Dealing with Interrupted Sleep? Here’s How to Overcome Your Problems

By Jennifer Walker-Journey

Every human, starting from a newborn baby to an octogenarian, needs to sleep soundly at night in order to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. 

Infants tend to need more sleep — as much as 11 to 14 hours during the day. School-aged kids require between 8 and 10 hours. Older adults can make do with 7-8 hours. Apart from the number of hours of sleep you’re getting every day, it is more important that you sleep soundly. 

Yet, as many as one in four of Americans experience acute insomnia each year, and a whopping 70 million suffer from a sleep disorder that interferes with them getting a good night’s sleep. 

A normal sleep cycle involves four stages of increasingly deep sleep during which body temperature drops, muscles relax, and heart rate and breathing slow down. During the deepest stage of sleep physiological changes occur that help boost our immune system. 

Another sleep category involves REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when people dream. During this time, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increase to the level similar to when we are awake. It is during this time that memory and emotional health are strengthened. 

Why is getting quality sleep important? 

According to Johns Hopkins sleep research Patrick Finan, PhD, insufficient sleep can affect your mood, memory, and health in surprising ways.  

Uninterrupted sleep allows our bodies, minds and souls to relax and be restored. It helps protect our mental and physical health, improves our quality of life, and protects us from accidents. 

When sleep disruptions occur, it affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, impairs thinking and emotional regulation. We suffer sleep deprivation and are at greater risk for a host of problems which can have detrimental circumstances including: 

  • Problems with memory and learning, which can affect school or work performance
  • Difficulty controlling emotions and behavior, which puts a strain on relationships
  • Increases the risk for anxiety and depression
  • Greater risk for accidents such as from drowsy driving 
  • Increases hunger hormones, lowers appetite control, and puts you at 50% greater risk for obesity
  • Increases our likelihood of developing chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes

We all know good quality sleep is crucial to our good health, yet, as we age, the total number of hours we sleep on average reduces and also tends to become fragmented. 

We could also be plagued by poor sleep because of a medical condition or health issue that keeps us in discomfort and causes pain. 

Or, our sleep loss could be caused by an undisciplined or erratic lifestyle, and stress could be to blame. By and large, a host of genetic, environmental, physical and mental health issues, and other interconnected factors influence sleep quality.

What Causes Interrupted Sleep?

There are a number of causes of sleep disturbance that prevent us from getting restorative sleep. 

Sleep Disorders 

Sleep disorders are conditions that cause changes in the way you sleep and, as a result, adversely affect overall health. Let’s take a closer look at some common sleep disorders. 

Snoring or sleep apnea

Snoring isn’t a sleep disorder — though it may interfere with your bed partner’s sleep. But snoring may be a sign that you’re suffering from a potentially serious sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea.

Snoring happens when the tissues in the mouth fall to the back of the throat and vibrate as we breathe. Sleep apnea occurs when the tissues block the airway. This causes you to choke, cough, or gasp, and you awaken repeatedly through the night. In severe cases, obstructive sleep apnea can cause low blood oxygen, which can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Man snoring while his wife is covering ears with the pillow

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about treatment. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may recommend you lose weight or try practical solutions like elevating your head when you sleep with pillows or an adjustable bed. 

Or, your doctor may recommend you undergo a sleep study. Severe sleep apnea is often treated with a CPAP device, which consists of a mask hooked up to a machine. However, these sleep aids can be cumbersome and uncomfortable.  

Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome, or RLS, is a nocturnal disorder that is characterized by an unpleasant sensation that causes an irresistible urge to move the legs. The symptoms are often described as an itching, crawling, pulling, aching, throbbing, or pins-and-needles sensation. RLS typically occurs at night, often when you’re trying to sleep.  

About 80% of restless legs syndrome sufferers also experience a condition known as PMLS, short for periodic limb movement of sleep, during which a person involuntarily twitches or jerks their legs or arms every 15 to 40 second during sleep. For some people with PMLS, these movements continue throughout the night, which can obviously interfere with a good night’s sleep.

Getting up and walking around generally helps to relieve symptoms of RLS, which is not always practical when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep. In severe cases, medications such as dopamine agonists, nerve pain agents, opioids, muscle relaxers, or sleeping pills may be prescribed. 

Insomnia

Insomnia or sleeplessness is the omnibus medical term for the loss of the natural ability to fall asleep and/or remain somnolent. A significant proportion of the US population suffers from insomnia which can take a huge toll on the insomniac’s wellbeing. There could be a host of issues, mental or physical or both that could be behind someone’s insomnia. 

Consult with your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be interfering with your sleep, or consult with a sleep specialist to rule out any other sleep disorders. Talking with a cognitive behavioral therapist may help you process any emotional issues that may be preventing you from falling or staying asleep. 

Teeth grinding or bruxism

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, is considered a sleep-related movement disorder. You may or may not be aware that you’re grinding, gnashing, or clenching your teeth at night while you sleep or even when you’re awake. But bruxism could be the cause of you waking up with an inflamed jaw or nagging headache.

You may not require treatment for bruxism unless it is contributing to your lack of sleep, or if it is causing problems like jaw disorders, headaches, damaged teeth, or other problems. People who grind their teeth at night are also more likely to have sleep apnea. 

Symptoms of bruxism include flattened, fractured, chipped, or loose teeth; exposed enamel; tooth pain or sensitivity; tight jaw muscles or a locked jaw that won’t open or close completely; tooth pain or sensitivity; and sleep disruption. If you experience any signs of bruxism, schedule an appointment with a dentist. Treatments include a splint or dental guard. Botox injections in the jaw muscle also help contain bruxism.

Circadian rhythm issues

Circadian rhythm is our internal 24-hour clock. This circadian clock cycles around in predictable patterns every day, regulating our hours of waking and sleeping. This master clock is governed by a group of neurons in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which takes cues our body sends when it senses changes in the environment.

For example, when we see it getting dark outside as dusk settles in, sensors in our eyes send a message to the suprachiasmatic nucleus to trigger the production of melatonin, the boy’s sleep hormone. 

Sleepy young woman trying kill alarm clock while bury face in pillow. Early wake up, not getting enough sleep, getting work concept. Female stretching hand to ringing alarm willing turn it off

When our circadian rhythm is thrown off by issues like Jet lag  or shift work, it can cause difficulty falling asleep at night or feeling awake during the day. Other conditions, such as blindness and diseases like Parkinson’s. Professionals like nurses, pilots, call center employees, doctors, highway patrollers, air traffic controllers, and law enforcement officers who often have to do the graveyard shift find it difficult to follow a regular sleep pattern as their circadian rhythms go haywire.

Related: Circadian rhythm sleep disorders 

Often, the solution is making lifestyle changes such as sticking to a strict nap schedule, controlling your exposure to light, cutting back on substances like caffeine or nicotine before bed, and improving your sleep environment. In severe cases, treatments like bright light therapy, chronotherapy, and oral supplements or medications may be used. 

Mental Health Problems

The connection between sleep and mental health has been well documented. Sleep deprivation affects psychological state and mental health, and people with mental health problems are more likely to suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders. And they are also common in people with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

For people who suffer from mental health problems, treatment is similar to what is prescribed for healthy men and women — lifestyle changes such as cutting out caffeine or nicotine, increasing physical activity, improving sleep hygiene such as maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule, using relaxation techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy. When you process your anxiety or depression with therapy, it can improve your sleep. 

Health Conditions

Health conditions can adversely affect quality sleep in a number of ways. For starters, people who suffer from a chronic illness are at greater risk of depression, which can cause insomnia and lead to excessive daytime sleepiness.

Doctor using sphygmomanometer with stethoscope checking blood pressure to a patient in the hospital.

Other problems, such as heartburn, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or arthritis can cause pain and discomfort, which can lead to sleepless nights. Women going through menopause are prone to insomnia, but symptoms like hot flashes can disrupt their sleep. Older men with prostate problems may need to get up from bed during the night more than usual for bathroom breaks. If a medical condition is disrupting your sleep, talk with your doctor about possible solutions. 

Certain Medications & Supplements 

Sometimes medications used to manage an existing health problem can cause insomnia. If you are concerned that a medicine you are taking may be interfering with your sleep, do not stop taking it without first talking with your doctor. Some medications that can cause insomnia include: 

  • SSRI antidepressants (includes brand-names Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft)
  • Dopamine agonists (i.e. medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease)
  • Stimulants (including brand-names Ritalin, Adderall)
  • Antiseizure drugs 
  • Cold medicines and decongestants
  • Steroids
  • Beta agonists (used for heart conditions or asthma)
  • Theophylline (treats lung problems like asthma and chronic bronchitis)
  • Blood pressure lowering medications (alpha agonists, beta blockers)
  • Diuretics
  • Appetite suppressants
  • Niacin (a B vitamin) 

Unhealthy Sleep Environment

Your sleep environment — the room and bed you sleep in every night — should be your temple reserved only for sex and sleep. To improve your chances for a good night’s sleep, be sure your sleep environment is calming and peaceful.

Related: How to create the ideal bedroom environment

Here are some factors to consider:

Light exposure

Light and darkness are crucial external factors that can have a beneficial or unpleasant impact on our sleep cycles. Spending too many hours indoors at daytime and working in excessively bright environments at night can throw off your circadian rhythm and interfere with your sleep.

When it comes to your sleep environment, be sure that it is dark enough to be conducive to sleep. Use blinds or curtains to block any outdoor light such as from street lamps, or invest in an eye mask. 

Temperature

According to H. Craig Heller, PhD, professor of biology at Stanford University and author of a medical textbook on the best temperature for sleep, you’re more apt to fall asleep if your body experiences a mild drop in body temperature before bedtime.

But if your room is too cold or too hot, then you’re likely to wake up in the middle of the night either grabbing more blankets to keep you warm or kicking off covers to cool off. The best nighttime thermometer setting is usually between 65 and 72 degrees. But that can vary depending on the sleeper.  

Noise 

An obvious disrupter of sleep, noise can abruptly pull you out of a pleasant slumber. Unfortunately, some noises we can’t control, such as a snoring bed partner or pet, noisy neighbors, traffic, the garbage truck, and so on. If noise is interfering with your sleep, pick up a pair of ear plugs or try using a white noise machine to block out noises..  

Ditch the electronics

It may seem like your TV, iPad, or mobile phone video game can help you wind down for sleep, but in fact, it does the opposite by stimulating the brain and keeping you from drifting off to sleep. Turn off your electronic gadgets at least 30 minutes before bedtime and instead listen to soothing music or read a book. 

Invest in a new mattress

A mattress is an investment in your good health and wellbeing. A quality mattress with good comfort and support will improve your chances of getting quality sleep. A good mattress can also help ease aches and pains that interfere with sleep and help you wake feeling refreshed.

Habits That Could Keep You from Sleeping Soundly

Humans are creatures of habits, but in some cases our habits could be preventing us from getting a good night’s sleep. Let’s take a look at some lifestyle changes that can improve the quality of your sleep:

Exercising a few hours before bedtime

Exercise can help improve sleep. But strenuous workouts 2-3 hours before bedtime can interfere with sleep. Exercising vigorously stresses out your body and raises your body temperature which could make you feel restless and fatigued. To prevent this, change the time of your more strenuous workout routine to earlier in the day.

Excess alcohol or caffeine intake

A hot toddy before bedtime is relaxing and can help you fall asleep faster, but drinking too much alcohol can actually cut into your restorative REM sleep and cause excessive daytime sleepiness. And caffeine too late in the day can leave you wide awake when you should be drifting off to sleep. 

Try to limit alcohol to no more than two drinks and drink plenty of water before bedtime to help flush it out of your system. Try to avoid caffeine at least six hours before bedtime. 

Sleeping with your pet

Contrary to what you’d like to believe, going to bed with your pet could rob you of precious sleep. Circadian rhythms of pets and humans vary greatly as the former toss and turn during sleep which could pose difficulties for the latter if they share the bed. 

Sharing a bed with pets or kids may influence the size of your mattress

Make your fur baby get into the habit of sleeping in a separate bed, a crate for instance. Keep the crate in your bedroom if your pet is unable to relax on his or her own.

Watching TV or working on the laptop

Regardless of the program you’re watching on TV or the kind of work you’re doing on your laptop, the bright blue light impedes melatonin production, a hormone that stimulates sleep. The only and best solution is to refrain from watching TV or working on the laptop a few hours before bed.

Drinking fluids

The more fluids you drink, the greater the need to get up to use the bathroom. Avoid drinking water or any other fluids at least two hours before going to bed to prevent middle-of-the-night pee breaks. 

Eating a heavy dinner

A heavy dinner, especially a one made up of fatty foods, will cause bloating and heartburn adversely affecting your sleep. Instead, opt for lighter meals rich in carbohydrates and eat at least three hours before bedtime.

Smoking before bed

If you’re in the habit of smoking before calling it a day then be in the know (if you don’t already) that the nicotine in cigarettes acts as a stimulant which could keep you from falling asleep. The remedy is not to smoke 3-4 hours before bedtime. If you have insomnia, it would be best to quit smoking altogether.

Late night snacking

If you’re in the habit of snacking after dinner, then stop the practice. A heavy dessert, like a pudding or a sundae can adversely influence sleep. Sleeping after eating lots of food inhibits sleep, so make sure you have a light meal at night.

Using mint-flavored toothpaste

Brushing teeth just before tucking inside the sheets is always recommended but using toothpaste with a peppermint flavor is not. Peppermint has a stimulatory effect on your brain which could keep you awake.

Watching scary movies

Regardless of whether you’re lapping up ‘Conjuring’ or enjoying a tie between Manchester United FC and Barcelona FC or working on the laptop, the blue light of the screen has a negative effect on the natural circadian rhythm. The remedy is to watch TV early in the evening or on weekends.

Napping

Resisting an afternoon nap after a sumptuous lunch could be difficult but keep in mind that a long nap in the afternoon could make it difficult to fall asleep at night. If you absolutely have to take a nap, don’t sleep for longer than 20-25 minutes.

How to determine what exactly is keeping you awake?

If your sleep gets frequently interrupted at night and you wake up feeling groggy, irritated and lethargic the morning after on a chronic basis, then you could be suffering from insomnia.  

Before rushing to seek medical intervention, trying to figure out the probable cause or causes behind your sleeplessness will save you a lot of trouble and also go a long way in helping you get back to sleeping ways. Try seeking answers to the following questions. 

  1.   Am I not able to sleep because of the setting in my bedroom?
  2.   Is my stress keeping me wide awake?
  3.   Could I have a sleep disorder, like restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea?
  4.   Am I drinking too much caffeine late in the day?
  5.   Is pain keeping me up at night?  
  6.   Is acid reflux or a bloated belly behind my sleeplessness?
  7.   Should I give up smoking?
  8.   Is my alcohol intake affecting my sleep?

Summary

Sleep problems can affect that way you function all day and even affect your mental health if the problems are persistent. The good news is, you can enjoy a healthy sleep by making some lifestyle changes. 

Remember the basic cues our body uses for fixing our body clock or circadian rhythm such as light, timing of meals, and temperature. Also consider the basic rules of healthy sleep — no electronics before bed, establishing a sleep-wake schedule, no vigorous workouts before bedtime, eating lighter meals at night, and seeking professional help for physical or mental health issues.

For some, healthy sleep comes after making a lifestyle change. For others, such as those with insomnia, it takes time, patience, and may be some professional help. But the result of having good sleep is well worth the wait. 


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