Sleep is a fairly straight-forward concept when it comes to energy, right? Just get to bed on time and you'll get more energy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For a few people that nice eight-hour block of sleep is routine, predictable, and energizing. Increasingly, the number of people who actually experience this type of sleep is declining.
We tend to think of sleep as more of a mental rest, and that if we can just calm our minds the sleep will come more easily. Sleep is both a mental and physical rest, and with more emphasis on this dual benefit these days, there is an array of not just mental relaxants for sleep, but also supplements and medications for muscular relaxation.
Sometimes, you can try all kinds of sleep therapies and none of them help improve sleep or increase energy. What's going on? The quality of mental and physical rest we get at night during sleep is a reflection of how we take care of ourselves during the day. The level of stress accumulation and effects of other lifestyle habits including diet, physical activity, and self-inferred pressure all take a toll on both energy levels and overall quality of sleep.
A tough situation arises when energy dips down and sleep quality is too poor to replenish much of that lost energy. So many people fall into this category these days, and the combination leads to or contributions to many forms of chronic fatigue. So, if feeling tired is not enough to bring on good sleep, how do you break this vicious cycle?
When you recognize that how you take care of yourself during the day is going to affect how well you sleep at night, you can get the ball rolling towards better sleep and energy. Some people are in the habit of never taking it easy, day after day. There is always an excuse of how important everything is to do. Using the computer, thinking about problems, using the computer again, thinking about more problems. Outside of the basics of eating, working, and just functioning on a daily basis, we've found myriad ways to fill up every itty bitty space of time.
There is a good chance that when the daytime lacks even a second of rest or relaxation, it will become harder to achieve a restful state at night when you need it most. The body and mind can inadvertently hop on the fast train that you're conducting during the day of non-stop activities and thinking, and this fast train is hard to stop all at once before bedtime.
One of the most important steps towards being a better sleeper is to learn to become a better relaxer in general-a talent that is a challenge for many of us. We are steeped in a culture of go, go, and go faster. A culture of constantly looking around for the next “great” thing that you do not want to miss out on doing. A culture that can sometimes become obsessed with seeking answers to unanswerable questions and constantly fixing on problems and “what's wrong.” Although you are an individual, it is difficult while living in a society to not become wrapped up in what everyone else sees wrapped up in. We'll cover these topics more in-depth in a later section.
Welcome, then, to a culture of non-sleepers. The body and mind start getting the message even at night that there's no time to stop or to rest. When this mindset perpetuates not only during the day, but also at night, you have the ingredients for a host of chronic fatigue conditions and low energy. While nighttime should be a time to catch up on energy spent during the day, the body incorrectly becomes hard-wired for not doing this effectively.
Is there a physiological explanation for all of this? Yes. To make a long story as short as it needs to be, your wake-sleep clock is set by chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters. The flux and action of these neurotransmitters is shaped by how you handle stress and take care of yourself on a daily basis and cumulatively over time. One particular neurotransmitter called serotonin is especially important for setting a consistent sleep-wake cycle over a roughly 24-hour period.
When we become addicted to a constant “search and go” mode, where we are always seeking the most exciting events and going nonstop, whether we realize it or not we are adding to our own levels of stress. There are unavoidable sources of stress in life that are unique to each of us, but addiction to a strenuous, over-stimulated, and constant pleasure-seeking lifestyle has become a way of life for many that is not overtly realized as a potential source for chronic fatigue.
When stress builds up through unavoidable or chosen forms of it (or both), levels of serotonin in the brain decrease and the internal clock that each of us has for waking and sleeping becomes disturbed. There is no way to reset this clock for more restful sleep and better energy without attaching to stress in life.
It may be that you are not driven by constant internet browsing, seeking the latest greatest thing, or anything of that sort. Let's explore a different example. Very often you find people who are exhausted but still insist on volunteering regularly. This person can freely say, “I'm tired all the time,” and it may never happen to them that volunteering may not exactly be helping this state. Expanding energy to help others is great when you have the energy at hand, but when you're already in a depleted state even the act of volunteering can add to stress.
When sleep is inconsistent and ineffective, and energy is low, stress levels are the most important place to start investigating. As we talked about, not all stress is as obvious as work-related stress, financial stress, or other types of commonly acknowledged pressures. Some stress is actively chosen each day and we may not even realize it as we're engaging in these behaviors. Some stress comes from repetitive stress and worries that we talked about in the earlier sections on mental-emotional health.
No matter what, if you have both sleep issues and some form of chronic fatigue, do not be scared to re-investigate your lifestyle and the sources of stress you may be battling on a daily basis. With self-evaluation you can take some steps toward decreasing stress, raising serotonin levels, and getting better sleep and energy levels.
Of course, as you're investigating it may come in handy to try out chamomile tea or some other natural sleep aid to help bridge the stress and sleep gap. If you make an effort not to ignore the health problems anymore and to really investigate where they're coming from, unique clues and healthy solutions will present themselves to you so that you can feel better.
The next section on chronic fatigue will talk about physical activity and its role in helping you stay energized and healthy.