We spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping. But why do we sleep, and do we actually need it? There have been countless research studies carried out on the topic, but experts still have no definitive answer to these questions. It is widely thought that sleep gives the body a chance to rest and regenerate, and it also helps us to maintain our cognitive faculties like memory and concentration.
Do we really need sleep?
Why do we need sleep, and what would happen if we didn’t sleep? If we don’t get enough sleep, our brain function is affected, as we can feel groggy, irritable, and forgetful. It can also affect concentration and memory.
If you consistently miss out on sleep, your ability to make decisions and your alertness will be affected. Studies have shown that being awake for 17 hours decreases performance as much as it would if you had drunk 2 glasses of wine. This is especially worrying if you are performing a task such as driving or operating machinery.
Research also shows that sleep-deprived people find it difficult to respond to emergencies or problems, and they struggle to make rational judgments.
Sleep deprivation can also affect emotional and physical health. Disorders such as sleep apnoea, where a suffer stops breathing temporarily in their sleep, results in excessive daytime sleepiness and is linked to stress and high blood pressure. Research has also suggested that sleep loss may increase the risk of obesity because chemicals and hormones that control appetite and weight gain are released during sleep.
What happens during sleep?
Sleep occurs in cycles which are between 90 and 110 minutes long. Sleep is divided into 2 categories; non-REM sleep and REM sleep.
Stage one: Light Sleep
During this first stage of sleep, we’re half awake and half asleep. Muscle activity slows down and twitching of the muscles can occur. Have you ever felt your body ‘jump’ when you are nodding off? This is what happens in this stage. This is very light sleep, so we can be easily woken up at this stage.
Stage two: True Sleep
Within around 10 minutes of light sleep, we enter stage 2, which lasts for around 20 minutes. Your breathing pattern and heart rate will start to slow down. This makes up most of the time we are asleep.
Stages three and four: Deep Sleep
During stage three, the brain waves change, and breathing and heart rate are at their lowest levels.
Stage four is characterised by rhythmic breathing and limited muscle activity. If we are awakened during deep sleep we often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after waking up. Some children experience bed-wetting, night terrors, or sleepwalking during this stage.
The first rapid eye movement (REM) period usually begins about 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep. We have around 3-5 periods of REM sleep per night.
Although we are not conscious, the brain is active. This is when dreams tend to occur. The eyes dart around, and our breathing rate and blood pressure rise, though the muscles are technically paralysed.
After this stage, the whole sleep cycle starts again.
How much sleep do we need?
The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person. Some people can feel fine on 5 hours, whereas some people need as much as 11 hours. The average amount of sleep is 7.75 hours. Experts say that you are getting enough sleep if you don’t feel tired during the day.
Common sleep disorders
Sleep disorders are conditions that prevent a person from getting restful sleep. It can result in an inability to function properly through the day due to fatigue. There are around 80 known sleep disorders. Here are some of the most common:
Insomnia is a condition where sufferers have difficulty falling or staying asleep. People with insomnia usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Difficulty falling asleep
Waking up during the night and having trouble getting back to sleep
Waking up too early in the morning
Having unrefreshing sleep
Having at least one daytime problem such as fatigue; sleepiness; problems with mood and concentration, or even accidents at work.
Insomnia varies in frequency, duration, and severity. About half of all adults experience occasional bouts of insomnia and 1 in 10 people suffer from chronic insomnia. Insomnia can occur on its own or it can be associated with a medical or psychiatric condition. Acute insomnia can last from 1 night to a few weeks. Insomnia is chronic when a person has insomnia on at least 3 nights per week for a month or more.
Sleep apnoea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnoea stop breathing repeatedly when they are asleep. There are two types of sleep apnoea: obstructive and central.
Obstructive sleep apnoea is the most common type. It is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep. This can be an issue if someone is overweight. In central sleep apnoea, the airway is not blocked but the brain doesn’t tell the body to breathe. It’s called central apnoea because the condition is related to a fault with the central nervous system. Symptoms of obstructive apnoea can include snoring, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, restlessness during sleep, gasping for air while sleeping and trouble concentrating. People with central apnoea may gasp for air or wake up often during the night.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome is a sleep disorder that causes an intense, irresistible urge to move the legs. This sensation is brought on by a period of rest such as lying down in bed, or sitting for prolonged periods such as while driving or at a cinema. It usually occurs in the evening, which makes it difficult for sufferers to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can cause problems with daytime sleepiness, irritability, and concentration. Often, people with restless legs find that they want to walk around and shake their legs which can help to relieve the sensation.
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness. People with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime. These sudden sleep attacks may occur during any type of activity at any time of the day. Some patients with narcolepsy experience sudden muscle weakness with laughter or other emotions such as anger. Narcolepsy usually begins between the ages of 15 and 25, but it can become apparent at any age. In many cases, narcolepsy is undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. Narcolepsy does not usually cause serious physical issues, but it can be very emotionally challenging to live with.
How are sleep disorders diagnosed?
If you think that you might have a sleep disorder, discuss your symptoms with your doctor. They will usually do a physical exam and ask you about your sleeping patterns. It might help if you keep a sleep diary for a few weeks before you go to see them, so that any triggers for sleep problems can be identified.
How to get a better sleep
A bedtime routine will help you get back on the road to sleeping better. Here are some top tips to help you nod off faster and wake up feeling refreshed.
Sleep at regular times
Try to keep to a regular bedtime. This programmes your internal body clock to get used to a set routine. Most adults need between 6 and 9 hours of sleep every night. Work out what time you need to wake up, and this will help you to set a regular bedtime.
Make sure you wind down before bed
Taking time to wind down will help you to get into a relaxed state before bed. Here are some tips on relaxing before bed:
Have a warm bath. It will increase your body temperature and prepare you for sleep. Don’t have a hot bath, as this will have the opposite effect.
If your mind feels ‘busy’, write a list of things that are on your mind. Better out of your head than in!
Do relaxing activities such as light yoga stretches, don’t exercise strenuously before bed however, as this produces adrenaline in the body and causes you to wake up.
Listening to relaxing music or a guided meditation.
Reading a book can help to relax you.
Make your bedroom sleep-friendly
Make your bedroom as relaxing as possible. Keep TVs and other electronic gadgets out of the room, and keep the room at a cool, but not cold temperature. Invest in thick curtains to make it as dark as possible and invest in earplugs if you get bothered by noise.
Keep a sleep diary
Keeping a sleep diary can help you to see what might be contributing to your sleep problems. This will make it easier if you go to see your doctor too.
Sleeping aids: Ambien
Ambien, or zolpidem to give the drug its generic name, is a sedative, which affects the chemicals in the brain that can be unbalanced in people with insomnia.
There are 2 available forms of the drug; the immediate-release tablet which can help you fall asleep when you first go to bed. The extended-release form, Ambien CR, has a first layer that dissolves quickly to help you fall asleep, and a second layer that dissolves slowly to help you stay asleep.
What you need to know about Ambien
The extended release form of the drug can make you feel groggy the morning after you take it to help you sleep. If you need to be alert for any activity, give yourself at least 4 hours to get pulled around.
Zolpidem can cause a severe allergic reaction. Stop taking the drug and seek medical advice if you experience any of the following: hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.
There have been reports from some users that they have engaged in activities such as driving, and have later had no recollection of it. If this happens, you must talk to your doctor about taking another treatment.
Ambien might be habit forming and should be used only by the person it was prescribed for.
This drug is not suitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The sedative effects of the drug may be more prominent in older adults.
The drug is not suitable for anyone under 18 years of age.
How should you take Ambien?
Take Ambien as prescribed by your doctor. Follow all of the directions on the label.
Never take the drug unless you have enough time to sleep for 7-8 hours before you have to be active again.
Ambien is intended for short-term use. Do not take this medicine for longer than 4 or 5 weeks at a time unless your doctor agrees that this is necessary.
Don’t stop taking Ambien suddenly after you have used it for a while or you could experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Insomnia can return after you stop taking Ambien. It may even be worse than before you started taking the drug.
What to avoid when taking Ambien
Ambien can impair thinking and reactions. You can still feel sleepy the morning after taking the drug, especially if you are using the extended-release form. Always wait until you are fully awake and lucid before you drive, operate machinery, or do anything where you need to be alert.
Do not take this medicine if you have consumed alcohol during the day or just before bed, as alcohol can increase the sedative effects of the drug.
Ambien side effects
Ambien can cause a severe allergic reaction. Stop taking the drug and seek emergency medical assistance if you experience any of the following: hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.
There have been reports of the drug causing worsening psychological symptoms. Tell your doctor if you experience any of the following, and if they become worse: depression, anxiety, aggression, agitation, confusion, unusual thoughts, hallucinations, memory problems, changes in personality, risk-taking behaviour, decreased inhibitions, no fear of danger, or thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself.
Stop using Ambien at once and seek medical attention if you have:
chest pain, a fast or irregular heartbeat, or you feel short of breath
trouble breathing or swallowing
daytime drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, feeling “drugged” or light-headed
fatigue, loss of coordination;
stuffy nose, dry mouth, nose or throat irritation
nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, upset stomach
headache, or muscle pain
Ambien and drug interactions
Taking Ambien with other drugs that make you sleepy or slow your breathing can cause dangerous or life-threatening side effects. Ambien can possibly interact with sleeping pills, narcotic pain medication, prescription cough medicines, muscle relaxants, or medicine for anxiety, depression, or seizures.
How effective is Ambien as a sleep aid?
Ambien belongs to a family of controlled drugs known as hypnotics, which are often used to treat insomnia. Ambien is actually a brand name owned by Sanofi-Aventis, a French pharmaceutical company that produces any other brand name drugs.
Who is Ambien for?
Ambien was developed to offer short-term treatment for temporary insomnia. The drug is not a benzodiazepine, but it can become habit-forming and so is not meant for long-term use. Most people will experience at least 1 temporary bout of insomnia in their lives. Ambien is meant to treat insomnia which is like this. The intention is that the drug is used to help you get your sleep back on track.
Ambien can be used to relieve symptoms from any of the main types of insomnia: sleep onset, middle of the night, and late insomnia.
How does Ambien treat insomnia?
Ambien works very rapidly, sometimes before you even go to bed if you’ve taken the dose before you’re prepared. The drug mostly leaves you without a feeling of being hungover, which makes it quite popular. However, the extended release formula can leave you a bit groggy the next day. The drug has an intense muscle relaxing effect that encourages your body to simulate a sleep-wake cycle. The main purpose of Ambien is to put you to sleep quickly, and to help you stay asleep, which insomnia sufferers rarely do.
Standard Ambien and Ambien CR (extended release) are the 2 types of Ambien on the market. The main differences in the formulations are that the standard tablet works mostly to get you to sleep. The extended release version provides you with a steady release of the active ingredient throughout the night. This not only helps you get to sleep, but it helps you to stay asleep. Some experts advocate taking the extended release version as your body is not bombarded with a dose of the drug all at once; it gets the dose gradually, which provides you with a sounder sleep.
Sleep problems can be troubling, but it seems that with this drug, they can become a thing of the past.