I have the pleasure of speaking at various conferences and industry events on the subject of workplace fatigue. Regardless of the direction of my speech, there is inevitably a number of individuals waiting patiently to ask me questions about their own personal struggle with sleep. 

It’s not surprising. Sleep was a mystery to us for centuries. It’s only been the last few years that science is beginning to unravel what is truly going on when we sleep, and why it’s not simply a waste of 8 hours in bed. Here are some frequently asked questions concerning why we don’t get the sleep we need. 

1. Is it true we need less sleep as we get older? 

For the most part, this is a myth. All adults require somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep. As we age, we have a shift in how much time we spend in the different stages of sleep, with older workers getting less deep sleep (meaning less human growth hormone production) as well as REM sleep, reducing the overall length in the process. We also see a shift in our chronotype, meaning that as we get older, we tend to become more “morning larks”, getting up earlier in the day, often at the expense of not sleeping as long. It’s not uncommon for older adults to make up for their shorter night sleep by having a nap during the day, getting them closer to that minimum requirement of 7 hours. 

2. It seems like every night I have to get up and go to the bathroom, and then I have difficulty falling asleep. What can I do? 

There are medical and non-medical reasons why you’re waking up to pee in the middle of your sleep period. Urination at night (known as nocturia) can range from 1 or 2 episodes to as many as 5-6 times per night. The more frequent, the more we need to be concerned. 

Try to get most of your hydration during the daytime hours and cut back at night, with no liquids a couple of hours before you go to bed. Alcohol, coffee and tea are all diuretics and will increase the need to wake up and visit the bathroom. 

Keep in mind that as we get older, our bladders lose their “holding capacity”. We also have less of an anti-diuretic hormone that allows us to retain more fluid before we need to run to the bathroom! Older adults are at higher risk for certain medical disorders, or may be on medications that directly affect the bladder. Urinary tract infections, diabetes, and liver conditions could be culprits. Nocturia is also a warning sign for the development of something more sinister such as cancer of the bladder or prostate. Frequent urination isn’t always due to a full bladder. 

Finally, shift workers may experience a body clock disorder that makes the body think it’s daytime when it’s nighttime and vice versa, and upset the natural timing of when we’re supposed to urinate. 

If you can’t attribute your nocturia to consuming liquids too close to bedtime or some other cause, then please consult with your physician. Keep a daily drinking diary to help them determine what is going on. 

3. I never dream. Is there something wrong with me? 

Whether you know it or not, you are in fact drifting in and out of dreaming throughout your sleep, but if you don’t wake up while it’s happening, chances are that you won’t recognize it. For example, most of our vivid dreaming occurs during REM sleep, but if you wake up during a different stage of sleep, you may not notice the dragon chasing you through the woods. If you wake up and remember your dream, it often reflects a more gentle form of waking up, as opposed to an alarm clock blasting you awake or your kids jumping on top of you. 

A sudden awakening typically causes a spike in noradrenalin being released, which quickly washes away your ability to recall the dream. 

There are many theories as to why we dream, but academics are leaning towards the memory consolidation process, meaning that it reflects the brain trying to figure out what information is important to keep, and what can be removed. Think of it like a file cabinet where you have to weed out the old information to make space for the new. 

4. I have very vivid dreams. Most don’t make any sense. Should I be worried? 

One of the things that happens when we enter into our dream state is a heightening of emotions, creativity, and imaginings. This is due to a quieting of the frontal lobe of our brain, which is responsible for things like logic, problem solving, reasoning and self-control, and an increase in activity in our amygdala, which is responsible for our “fight or flight” hormones. As a result, our dreams are often incredulous, or make no sense at all. Don’t worry. You’re normal. 

5. I’m a new parent. I am chronically sleep deprived. Please help! 

A recent 2019 study examining new parents and sleep found that sleep deprivation lasted for the first 4-6 years after the birth of the first child. The first three months were the worst, with mothers receiving about 60 minutes less sleep, but improved to 40 minutes less sleep for the rest of the first year. The effect on fathers was less pronounced at only 13 minutes less sleep even during the first three months. 

What’s worse is that not only are you getting less sleep, but you have more interruptions throughout the sleep period, with one survey indicating new moms getting only 1-3 hours of undisturbed sleep at a time. This interrupts our sleep cycle and you may miss out on critical stages of sleep. 

The act of breastfeeding is a known sleep enhancer, making it easier for mom to fall asleep while feeding as opposed to bottle-feeding which causes the baby to move about more and disrupt the quietness of the situation. More controversial but often promoted is the notion of breastfeeding and sleeping in bed with the infant to minimize awakenings to both mom and the baby. If it means less sleep disturbances, it might be in your best interest. 

Napping is a tired parent’s best friend. It can supplement the sleep you’re not getting. To effectively nap during daytime hours, be sure you have blackout drapery with no TV or lights on around you. Use a white noise device to block out daytime sounds from outside. And most importantly, lie flat. We fall asleep quickly when we’re lying down, but not so when simply reclining on the couch or in a chair. Try to always nap in the same location. Our bodies thrive on routine and as soon as you enter into your sleep space, it will help you to fall asleep quicker. 

Still, every once in a while, you need a good solid night of sleep. Have your mother-in-law, siblings, or someone else who owes you a favour, take care of the kids for a night every couple of weeks so you can escape into deep, undisturbed sleep. 

Finally, give yourself a break. The housekeeping police won’t be coming by to see if you made the bed, dusted the shelves, and vacuumed the carpet. Time is your most important commodity. Make sure your older children keep up with the chore list. If cost isn’t a huge factor, hire somebody to mow the lawn, clean the house, or pick up your groceries. And with all the options now available, ordering in food has became a lot more nutritious (and less clean up required)! 

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