It’s oh, I don’t know, 3 o’clock in the freaking morning, and I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and wanting to cry with frustration. I'm trying to stay hopeful about my ability to catch a few hours of shuteye before work the next morning, but I’ve been up until 6 a.m. (not by choice) enough times in my life to know the beast of insomnia can’t always be tamed.
One of the vital roles of sleep is to help us solidify and consolidate memories. As we go about our day, our brains take in an incredible amount of information. Rather than being directly logged and recorded, however, these facts and experiences first need to be processed and stored; and many of these steps happen while we sleep. Overnight, bits and pieces of information are transferred from more tentative, short-term memory to stronger, long-term memory—a process called "consolidation." Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.
Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40 our sleep patterns change, and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These awakenings not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. The more awakenings we have at night, the more likely we will awaken feeling unrefreshed and unrestored.
Throughout history, soldiers have faced serious sleep deprivation and have had to make do with squeezing rest in between firefights and in trenches, tents, and moving troop carriers. By necessity, they have to learn to sleep whenever and wherever they get the chance. Exhaustion certainly helps the eyes close, but it turns out the U.S. Army actively teaches this skill too.
You’ve got an early day tomorrow, and you know you should be asleep — but instead you’re just lying there, wide awake, watching the minutes tick by on the clock. It’s called sleep-onset insomnia, and the irony is, the more you worry about falling asleep, the less likely you’ll be able to. But there are some easy things you can do to break the cycle. Below we discuss simple changes to your lifestyle and your sleep environment that can help you fall asleep faster and get a more restful night’s sleep.