My name is Kat Ascharya, and I am a recovering insomniac. I say that somewhat flippantly, like how people introduce themselves at a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, but I’m serious: I’ve had problems with sleep my whole adult life, and chronic sleep deprivation has compromised my mental equanimity, physical health and quality of life.
I’m not alone, either.
The National Sleep Foundation, or NSF, estimates that 60 percent of adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, according to the New York Times. With nearly 95 percent of all respondent reporting they browse the Internet, text or watch TV a couple of nights before trying to sleep, the NSF reported, all signs point to a potential link between a growing use of gadgets and sleep-related fatigue.
“[An LED screen] could be giving you an alert stimulus at a time that will frustrate your body’s ability to go to sleep later,” Dr. Brainard told the New York Times. “When you turn it off, it doesn’t mean that instantly the alerting effects go away. There’s an underlying biology that’s stimulated.”
When we’re exposed to artificial light, between dusk and bedtime, our bodies are blocked from being able to recognize day from night, according to the New York Times, and that suppresses the release of sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin, pushing our circadian rhythms to a later hour. And that glow from our gadgets, even a mere hour before bedtime — a pivotal moment when we transition from the day’s activities to nighttime relaxation — can keep us awake long into the night, and affect the quality of sleep we get when our heads finally hit the pillows.
For years, I thought I couldn’t sleep because I was a night owl. As a child, staying up late felt natural, and in college, I routinely pulled all-nighters without a hitch. Even when I moved to New York to work in film, an industry notorious for irregular hours and requisite socializing, an erratic sleep schedule wasn’t a problem.
It wasn’t until graduate school, when, to keep up with the heavy workload, I regularly worked to 5 or 6 a.m., only to wake up four hours later to go to class. Then, I’d last the day, and not sleep again until 5 or 6 a.m. But when I’d try to sleep, I couldn’t. My mind simply wouldn’t turn off, and I’d stare at the ceiling for hours, fretting about insomnia.
The low point came after I stayed awake for 48 hours. Unable to sleep, I hurried to the emergency room, where a doctor gave me a shot. When I awoke two days later, I knew something had to change. Not knowing where to begin, I fired up the laptop and hit the Internet, and as I would find out, the very device that was educating me about insomnia was, ironically, one of its biggest contributors.
Sleep is a riddle that has baffled scientists for centuries. Like food and oxygen, our bodies need sleep to work properly, but everyone requires different amounts each night. Some can be happy and healthy on only four to five hours, while others need nine or more. Most adults, though, average seven to eight.
On the surface, not much seems to happen as we lay there, eyes closed, snoring or breathing heavily, sometimes turning or changing positions. Scientists used to believe sleep was an inactive, or passive, state, when our bodies “turned off” to rest and recuperate from the day’s waking activities, but scans of the brain show that the mind actually remains quite active, cycling through two basic states: rapid-eye movement, or REM, and non-REM, sleep, which itself has four distinct stages.
The first stage is a light sleep that lasts five to 10 minutes. Then, as we descend into the next stage, our heart rate drops and our core temperature lowers, preparing our bodies for the last two, and deepest, stages of sleep. That’s when our brainwaves slow down and bodies repair and regenerate tissues, build bone and muscle and strengthen the immune system.
From there, usually 90 minutes into a slumber, we enter REM sleep and begin to dream. During this period, brainwaves are remarkably similar to when we’re awake, but the muscles of the body are temporarily paralyzed, keeping us from acting out any flying, running or falling sensations.
When we sleep, we also empty waste that all bodily cells produce, but while the human body flushes most of it through the lymphatic system, the brain uses cerebrospinal fluid to drain away byproducts into the bloodstream, according to the Washington Post, which is then carried to the liver for detoxification.
“Brain cells shrink when we sleep, allowing fluid to enter and flush out the brain,” Maiken Nedergaard, a neurosurgeon and author of the University of Rochester study, told the Washington Post. “It’s like opening and closing a faucet.”
That’s why after a good night’s rest, we feel “refreshed” — these channels widen to move waste at twice the normal rate, leaving us with clean slate for the morning. And when we lose a couple of hours of sleep, and our bodies miss several REM and non-REM cycles, our minds are prevented from doing the “behind-the-scenes” maintenance to keep our mental and physical health.
As an insomniac, I was often sick. My skin broke out all the time and I had no energy to see friends. When I did see them, I felt affectless and bored, too tired to summon up the energy to enjoy their company. I was also more irrational, reacting to commonplace incidents, like missed trains and rude strangers, and yet I was powerless to control my emotions.
I felt sad and isolated, like a glass existed between me and everyone else. Life was joyless and dusty.
Insomnia had created a bad loop: it made me anxious and frustrated, and those feelings kept me awake even later into the night. On the surface, having those extra nighttime hours made me enormously productive, but I couldn’t take pleasure in any of its benefits. I had joined a growing number of suffers who had a sleeping disorder.
That problem has been around as long as humans have recorded history, but as smartphones and tablets creep into our bedrooms, modern technology has complicated the condition, chipping away at the quality of our sleep. Before the advent of electricity, we slept in two distinct periods each night. The so-called “first sleep” stretched from just after sunset to lightly past midnight, while a second one happened an hour or two later until dawn. The gap between the two sleep periods became a natural and expected part of the night, and we used it productively to pray, read and, of course, have sex.
In fact, 16th-century French physician Laurent Joubert observed that craftsmen in the day tended to conceive more children because, he concluded, they waited until after first sleep, when energy was replenished, to have sex.
When the invention of the gas lamp, and eventually electricity, arrived, that lifestyle radically changed. Sunset was no longer a natural constraint to stop working, and factories and businesses began to run around the clock. Social lives, too, extended far into the night, giving rise to a nightlife culture of bars and late-night cafes and coffee houses. By the 1920s, the practice of first and second sleep had entirely disappeared from the daily rhythms of life.
I read and followed all the advice to tackle insomnia, ranging from common sense to old wives’ tales to scientific hacks. I tried melatonin, which didn’t work, then Ambien, which worked too well, making me feel incredibly odd when awake. I also tried meditation, warm milk and turkey sandwiches. I exercised regularly, and avoided caffeine.
My bedroom overlooked a courtyard with security lamp that stayed on all night, so I bought light-blocking curtains. I even got a white-noise machine. Nothing worked. So I went to a therapist, who puzzled at my case.
“You don’t seem depressed or anxious on the whole,” she said, citing common psychological causes to insomnia as a symptom. She said I was simply stressed from school, and then, scribbled a prescription for sleeping pills and a light machine to reset my circadian rhythms. That pretty much sums up the prevailing attitude in medical establishment: throw a pill and a gadget at it and hope something sticks.
In 2012, some 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were filled in the U.S., up from 47 million in 2006, the New York Times reported. But nothing worked for me.
I’d have a couple of good nights, and then something — a pressing deadline, school assignment, drunken neighbor — would disrupt it, and I’d fall back into my quasi-vampiric pattern and watch movies, read books or scour the Internet to fill the twilight hours.
I even tried a number of sleep apps, whether they promised to lull me into a state of deep rest, or analyze patterns to figure out the phase troubled me most. Sadly, those didn’t work, either. While the advice to tackle insomnia is often piecemeal, the causes of sleep deprivation are usually deep-rooted and pervasive. It’s like treating cancer by slapping a bandage to cover a protruding tumor. We can cut caffeine and pop Lunesta, but ultimately, the causes are still there.
Clearly, something wasn’t working.
I found a solution in an unlikely place. It wasn’t an app, a special device or advice from a doctor. It came from watching my sister wrestle with the nightly challenge of getting her children to go to sleep. Like most toddlers, despite being irritable and tired, my nieces and nephews never wanted to go to bed and miss out on something that might happen. But every night at a set time, my sister made them all take baths, brush their teeth and change into their pajamas. She also banned the iPad and TV, though they could still read books.
Every night, it was the same: bath, pajamas and books. Of course, they hated it at first, but slowly a routine began to condition them to switch into nighttime mode, and then to sleep, and within months, they regularly nodded off just as the last page of their books was turned.
I decided I needed a routine of my own, and embarrassingly enough, it wasn’t so far from the one my nieces and nephews followed. I’d dim the lights well before bedtime, keeping the house lit only with the lowest possible levels, and then take my contact lenses out before soaking in a hot bath.
Most importantly, I turned off all devices an hour before going to bed. Since I was used to squeezing in just a bit of work at the end of each day — one more e-mail, one more story to read, one more website to catch up on — the cut in screen time was the hardest change of all. But it made the biggest difference. One glorious night, I fell asleep before midnight — something I hadn’t done in 20 years.
We too often regard sleep as a luxury in our modern lifestyle, and not the necessity that it is. We push through the workdays, promising we’ll make up for it on weekends. But it takes longer to recover. To make up for one bad, sleepless night, experts say, we need to tack on an extra hour, over a week. That means the chronically sleep deprived, like me, needs at least a month simply to get back to normal.
As it turns out, my instinct to give myself a bedtime routine was spot on. According to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, changes in sleep habits were more effective in treating chronic insomnia than sleeping pills. This so-called idea of “sleep hygiene” looks at insomnia through a different lens, one where we can inculcate ourselves with certain habits, like brushing and flossing is to keeping teeth and gums healthy, for a good night’s sleep.
These practices are so simple that even children understand them: consistent bed and wake times; avoid caffeine, stimulants and vigorous exercise at least six hours before bedtime; and don’t eat large meals before going to sleep.
Some measures are stricter, like even avoiding quiet activities, like reading or watching TV, in bed, to associating the room only with sleep or sex. Getting enough natural light during the day is also helpful in regulating melatonin, as is avoiding alcohol.
Of course, experts also say to keep gadgets out of the bedroom and stop using them at least one hour before falling asleep. If you simply can’t give them up, though, reducing the brightness helps, as does holding the screen at least an arm’s length away. It might strain the eyes, but you probably shouldn’t be using it so late, anyway.
It’s been years since I fell asleep before midnight, and while I suffer the occasional sleepless night, it’s easier to get myself on track now when it comes to dealing with insomnia. Sometimes, I do work out a bit late or have a drink out before coming home to bed, but I can take a couple of days to reset my clock once again. The idea of sleep hygiene has given me a solid foundation to build upon, and if my toddler-aged nieces and nephews can follow a routine, so can I.
Sometimes, I do slip up and use the tablet or computer before I sleep, and I find it does affect the quality of my sleep — I don’t wake up feeling as refreshed. While it’s easy to retreat back into the always-on mindset when the world is constantly texting, tweeting and posting, in the end, the battle against our own nocturnal proclivities, and the seductive allure of a modern lifestyle, is a constant one. But the reward of a truly good night’s sleep is hard-won, and worth it. ♦