Long-term sleep disturbances can play havoc with your health. Where do they come from? What do they mean? And what do you do about them?
From depression to menopause, stress to snoring, here are the signs of ingrained sleep problems.
Sleep problem 1: Teeth grinding
I woke myself up the other night grinding my teeth for the third night in a row. Really annoying, because once I was awake I couldn't go back to sleep till the dawn. I thrashed around for hours, worrying about my sleep problems and how lopsided my molars were going be in my middle age. By the age of 83 I might not have any teeth at all.... the imaginary traumas went on and on, swirling round and round in my mind. By the morning I was exhausted and hardly got through the day.
People tell you that grinding is to do with stress, but I am fairly chilled at the moment, so I am pretty sure it's not the cause for me. My personal hunch is that it's to do with weight gain. It regularly happens to me after I have spent the winter eating loads more food and drinking more wine to get through the dark months and go up a size because of my lack of self control (I have absolutely none where chocolate is concerned!).
Checking out the science, the facts behind the condition might bear out my theory, though the researchers conclusions are more complex than just simple over-eating. Apparently, the deeper into your sleep cycles you sink the more your muscles have to relax. So those of us with a heavy jaw and thicker tongue, (going back to my theory, the more weight you put on, the heavier your cheeks and tongue weigh, putting pressure on your throat as you sink deeply into sleep) can find that relaxing into deep sleep their airways get blocked, and it's only the grinding and moving of the teeth that re-opens that passageway. Effectively then, while I am out cold, my clever body is stopping me suffocating myself to death.
A cure for teeth grinding in sleep
I experimented with various logical approaches to stop my grinding. Firstly, I went to the dentist, because it occurred to me that my latest filling might not have been properly pared down, and that the grinding was my subconscious trying to sort the problem out. That made not a jot of difference. Then I went to the chiropractor, to re-align my spine and neck, in case that had thrown something off. That did improve the situation somewhat, but the problem only stopped fully, as I had thought in the first place, when I cut out wheat and sugar and lost 6lbs. Magically, I reverted to regular nights of deep, undisturbed rest. No more grinding.
Sleep problem 2: Snoring
Snoring, for me, resolves too, as soon as I sort my weight. And cutting down alcohol at night works miracles. After 3 glasses of wine, I can guarantee myself a disturbed night's rest, where I wake myself with a jolt to hear myself snoring raggedly and loudly. I even did it on the tube once on my way back from a boozy dinner. Mortifying.
Sleep problem 3: Sleep apnoea
Sleep apnoea is another manifestation of underlying health problems. This can be truly frightening and very definitely disturbs your sleep, preventing your immune system from making the most of that much needed restorative period when you sink into deep R.E.M. cycles. Sleep apnoea is when your airway is blocked for 10 seconds or more by the collapsing of the muscles and soft tissues in the throat. It can happen repeatedly during the night and untreated, is associated with myriad unpleasant health problems - high blood pressure, depression and diabetes - to name a few. It's easily solved by a CPAP machine, a face mask that fits over your mouth and nose at night, or prescription from your dentist for something that will hold the jaw in place, so your tongue doesn't block your breathing.
How to cure sleep apnoea
However, such contraptions are merely temporary solutions to the problem. They don't make it go away. More important is to find the cause of the issue and resolve it once and for all. My weight loss solution helps remarkably here, as attested to by two friends who lost a considerable amount of weight (they were both heavy in the first place) and lost the problem with it. It's also well worth a look at the things that are deeply stressing you. Resolution of a problem can rapidly lead to a resolution of the sleep disturbance.
Sleep problem 4: Hormones
The health connection with some sleep disturbances are easily identified. Waking up repeatedly through the night? Boiling hot? Tossing your bedcovers off, and then freezing cold, snuggling down into them again shortly after, only to repeat the pattern a few minutes later? You may not think you are old enough, but the odds are you have hormone imbalances. Menopause, perimenopause (and men get this too - that mid life crisis has many aspects!) hot flushes - the answer is the same, sort out your hormones and you will sort your sleep. This is a long and complex subject, which I will leave for another blog, but suffice to say a hormone saliva test kit, that you can get from Genova Diagnostics or off the internet, will identify your problems, and then with the help of your naturopath, nutritionist or doctor, you can rebalance your hormones and ease the symptoms.
Sleep problem 5: Depression
Sleeping for far more than the recommended 7 hours each night, but waking up tired and foggy? You may be suffering from the symptoms of depression, which often goes unrecognised for months or even years. It creeps up on you slowly, so that the dark cloud of the mental fog that settles, begins to feel normal, how you have always experienced the world. Again, this is a subject for another time, but consider carefully if this might relate to you, and if so, consult your doctor as soon as you can.
Sleep problem 6: Thyroid
Do you wake up several times during the night feeling as if your tongue no longer fits in your mouth? If you open your mouth and look in the mirror, does your tongue seem inflamed, redder than usual, and with the scallops around the edge that show that it no longer fits within your teeth? If this is your problem, then it's worth getting your doctor to test your thyroid. A few sessions of acupuncture too can release the 'stagnation' of the energy within you that the Chinese would identify as one of the causes of the problem.
Sleep problem 7: Nightmares
The workings of your deep unconscious reveal themselves through nightmares and dreams and the journey can be a rollercoaster one, disturbing your nights for months on end. Dream therapists and psychologists will all tell you they relate to psychological and emotional stresses. They are messages for you from your mind. Write them down every morning when you wake in a dream diary that you keep by your bedside. You will soon see a pattern of repeating images, feelings or events. It's up to you to interpret them, release the problem and you restore your sleep.