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How would you feel after a restless night?
How about two nights? Or 10 nights in a row?
On December 28, 1963, Randy Gardner, with the help of two classmates, went on a mission to find out how his body would respond if he stayed awake until January 8, 1964, making a total of 264 hours (or 11 days).
To begin, he woke up bright and early at 6 am, alert and energized. But by the second day, he had trouble focusing on his surroundings and recognizing objects given to him. By the third day, Gardner became grouchy and his speech began to slur. The day afterward, he imagined himself to be a Paul Lowe, a 200-pound football player, while he was barely 120 pounds.
The experiment was originally meant for a high school science fair, but news spread to Stanford researcher William Dent, who flew down to San Diego to get involved.
As the experiment progressed, Gardner found it difficult to stay awake, especially at nighttime. To make sure he didn’t fall asleep, Dr. Dent and his friends stayed nearby and involved him in various activities to keep him awake. There were to be no drugs involved, including caffeine.
To ensure his safety, he had regular hospital checkups. There was nothing wrong with him, except that he often became confused and forgetful. Hallucinations happened regularly, where he imagined sceneries in front of him that didn’t exist.
On January 8 at 2 am, people cheered as Gardner broke the previous record of 260 hours. He spoke to journalists, had a checkup, and then went to sleep for fourteen hours and 40 minutes.
Decades later, he is alive and well. Gardner says he sleeps on a reasonable sleep schedule and isn’t the type to pull all-nighters.
Today, we’ll talk about insomnia, its impact on our lives, and what you can do to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.
Insomnia: What Causes It?
Insomnia, defined as “habitual sleeplessness”, is something that many of us experience at one point or another. It can be chronic, where symptoms appear at least 3 nights a week for longer than a month, or on a temporary basis.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 30-40 percent of people suffer from symptoms of insomnia within a given year, while 10-15 percent say they have chronic insomnia. As people age, chronic insomnia becomes more common.
Chronic insomnia can be caused by a number of things, such as depression or anxiety disorder, medication, or naturally higher hormone levels.
Unfortunately, insomnia can be a vicious cycle. People with previous issues falling asleep become more anxious about it in later nights, which only exacerbates the problem. Lying awake at night and watching the clock also increases anxiety and sleeplessness.
Stress and trauma from both our personal and professional lives can lead to temporary insomnia. Worries over job security, an argument with a family member, or hearing bad news can cause anxiety that keeps us tossing and turning at night.
The National Sleep Foundation surveyed a group of adults in the United States and found that nearly half suffered temporary insomnia after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Whatever the cause, sleeping difficulties can keep us from operating effectively during the day. You might become sleepy or tired during the day, have difficulty focusing on tasks, or feel depressed or angry.
What Stimulants Keep Us Awake?
Besides the inevitable worries of life, there are some activities within your control that might be affecting your ability to sleep without you realizing it.
- Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, which disrupts our ability to fall asleep. Just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean it’s not affecting your body. If you’re going to drink coffee, it’s better to do so earlier in the day to give the caffeine time to wear off. Set yourself a cut-off time for 2 pm.
- Nicotine. People often resort to smoking cigarettes to calm the nerves. What isn’t so commonly known, though, is that nicotine is a stimulant. Eliminating nicotine is the best choice, but if not, avoid it at least a few hours before sleep.
- Electronic gadgets and devices. Your phone, laptop, or TV can be keeping you awake late at night because of their artificial light, which interferes with sleep. It’s better to keep these devices far away from your bed and in a separate room, so that your bedroom becomes a place to sleep instead of surfing the net.
What Activities Help Us Rest?
Besides avoiding stimulants, there are activities you can do to help your body get ready for sleep.
- Exercise. Regular exercise does wonders for the body, including keeping weight and blood pressures down. It also keeps away other conditions that affect ability to sleep and lowers stress, a major factor in insomnia. Note, though, that exercise should be done in the daytime rather than in the evening because it makes your body feel more alert. After exercising, your body temperature increases and takes about five hours to wear off.
- Read a book. Reading is a good way to calm yourself before bed, while avoiding the stimulating effect of electronic gadgets. I find that an hour or so of reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, helps. It’s also a nice way to fit in some time for learning new things.
- Relaxation techniques. Relaxing yourself before bedtime helps to slow down your mind and body so that you can sleep more easily. One relaxation method is tensing and then relaxing various muscles and parts of your body, such as your toes. Another method to try is deep breathing techniques (you can learn how here).
If You’re Tossing and Turning At Night, Try These
- Go to bed when you’re sleepy. If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing such as reading a book or listening to some music. Otherwise, you’re conditioning your body not to sleep when you’re in bed. Only go to sleep when you start to feel tired.
- Rid yourself of worries. Anxiety about work or life can get in the way of rest. Try dumping out your worries by writing out your thoughts with a pencil and paper. You can jot down general worries that you have, things on your mind, and tasks you need to do later.
- Keep your clock out of sight. Watching the time pass on the glaring light of your bedside clock only increases anxiety and makes it harder to fall asleep. If you rely on your alarm to get up, try putting it somewhere in your room where it can’t easily be seen from your bed.
The Importance of Falling Asleep
Insomnia keeps you from performing at your best and staying focused on activities during the day. The more often it happens, the more difficult it is to sleep.
But the good news is that you can get yourself into the habit of enjoying a good night’s rest.
Feeling awake and refreshed the next morning depends largely on what you do the evening before. A little preparation and patience helps immensely.
 Ross J. (1965) “Neurological Findings After Prolonged Sleep Deprivation.” Archives of Neurology 12:399-403.