rituals we have for children — reading or taking a bath before bed — can work well for adults, too. Some tips for chilling out ›
If practicing the above behaviors does not resolve your sleep issues, see your primary care provider.
Sleep disorders are generally treatable. Most underlying causes of sleep loss — stress, anxiety, depression, medical disorders — can be successfully addressed by your regular physician. For potentially serious issues, such as sleep apnea or chronic insomnia, your physician may choose to refer you to a sleep specialist.