Understanding changing sleep patterns

Posted on: 25 January 2013 by Lynda Shaw

Disrupted sleep can not only ruin your day but also your health writes Lynda Shaw.

disrupted sleep patternsTo sleep through the night often seems a thing of the past for a lot of people, especially as the years tick by.  Reading in bed until the early hours and finally dropping off only to awake an hour later for the first of several visits to the bathroom can be a regular occurrence.  Some find themselves looking out of the window or making a cup of tea in the middle of the night.  No wonder people feel tired, irritable or are susceptible to colds and minor ailments. This can also lead to a little confusion or ‘brain fog’.

As we age, our sleep pattern becomes less consolidated in one long night-time session. This can be a problem because brain activity changes during sleep; there are two main types.

The first is REM (rapid-eye-movement), which is associated with dreaming and is thought to assist brain development. The second is NREM (non-rapid-eye-movement), which is characterised by 3 stages: N1 – light sleep; N2 – deeper sleep; N3 – deepest sleep. As we go from N1 to N3 our brain waves get slower at each stage, but as we age periods of slow-wave sleep (N3) become shorter. Therefore, a night’s sleep becomes more fragmented and disturbed.

Both quality and quantity of sleep affects learning and memory. For instance, we find it difficult to concentrate if we are deprived of sleep (one of the most effective forms of torture to extract information). Equally, research has shown that sleep helps us consolidate memories. Therefore lack of sleep can present itself as dementia, as can dehydration and infection.

Sleep is vital. But there is a word of warning. If we choose to take a late afternoon nap this may disrupt a night’s sleep even more, so if a nap suits us perhaps just after lunch is better. The point is, it’s important for us to understand our own individual 24-hour internal clocks, known as circadian rhythms, which are responsible for the times we sleep, awake, eat, hormone secretion and body temperature. Circadian rhythms fluctuate and change throughout our lives and vary for each one of us. For instance, the sleep pattern of a baby is very different to that of a child. The pattern changes as a teenager, again as an adult and continues to change. For the mature person sleep cycles become shorter, but we are all different. Therefore, noticing our natural patterns of sleep and working with them is highly sensible. After all, becoming frustrated and angry will only make matters worse.  

Of course, there are always those relaxing things we can do to help ourselves on a practical level. Some enjoy hot milk at bedtime or chamomile tea. Others prefer a warm bath, soothing music or talking books. Whatever your preference, sleep will help us think clearly and function as well as we can.

I'd love to know whether your sleep patterns have changed. Use the comment section below to let me know what effect sleep disruption has had on your life / relationship.

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