Disturbances of sleep are a common problem to us all. There are times when it is hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. When the problems occur frequently or nightly, then insomnia can begin to affect one's functioning. When sleep starts to fall apart, then healthy sleep can be re-established when healthy patterns are re-established. For those who work nights, or whose life-style dramatically varies their sleep patterns, there may be some simple adjustments that are both possible and effective to improve sleep. First, though, it is helpful to understand some of the basic concepts about how we sleep and some of our basic misconceptions.
While people often see themselves as morning people or evening people, the truth is we, as humans beings are day animals. We are not nocturnal or night creatures, by nature. What this means is that we are biologically set to awake at sunrise. If you have ever been camping, you realize that when the sun rises, it is hard to continue to sleep, unless you have something to cover your eyes, and maintain a darkness over them. What our internal clock does is to push our sleep phase, those eight hours we sleep, forward against this rather constant event (sunrise). What we have done with roofs and curtains is to block out the light which allows the sleep phase to move forward in time, for most of us, to a time more convenient to awake. Once we have a wake-up time, our clock will begin the sleep phase about 16 hours later, or about 8 hours before our next awakening time. If you keep a consistent wake-up time, even if this is in the late morning, afternoon or evening, and get to sleep about 8 hours before that, then often sleep will be normal.
Where we mess things up is with phase advancing our sleep. It is easy to stay up later than our standard bed time, especially on week-ends. Then, feeling we need to get more sleep, we sleep later into the morning than is usual for us. Often we repeat the pattern by staying up a little later the next night. Finally, we try to reverse the pattern, and get to bed about our usual time, and either can't fall asleep or after a couple hours of sleep, we are wide awake for a while.
When you need to catch up on your sleep, what works better is to awake at your normal time, stay awake for six hours, and then take a nap. Napping is effective if within the middle of your awake phase, (i.e., at least six hours after you awake). If you are sleep deprived, a nap will reduce your sleep deficit. If you are not sleep deprived, then a nap will push back the time you will fall asleep. That is why if you fall asleep before your normal sleep time, you will sleep for a couple hours and then be wide awake. Regardless of the pressures to move your sleep around to fit your life style, you need to strive to keep at least those last five hours before you wake up dedicated for sleep. If you dip into those five hours, you are more likely to disrupt your sleep.