Why does sleepiness elude me?
November 20, 2011 4:39 AM   Subscribe

As I head into the darkness of winter in Northern England, I'm starting to notice the same pattern I suffered from last year...sleeping even less than I normally do (4-6 hours instead of 6-7). I'm not even sleepy or remotely tired until 2, 3, sometimes even 4 am, when I force myself to fall asleep. I wake up at 8 or 9 (sometimes earlier). What could be happening here, physiologically or otherwise? If it's related to the lack of sun/light, how does that even work?

For the last 15 years or so, I've been both a night person and a morning person. I generally am under a lot of stress, but haven't been as much for the last 6 months. The anxiety I suffered horribly from in my 20s is gone (in my 30s now). I'm a positive, energetic and creative person, pretty much all the time. I exercise regularly, in the morning. I eat breakfast daily, and do not eat gluten. I limit my caffeine and sugar intake as much as possible – only 1 cup of caffeine in the morning, if that. Sugar-free desserts or sugar-free sweeteners...I don't have much of a sweet tooth anyway. I seem to be immune to sleeping aids of all sorts, which just make me wired and give me weird body ache pains like my limbs are filled with shifting sand. I think I should also add that I rarely get sad or depressed and tend to only ever cry over extremely frustrating things, like math or social injustice. Oh, I take multi-vitamins and Vitamin D.

In the past, I've been thrilled to have so much extra time, especially at night when I can explore the internet, learn things, or be creative and have endless me-time. Lately though, it's annoying. I look tired and people comment on it frequently. If I stay over at people's homes or have guests, I'm laying awake for hours just thinking when I could be sleeping (truth is, I enjoy thinking more than I enjoy sleeping...except when I'm crazy tired, which I only very rarely seem to get). Also, when I wake up (usually because I have to pee) I am AWAKE, done sleeping, usually wildly hungry and energetic. The thought of trying to sleep more seems ridiculous and impossible.

I'm wondering if there's a type of mania or that is the up-type, all the time? If so, I've probably had it for as long as I can remember. Is that possible, or what else could be going on here? How do I get back to a socially acceptable routine, with perhaps a lower baseline energy and mood? Especially as my awakeness and energy levels seem to increase with the waning daylight hours. I would LOVE to be the type of person that starts getting sleepy around 10, falls asleep by 11, and wakes up at 6. Can I possibly get there?
posted by iamkimiam to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not much of a sleeper no matter what time of the year and have learned to adjust to it. I'm not so concerned any more about having my sleep pattern be "normal" (whatever that is) as I am about making sure that I have enough energy during the day hours to get my work & chores done. The more I talk about my sleep patterns being unusual, the more company I find I have...

If you look tired during the day though, you may not be getting enough rest. Something more low-key late at night and during the wee hours might help you doze off - even if it doesn't do that, it won't consume as much of your energy as other activities. I find that the Internet gets me revved up. Boob tube (nothing too challenging - PBS or Turner Classic might work) or quiet music is better for me.

Try hot milk and hot baths, too.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:04 AM on November 20, 2011

When you say sleep aids don't do jack for you, does that include melatonin? That's the only one I'm aware of that seems to address the troubling pattern you find yourself in. It's OTC in the US, not sure about the UK.
posted by Diablevert at 5:31 AM on November 20, 2011

I'm also a late-night kind of person. This kind of sleep pattern has been a problem for me since I moved back to Iceland from the US (which I did last year). What I would recommend is taking up some sort of exercise. When I'm too busy to exercise it's a lot harder for me fall asleep at a reasonable hour. Swimming is very good, I've found, and I took up cricket last summer (though my first and true love is soccer) but any physical exercise works. When I do something physical, I tend to fall asleep somewhat automatically.
posted by Kattullus at 5:46 AM on November 20, 2011

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder does exist, and so does hypomania. If you were constantly manic you'd probably be unable to function in society very effectively, and it doesn't sound like that's an issue. But I do have a friend, of whom I as a clinically depressed person am very jealous, who is hypomanic, all the time. You may be slightly above her level, but yeah, it's possible. You could see a psychiatrist, or you could ask a doctor for some sort of mild sedative to help you sleep. Again, I have no personal experience with this issue. But it is possible to be more awake during winter, and also to be more than usually amped-up all the time. Without being full-on manic. Which is a much, much more horrible thing than people tend to imagine it would be,
posted by Because at 5:57 AM on November 20, 2011

When you get sleepy is to do with melatonin being produced by your body, which depends on light and dark cycles.

If it's getting dark early in the day, are you sticking on bright lights early, so you ignore it easier when it starts to gets dark with constant light instead of winding down...disrupting the melatonin...whereas in summer you would have had diffuse daylight which naturally faded.

Just a thought.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:35 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I experience the same thing, to an extent. Hot, sunshiney summers make me feel sluggish, lethargic, and angry (angry at the sun for constantly trying to burn my pasty skin). But in the winter, I'm much perkier. I wake up earlier, I feel more energetic, I'm more creative, etc, and want to stay up later. I find the cold weather and bright, gray days invigorating. (The fact that it gets completely dark by a quarter to five bums me out a bit, but whaddreyagonnado.)

Here are some things that help to get me to fall asleep when I'm feeling too peppy and giddy to do it on my own:

-Get ready for bed as soon as possible. Once I finish eating for the evening (which should be earlier rather than later; a too-full tummy keeps me up) I wash my face and brush and floss so I can be ready to go to bed as soon as the feeling strikes me. If I start feeling tired but still have to go haul myself into the bathroom for several minutes, that'll wake me back up.

-Staying off the computer. If I've been staring at the computer for a long time then turn off the lights and try to go to sleep, I see bright flickers behind my eyes for several minutes. This only serves to wake me up more. So I try to do as many before-bed activities off the computer as possible.

-If I'm up because of stress, I write out a to-do list for the next day/week (even if I already have a master list somewhere else). Writing out my plans and organizing my thoughts helps me center myself and calm down.

-Read something with an end to it. Now is not the time to pick up a good novel. Sit down with a short story, a magazine, or something like an Uncle John's Bathroom Reader so that you can stop after a few pages instead of wanting to finish the whole thing.

-Don't listen to music unless you know for sure that it calms you. I am a follow-along music listener, so if there are words my brain tries to sing along. It even tries to sing along with instrumental pieces I know well. This wakes me back up.

-If all else fails, I watch a video from this youtube channel. It's just a person quietly doing things, and I find them very calming.

-I try to never lie sleepless for more than 20 minutes. If I still haven't fallen asleep, I'll start reading again or something to reset everything. Just lying there not sleeping only makes you think about how much you're not sleeping, then (if you're like me) you'll start obsessing about how if you don't fall asleep right this second you're only going to get 6 hours and 33 minutes of sleep and that's not enough and then I might be tired tomorrow and omg why am I not asleep yet. (Don't do that.)

-Nuclear option: chamomile tea. That stuff is like a horse tranquilizer in a mug.
posted by phunniemee at 6:36 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been an insomniac in northern latitudes since fourth grade, and this is what has finally worked for me. If it is possible for you to set a consistent waking time, start there. Wake up at the same time every day, with the exact same routine. Best practice: no snoozing of alarm. Failing that: exactly the same number of snoozecheats every day. Many people find those alarm clocks that start lightening the room gradually some time before they go off to be helpful, I haven't tried one yet myself.

Then count back from that rising time: 7 hours before you wake up, plan to be in bed with lights out and no distractions. An hour before THAT, no screens. No computer, TV, or other blue-light producing things. Turn off as many lights as you can, and if you're reading, use only enough light that your eyes don't ache. If you usually use a full-spectrum light to read by, forsake it for a lesser bulb for this hour.

I also find it useful to have a routine of drinking bedtime tea (Yogi tea brand) -- I honestly don't know if the formula works or whether it's just that I have an established Pavlovian reaction to it at this point, but one way or another I start brewing it an hour before bedtime, and the whole ritual helps signal to my body that it's sleepytime.

Other notes: 1. sleep when you're sleepy! If it's 2 hours before "bedtime" and you find yourself yawning, try going to sleep then. If your alarm hasn't gone off yet butyou feel yourself waking, roust yourself early. I know I'm contradicting my set schedule advice above, but that's what to do if your body isn't talking to you about its needs. If it DOES, listen! 2. Don't turn on any lights when you go to pee in the middle of the night. If you can manage it, don't even open your eyes. Sounds ridiculous -- and it probably is -- but it works somewhat for me. 3. If you absolutely CANNOT sleep, try moving to the couch rather than turning on a light and read in bed.
posted by kitarra at 6:42 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm with both Not Supplied (for the reasoning) and kitarra (for the strategy.) I have had the same issue since I was a teenager at least, although it was improved by moving to Texas, and I either have to be pretty ruthless with the sleep hygiene or resign myself to having extra weird sleep patterns until mid-February.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:51 AM on November 20, 2011

I came to chime in on melatonin. It helped regulate my sleep cycle when I was having trouble sleeping. It's pretty side-effect free (though a small amount of people report minor side-effects -- certainly nothing like traditional sleeping pills). In the U.S., its in the vitamin aisle. Since it's a natural hormone, all it does is tell your body it's time to sleep and regulate when your body is producing the hormone. If you're not getting sleepy, it's likely that your melatonin production is on a weird schedule. My doctor's instruction were take between 2-5 mg. From experience, the sub-lingual ones work best. My internet research told me to take it half an hour before I wanted to go to bed. This regimen worked like a charm, and I don't take it anymore because my body is regulating itself on its own now. Also, some people also take it to help fall back asleep when they get up in the middle of the night.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have phase-shift insomnia, so while my natural sleep schedule is about 4 a.m. to noon, my work requires me to sleep from 9:30 p.m.-5:30 a.m. I use a prescription sleep aid, but I have also found that a sunrise simulator helps keep me on track too.
posted by elizeh at 8:22 AM on November 20, 2011

especially at night when I can explore the internet

You might try installing f.lux on your computer. I used to be a restless up-all-night internet browser, but f.lux has changed all that. It uses your location to make the color of your computer's display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. At first, it's crazy noticeable, especially if you install it at night and your screen suddenly goes all orange. But after a day or two you won't notice it at all, and the lowered levels of blue light coming from your screen will help your body understand that now is sleepy time. I hate to attribute so much to one little program, but I used to regularly be up at 2am, now I'm nearly always asleep by 11pm, and this is the only thing I've changed.
posted by donnagirl at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2011

This recent Reddit post is somewhat relevant here.

Basically, sleep schedule is heavily influenced by light and meal times.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:41 AM on November 20, 2011

I have this problem more when it starts getting dark so early that no one goes to sleep then. I think it's partly because if we are ignoring the sleep signal of darkness, then there isn't another trigger later to let us know it's time to sleep. Where I am, it starts to get darker around 3:00 (depending on how cloudy it is) and the sun has set by 5. There's no difference between the dark of 6pm, 9pm or 11pm, so how do you know when to go to bed?

If you keep the lights on normally from 5-10pm, switch to dimmer ones after that, and read a book (instead of a screen) for an hour or so before bedtime, that'll help some.
posted by Margalo Epps at 2:06 PM on November 20, 2011

i have this problem and melatonin (~1mg about 45 minutes before i want to be asleep) and vigorous exercise to exhaust myself helps quite a bit. consistent waking time helps too. if i sleep in on the weekends i'm f*cked for the beginning of the following week!

with melatonin, though, if you take it and stay awake for more than 1 hour after, you might feel more alert after that point, rather than sleepy. there will be a wave of sleepiness and then if you get up and have to do something during the wave, you miss your chance to let the stuff quiet the noise in your head and let you sleep. i've had this experience, but i'm not sure if it's the norm or not.
posted by zdravo at 6:44 PM on November 27, 2011

I wanted to come back and say that I installed f.lux last week and can tell a noticeable difference in when I get sleepy and how fast I fall asleep. Since I'm pretty much on the computer until the minute I go to bed, it has a big impact. Definitely recommend it.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:47 PM on November 27, 2011

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