This week is National Sleep Awareness Week, and as a result, we decided to ask you… what is it YOU want to know about sleep? Our resident sleep expert, Nicole Paulie, decided to answer some your questions.

“I’ve heard screen time isn’t conducive to falling asleep – does that include ebooks?”

Regardless of what you’re looking at, screen time is never conducive to falling asleep. The only exception is if you’re using a screen that isn’t backlit (such as the paperwhite kindle). The reason screens don’t help with sleep, is that they emit blue wavelength light. Even if you have your screen dimmed all the way down, the way your brain processes this light affects your sleepiness.

When the brain detects blue light, it thinks you’re sitting outside in mid-day light. As a result, your brain says to itself “well, it’s the middle of the day, and there seems to be bright light outside, so I don’t think I need to tell the rest of the body it’s actually time for bed yet”. So the best thing to do if you really want to read before bed is to read an actual paper book or get an e-reader that isn’t backlit.

“Why is it that sometimes I’m wide awake when I first wake up, and sometimes I’m super tired, even if I get the same amount of sleep?”

We’ve all experienced this! You wake up at 5 am wide awake but think to yourself “oh, it’s way too early to be awake, I’ll try to go back to bed for a little while. So you go back to bed, but when you wake up to your alarm later, you feel groggy, tired, and can’t get out of bed. This is because of where you are in your sleep cycle when you wake up. If you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go, you’ve likely just woken up at the end of your sleep cycle. Our body goes through several sleep cycles overnight.

As you can see from the chart above, each one lasts roughly 90 minutes, with us spending more time in lighter stages of sleep towards the end of our 8-hour slumber. Because we’re spending more time in the lighter stages of sleep, we’re much more likely to wake up in the middle of our sleep cycle towards the end of our night’s sleep than we are early in the evening.

Any advice for when stress/worries would keep you awake at night? Any good exercises/tips for relaxing the mind?

One of the times that worrisome thoughts and stressors are most likely to come to mind is right as you’re laying down to bed. That’s typically because it’s the first time all you’ve probably actually sat and not done anything all day. Unfortunately, that also decreases your chances of falling asleep soundly. One of the best exercises I always suggest to my clients is to write down everything that pops into your head for 10 minutes before you go to bed. After the 10 minutes is up, rip up everything you’ve written down and throw it away. This can help you both metaphorically and physically get the thoughts out of your head so you can “put them to bed” so to speak.

As for relaxing, doing deep breathing exercises can be a big help. An easy one to do is to focus on breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and breathing out over 6-8 seconds. Because you’re focusing on counting out the time, and your deep breathing, it can turn the focus away from the mind and into the physical body. It’s also genuinely just a relaxing breathing technique to use.

“I was reading recently about how in Chinese medicine that depending on the time that you wake up at night it might relate to a problem somewhere in your body. I’d be interested to know more. I always wake around 4 or 5am.”

What this question is referring to is the Organ Body Clock. It states that your wakeup time indicates physical problems within our body. As of right now, this topic has not been researched to determine if it is, in fact, accurate or valid; although, you will find a lot of stories online where people say it was true for them

That being said, there are two other reasons you might be waking up. Either a) something in your environment is waking you up, or b) you’re not getting enough light exposure during the day. Sometimes playing white noise can help drown out sounds that might wake you up (such as a snoring partner or sounds outside). Also, investing in blackout blinds can be very helpful, especially when the sun starts rising early in the morning.

If you’re spending a lot of time indoors, you may not be getting enough light exposure during the day or that your body clock is set to the wrong time. To reset your body clock to a later time, try exposing yourself to bright light later in the day instead of early in the morning. Start off for a week in the late afternoon/early evening and see if that makes a difference. Just be sure that you’re dimming the bright light at least an hour before you’d like to go to bed. If you’re not able to get bright light easily in the evenings, using a light box can help (You can order them at most pharmacies such as boots)

“I am having huge problems waking up in the morning, doesn’t matter what time I go to bed or how many hours sleep I get, I never wake to my alarm, I just don’t hear it. I’ve tried changing the tone etc doesn’t make a difference.”

There are two reasons this might be happening. Either (1) your body clock is set to the wrong time and you need light exposure early in the morning or (2) there could be something keeping you from getting a full rested night of sleep. You could try using one of those sunrise alarm clocks to wake yourself up using bright light. This will also help with bright light exposure during the day.  If you find that you tend to experience racing thoughts before bed, it could be that you’re going to bed but your brain isn’t turning off. In this instance, try journalling for 10 minutes before bed and then ripping up what you’ve written before going to sleep. If after trying these two things you’re still struggling to wake up in the morning, it may be a good idea to visit a GP or sleep specialist to rule out a medical disorder such as sleep apnea.

Nicole Paulie is an author and Counselling Psychologist providing therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Sleep Q&A with Nicole Paulie
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