Older people tend to go to bed earlier and rise earlier. It seems that their circadian rhythms have shifted, and for no apparent reason. Older people also get less sleep than younger people even though they require just as much. At least that’s the way the story goes.
I think this shift and truncation of sleep may be caused by less demand on our time in the evening and getting poor sleep at night. One thing we do know, our sleep propensity curve (Figure 1-1 of In Pursuit of Sleep), which is only somewhat dependent on sunlight, is malleable and is easily changed. I also believe that older people sleep less because we are more thoughtful, and our thoughts have a tendency to bleed over into the nighttime hours after we wake. Our thoughts then prevent us from getting back to sleep.
This runaway brain activity can be controlled, so that we can get back to sleep. To do it requires some effort but also requires a game plan that we can depend on. Since we sleep in cycles (Figure 2-1) of vary sleep depth — as many as five cycles each night — when we surface, we may actually wake, and then our thoughts may waylay us and not allow us to get back to sleep. If we do this repeatedly over several nights, it changes our sleep propensity curve and contributes to reinforcing the sleep disturbance. We are then destined to repeat that scenario night after night.
This is a solvable problem. The problem originates in the period of time between being awake and being asleep, which is called “sleep onset” but also goes by the term “hypnagogia.” Hypnagogia generally lasts only five or ten minutes, but it has distracting influences that can lead you off the trail to sleep and onto a diversionary track of problem solving or worrying, as well as other mental activities that have nothing to do with sleep.
How do we solve this problem?
The solution is to provide a mental activity that is conducive to sleep, one that keeps you on the straight-and-narrow path and won’t allow you to participate in the activities that prevent sleep. I call this corrective mental activity the Transition Trek. I provide detailed instructions on how to do this in In Pursuit of Sleep, Chapter 4 Charging the Gates of Slumberland.
Dry eyes can wake you in the middle of the night as quick as anything and thus lead to insomnia. (Discussed on pages 12-13 of In Pursuit of Sleep.) When we dream our eyes flash back and forth rapidly, which is called rapid eye movement (REM). REM can be painful if your eyes are dry. We go through REM five times every night, and if your eyes are dry, it will wake you. If you don’t do something about your dry eyes, you may not be able to get back to sleep. This condition can lead to insomnia. But dreaming itself is important and having it terminated early can contribute to depression.
So what do you do about it?
Even though your eyes may tear, the tears may not contain the necessary lubricating oils. I have this condition, and I keep an eye lubricant on the nightstand. I use it two or three times every night. My left eye is particularly bad. But I have it mostly during the night and rarely during the day. Solving this problem helped some with my insomnia, but it certainly wasn’t the whole cure. Your dry eyes may wake you, and even if you solve that problem immediately with eyedrops, you still may not be able to get back to sleep.
What do you do then? Well, that’s the subject of In Pursuit of Sleep, Chapter 4 Charging the Gates of Slumberland. Hint: It involves the use of something called the Transition Trek.
The last few nights I have been experiencing something I have not encountered in years, perhaps decades. When I wake and have to go to the bathroom, I can’t make myself get up because I am so sleepy. This is that really heavy sleepy feeling that we used to have when we were kids and our parents were trying to wake us so that we could go to school. It is that, “I can’t get awake,” feeling. This seems to be part of the natural progression of returning to a healthy sleep routine after practicing the Transition Trek for over a year. I suspect it has come about as a result of reestablishing the hardcore sleep propensity curve (Figure 1-1 of In Pursuit of Sleep). I am beginning to understand that it is possible to return to sleeping like a young person, with all the really good feelings, even after decades of insomnia, simply by using the Transition Trek consistently, night after night.
This may also indicate that solving the insomnia problem leads to much deeper sleep, which, if this article is correct, means that it reduces your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. Lots of good things happen when we sleep like we are supposed to.
This article in the New York Times is from a while back, but it is still an interesting read. It nails what happens to most of us as we get older: we have more trouble getting and staying asleep. That is even true of retired people. The author, Eric Nagourney, puts it this way:
As baby boomers age, many may find that a basic act they once took for granted (or intentionally neglected) has become a lot more complicated. They are finding it harder to get to sleep or stay asleep, and they may feel the consequences during the day.
In other words, our daily activities start to bleed more and more into the time we are supposed to spend sleeping. But the article also quotes Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, a director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center, as saying”
“Healthy aging is not necessarily associated with poor sleep. Some people have this sense that ‘Oh, I’m just going to sleep badly when I get older, because that’s what happens to everybody.’”
People don’t develop the inability to get to sleep and stay there because they have heard that that’s what happens as you age. Insomnia in older people isn’t a result of suggestion. It is hard to believe a sleep professional would say that, but he did. The problem results from the increased pressure of everyday life intruding on psychic space.
In Pursuit of Sleep addresses these issues and provides a method for overcoming these emotional pressures that intrude on our sleep time. Believe it or not, this is not a difficult problem to solve. You just have to take control of your mind and lead it through the minefield that is hypnagogia, the transition state between being awake and being asleep. Here’s a hint: It has to do with mental images and the Transition Trek.
So what happened after that amazing night’s sleep? As you might remember, I got 13 hrs of sleep that one night. And as you might guess if you have read In Pursuit of Sleep, it took a few nights to recover because it had altered my sleep propensity curve. The very next night, I got only 5 hrs of sleep before waking. The next few nights, I seem to sleep lighter than usual, but I stayed with the Transition Trek and made sure I did get a good measure of sleep. But then my propensity curve corrected, and I have been getting 7 to 9 hours every night.
The moral of this story is that too much sleep certainly can upset future nights’ sleep, but with proper discipline and use of the Transition Trek, all can once again be put back in order.
The paperback In Pursuit of Sleep: The Origins of Insomnia and What to do about it is now published and available on Amazon. The digital version will be available in a week or two. –David Sheppard
You are not going to believe this. Last night I slept for 13 hours.
You read that right. I went to bed at 10:30 and woke up this morning at 11:30. I got up to go to the bathroom at 04:00, but went back to sleep immediately. I did wake, or at least entered hypnopompia, a couple of times following REM, but went back to sleep quickly. I did have to use the Coastal Transition Trek a couple of times, but I never got much past the beach. The time I spent in hynopompia, I was ruminating over a pleasant dream about a girl I was interested in (seems I was quite a bit younger), but I didn’t linger there. I believe I spent much of the time in deep sleep, which in light of yesterday’s post concerning deep sleep and Alzheimer’s, is a really good thing.
What enabled me to have such an amazing night?
I attribute some of it to not sleeping well the night before. However, I did well enough during the day, so it wasn’t as if I was really in trouble. As a matter of fact, I did have something hanging over my head that could have contributed to troubled sleep but didn’t. I found a problem with the graphics in In Pursuit of Sleep that may delay publication for a couple more days. I had converted the Illustrator files to jpgs because of a problem getting them to size right in the InDesign document. Not the thing to do. The illustrations are pale and when examined closely show pixilation. So I was worrying about that when I went to bed, but by using the Coastal Transition Trek, I was able to get to sleep quickly anyway. I woke fully only the once.
Of course, getting so much sleep can drag down the sleep propensity curve and cause me to not sleep very well in the nights ahead. We’ll see.
Very interesting article today on NPR. Seems that deep sleep may help ward off Alzheimer’s. Here’s the opening sentence, and it is a shocker:
There’s growing evidence that a lack of sleep can leave the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.
But that is only part of the story, and for some people may not even be the most important part. At the end of the article, we get the following statement:
A lot of the sleep aids don’t particularly focus on driving people to deep sleep stages.
We have all read articles of people on hypnotic drugs like Ambien sleep waking, binge eating, and even driving their cars while sleeping. I am convinced that most people do not need to be drugged to get to sleep and stay there. That’s why I wrote In Pursuit of Sleep. Publication coming within the next couple of days.
Publication of In Pursuit of Sleep will occur in the next couple of days. Final edits are in the system with approval pending and should occur within 24 hours. The paperback will appear on Amazon within the next couple of days. The eBook will be published a week or two later. Lots of work ahead to get it into shape.