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Understanding How Sleep Works

Understanding How Sleep Works

By Dr. Julie Davelman

Sleep problems for some people are sporadic. For many others, it is a nightly struggle. Believe it or not, developing poor sleep habits doesn't take much effort. It does however, take work to unlearn these habits and improve your sleep.

You need to understand how sleep works, before you can actually fix it.
“Sleep forces” and “wakeful force,” are three components to sleep that we need to be aware of.  The first sleep force is Sleep Drive. From the moment you wake up, you begin to build sleep drive, which will make you fall asleep the following night. The longer you are awake, the more sleep drive you build. If you've had a bad night, trying to make up for sleep can actually do more harm than good, for example:

  1. Going to bed early: Meaning you had less time during the day to build sleep drive.
  2. Sleeping in: Leaves less time to build sleep drive for the following night.
  3. Taking a nap: Once asleep, all of your sleep drive is released, and after you wake up, there will not be enough hours for you to adequately build your sleep drive back up.
  4. Resting all day: The more active you are, the more sleep drive you build. 

The other sleep force is our Biological Clock.  Our body dictates its optimal time to be awake and asleep.  By setting and sticking to a consistent routine you can help your Biological Clock.  Going to bed and waking up at the same time helps teach your body when it should be asleep and when you should be awake.  In order to understand how important this is, when you move your regular sleep time by two hours, it is equivalent to jetlag. Expect to experience the symptoms associated with jetlag.

Your body’s sleep systems can be overridden by the “wakeful force,” however by your Arousal System.  Have you ever felt sleepy while driving, but are able to keep yourself awake? Compare that to staying awake while sitting on the couch watching television instead of driving. This system allows you to stay awake despite sleepiness when there is an emergency.  If this system is disrupted it can interfere with sleep on a regular basis.  Therefore, when trying to fall asleep, it is not only about taking care not to intervene with the sleep forces, but you also need to turn off your arousal system. 

The two main ways that arousal is activated is:

  1. Conditioned Arousal: Ever experience being so sleepy you cannot keep your eyes open, but the moment you get into bed, you are wide awake? This happens when you spend a lot of time in bed being unable to sleep or do wakeful activities in bed, like working or watching TV.  To turn off this arousal when going to bed, you need to break this association by teaching your body that the bed is for sleep only.
  2. Cognitive Arousal: Ever get into bed and the only thing that you can think of is how are you ever going to be able to fall asleep and what you need to do to make yourself sleep? If this happens, try engaging in relaxation exercises to still your mind.  If you cannot, get out of bed, so that you can have these thoughts somewhere else and stop associating them with being in bed.


Understanding how sleep works can prepare you for more targeted sleep interventions. 

To learn more, connect with Dr. Davelman here!

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