Why am I struggling to sleep? I went on a quest to find out

I’ve always considered myself a poor sleeper. Ever since I was a kid I felt that I struggled to fall asleep, and I would wake up for long periods during the night. Recently I was approached by Granny Goose and the Sports Science Institute South Africa (SSISA), to do a proper sleep analysis and find out if and why I was having trouble. Of course I jumped at the chance, eager to improve my night’s rest.

The project would be two-part: I would go for a sleep check with SSISA, and I would team up with Granny Goose to transform my bed into an ultimate comfort haven. Aside from finding out that a Feather Bed is pretty much my favourite thing in the world right now, I picked up some really interesting info around getting proper sleep.

How does a sleep assessment work?

I did my sleep assessment with Dr Dale Rae at SSISA. In my case they used a combination of questionnaires, an Actigraphy device that measured my activity for a week, and a sleep diary.

For one week I had to wear my Actigraphy device on my wrist. I also kept a sleep diary where I kept track of my sleep and wakeup times, whether I woke up during the night, and also things like medication, caffeine and alcohol intake. These results were then analysed by Dr Rae and discussed with me during our feedback session. More on that later.

Personally I really enjoyed having a professional assess my results. It cuts through a lot of noise and misinformation available online. If you’re struggling with sleep, I can definitely recommend it.

There are, of course, a number of tools that can help you track your sleep. Most smart watches have a sleep tracking function which can be used alongside a sleep diary, questionnaires and apps to get results. Just make sure your tracking device and app are scientifically validated.

SSISA mentions the following apps in their sleep assessment course:

Sleep Cycle App

SnoreLab

Sleep Better App

What can I do to get better sleep?

Sleep not only makes us feel better, it is also a critical time for our bodies to recover. It’s essential for memory and learning, it’s the time when toxins are removed from the body, and it’s critical for immune support.

With too little sleep we also have an increased appetite and less energy, which means we eat more, and this can lead to weight issues. Poor sleep can also contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes! Scary thought!

So what can we do to get a better night’s rest?

Switch to low light

Our bodies work on a roughly 24 hour cycle called our circadian rhythm, and our sleep cycle is part of this. Around dusk we start producing melatonin, the sleep regulating hormone. So we start to shut down and become sleepy. Then around dawn our bodies stop producing melatonin so we start to wake up.

The problem is that we live in a world with a lot of artificial light – from our homes, cities, cars, and electronic devices. And exposure to artificial light can affect our melatonin production, meaning our circadian rhythm and daily rhythm go out of sync. They call this social jetlag.

During the evenings, go for low light and lamps, turn electronic screens to night mode (yellow light settings) and avoid screens after 9pm.

Create a comfortable sleep environment

A bed that is uncomfortable, too hot or too cold could cause you to wake up more often during the evening. I am a huge fan of natural fabrics like cotton, wool and feathers because they are breathable, whereas acrylic blankets can feel stuffy and sticky. It’s also worth investing in a pillow that you love.

As part of this project I visited Granny Goose to get a custom-stuffed goose down pillow and a feather bed. What I loved about the experience is that you’re able to get your pillow just the way you like it. They let you choose between various stuffings – feathers, goose down or duck down – and then they add more stuffing so that you’re exactly happy with how firm it is. They even let you lie down on a bed in store to test it out.

The Granny Goose Feather Bed is an luxury buy but if you can afford it, I highly recommend the investment. It’s a feather cover that goes over your mattress, giving you a softer sleep while preventing cold air from moving through the mattress. It’s so good!

 

Follow a consistent sleep schedule

Try to keep your bedtime and get-up time consistent during the week so that your body can start to fall into that rhythm.

You might need to catch up on sleep debt over the weekends but be careful of overdoing it. Sleeping too long can interfere with your circadian rhythm, making it harder to get back into routine during the week.

How much sleep should we be getting?

Adults between 26 and 64 years should ideally be getting between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night, though anything from 6 to 10 hours is acceptable.

The goal is to find your sleep sweet spot – what is right for you? Consider how long you take to fall asleep – it should take between 5 – 20 minutes. Less might indicate loads of sleep debt, and longer might be a sign on insomnia.

If you have a lot of catch-up sleep over weekends it might mean you’re not getting enough sleep during the week.

You can also look at your daytime alertness. Do you wake up refreshed? And how alert are you during the day? If you need to drag yourself out of bed and you’re not functioning well during the day, it’s probably an indication that you’re below your sleep sweet spot.

What else can be affecting your sleep?

Healthy sleep would be when your sleep is aligned with your circadian rhythm, and that is aligned with your environment: You sleep when it’s dark, you don’t wake up for long stretches during the night, you don’t have sleep debt, and you can function properly during the day.

Two of the most common problems with sleep is insomnia, and sleep apnea.

Insomnia is characterised by people who struggle to fall asleep or to sleep as long as they would want. It’s not a disease but rather a symptom, so you need to identify and treat whatever is causing you to lose sleep.

Sleep apnea is a breathing related problem, where you struggle to breathe or stop breathing. This is often the linked to people who are overweight and it can be really dangerous.

Are you a morning or an evening person?

Your circadian rhythm is actually different when you lean towards a morning or an evening type, determining whether you would rather go to bed earlier and wake up early, or go to bed later and wake up later.

It can obviously become a problem when your chronotype doesn’t match your social life – for instance if you’re a definite evening person but you’re still required to keep a 9-5 job.

What is sleep debt?

Sleep is regulated by your circadian rhythm as well as a thing called a sleep homeostat. A sleep homeostat tracks sleep debt. If you have a lot of sleep debt it will increase the intensity and duration of sleep so that you can catch up. Your sleep homeostat can override your circadian rhythm if you have sleep debt that you need to “pay back”.

Are you sleeping a lot longer over weekends? Or feel the need to take frequent naps? That might mean you have a lot of sleep debt.

Don’t self-diagnose

Now that you know all the things that could be wrong, it’s easy to jump to a self-diagnosis. I was convinced that I had mild insomnia. After going for my assessment, however, I found out my sleeping patterns were fine. Better than fine. They were great. Many of the issues I thought were unhealthy and abnormal, like struggling to fall asleep and waking up during the night – were actually pretty average and normal.

On the topic of falling asleep, Dr Rae also explained that while it might feel like I’m taking long to fall asleep, it’s possible that my body has already moved into stage 1 of sleep, where I’m still aware of what’s going on but already drifting off. And that is perfectly fine.

If you struggle with the same thing, she suggested practicing deep breathing (like you would in yoga) to see if that can help ease me into sleep.

My point is that before you start popping sleeping pills, it might be worthwhile to do a proper sleep assessment and have a professional look at your environment, habits and sleep patterns.

Want more info? Visit ssisa.com and grannygoose.com


*This post was sponsored by Granny Goose and SSISA

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