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Why We Have Sleep Problems

This is the second in a series of blogs about sleep and how to resolve sleep problems and get a really good night’s sleep. This blog looks at some of the most common reasons why we have sleep problems. We all know that when we are stressed or worried about something, we tend to not sleep as well but there are many other reasons why we might not sleep well:

A common side effect of medication or a physical condition

It is important to know that poor sleep may be a side effect of medication or be related to a physical condition. Do check with your doctor if you feel that this may be the case.

Caffeine and alcohol

Drinking a lot of tea and coffee during the day can make it hard for you to fall asleep. One study also found that caffeine can delay the timing of your body clock. These effects will reduce your total sleep time. One study found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime reduced total sleep time by 1 hour. Drinking alcohol also affects our sleep. While you may fall asleep quickly after drinking, it’s also common to wake up in the middle of the night. One explanation is that alcohol may affect the normal production of chemicals in the body that trigger sleepiness when you’ve been awake for a long time, and subside once you’ve had enough sleep. After drinking, production of adenosine (a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain) is increased, allowing for a fast onset of sleep. But it subsides as quickly as it came, making you more likely to wake up before you’re truly rested.

The aging process

We also tend to have more difficulties with sleep as we age and the hot flushes of menopause can cause severe sleep disruption. In older people, REM sleep decreases to about twenty per cent of sleep time and the time spent in deep sleep shortens. They often catnap during the day because they don’t get such good quality sleep during the night.


We sleep more when we are sick with an infection or develop a fever. When our temperature rises, our organs work more quickly, antibodies are synthesised more rapidly and antibiotics are taken up more quickly. It seems that the high temperature may kill off certain microbes. Even when we are asleep without a fever, our immune function works harder than when we are awake.

People suffering from fibromyalgia have an excess of REM sleep and a deficiency of restorative sleep. In a Canadian experiment, acute fibromyalgia was able to be induced in healthy students who were woken up whenever they went into non-REM sleep, as indicated by brain wave readings but were allowed to continue REM sleep. After a few days they started to feel aches and pains and after a couple of weeks these pains had spread over their entire bodies. (Moldofsky et al 1975)

Low mood and stress

In the 1960s it was discovered that depressed and stressed people dream more intensely and have longer periods of REM sleep, particularly in the early phases of sleep, than non-depressed people.  Extended dreaming is exhausting, not just because it deprives us of restful and restorative slow-wave sleep (that should make up three-quarters of our sleep time), but also because it over stimulates the orientation response. This is the same expectation pathway in the brain that we need in the daytime to focus our attention on getting things done – it generates our motivation to do things and keeps us interested in life.

The sleep imbalance depressed people suffer from is why, despite sleeping for a long time after a stressful day, we can wake up still feeling tired and unmotivated. Exhaustion on waking and lack of motivation are features common to all depressed people and the reason is this: Depressed people dream more intensely and for longer periods because their brain is having to deal with an overload of arousals caused by excessive worrying. Our normal sense that life is meaningful comes from the actions we take but when our motivation levels are lowered because of over-dreaming, life can quickly come to seem meaningless. The natural delight we take in being alive and actively involved doing things drains away.

You can gauge if you are getting too much or too little sleep by how you feel when you wake up. The familiar feeling of physical tiredness from being very busy or working hard is quite different to the mental exhaustion you feel when you wake after spending too much time in the REM state.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with your sleep, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: Sleep Well!, Sleep Hygiene, Depression and Sleep, 

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