It’s bad to read, watch TV, and use your laptop in bed

It’s bad to read, watch TV, and use your laptop in bed

Many people turn to a book when they cannot sleep, or turn on the television in their bedroom. Others find the bed a comfortable place to work or study. Students, whose beds serve as both sofa and desk, often have problems sleeping. If your bed is currently serving as cinema, library and office, this is almost undoubtedly affecting your sleeping patterns.

When you do anything in bed, you are creating an association between your bed and that thing. This means that whenever you do anything in bed other than sleep, you are, in effect, weakening your ‘falling asleep response’. If you think about other associations you might have such as a biscuit with your coffee, tea in the afternoon or a snack in front of the TV, you will know how strong these feelings can be. Those of you who have tried to give up smoking will know that kicking the nicotine addiction is only part of the battle. Often much more difficult, is breaking all those strong associations of coffee — cigarette, beer — cigarette and after dinner — cigarette. If you are spending time lying in or on your bed to read, study, work or watch television, then you are weakening the bed/sleep association and creating a bed/being awake association. If your bed has become about everything but sleep, it is hardly surprising that you do not feel ready to drop off when you lie down at night.

Whatever you do in bed becomes associated with bed.

The effects of poor sleep habits

Before I go on, I need to say something about poor sleep hygiene. ‘Sleep hygiene’ is the term used for behaviour specifically associated with going to bed and sleeping. When one has ‘poor sleep hygiene’, this alone is likely to lead to insomnia — and for the majority of sufferers, is the root of their problem. While at university, I was guilty of very poor sleep hygiene. All of these things laid the perfect foundation for poor sleep to set in. Little wonder that I became an insomniac.

There are three main reasons that poor sleep hygiene can cause insomnia.

1) Anything you do in bed other than sleep weakens the bed/sleep association and reinforces the bed/awake association.

2) Too much sleeping, either in the morning, at weekends, or napping during the day, means you are not actually tired when you go to bed.

3) I explain below the third, vital reason that poor sleep hygiene is so harmful, although you are unlikely to have heard of it…

The stages of sleep and sleep quality

Sleep specialists often claim that most people actually get a lot more sleep than they think. In tests, researchers claim that patients often report having no sleep whatsoever, while EEG results show that they have actually been asleep for six or seven hours. However, what is not made clear is that ‘six or seven hours’ refers to the total number of hours slept, with no mention of the stages in which this sleep occurred. In other words, no reference is made to the quality of the sleep had. Little comfort for those whose only problem is that their quality of sleep is poor –- so that even a full night’s sleep leaves them feeling unrefreshed.

The fact is that there are at least three distinct stages of sleep, and in a normal night we spend varying amounts of time in each of them. A normal sleeper will only spend a few minutes in Stage 1 sleep before going into the deeper stages. But very often, patients in sleep clinics spend a much larger than normal proportion of the night in Stage 1.

In Stage 1, we may ‘feel’ we are still conscious even though we may dream quite readily. The rejuvenating effects of this type of sleep are minimal, and without the deep and dreamless Delta sleep, one feels little if at all refreshed. It might be more accurate to describe Stage 1 as ‘pre-sleep’ or even ‘non-sleep’. So, when you report ‘I haven’t slept for days’, this is unlikely to be true. There are some nights when we actually get no sleep at all, but this cannot happen night after night. Like the sleep clinic patients, your sleep was probably so light that you mistook it for normal consciousness.

I, personally, have made the unpleasant discovery that while a night without any sleep is rare, it is quite possible to spend the entire night in Stage 1 – to go days, weeks even, having only this type of sleep. Insomniacs learn to survive on this tiny ration of poor sleep in the same way that a famine victim may survive for years in a state of near-starvation. But while it may be possible to survive physically on Stage 1 sleep, the emotional effect is devastating –- the quality of life one has while getting only this type of sleep is wretched. In order to feel good in the morning, you must spend a reasonable proportion of the night in the third stage –- deep, Delta sleep. This is why you can spend 12, 13 hours in bed and feel worse than a night when you were only asleep for four hours. If those four hours included plenty of delta sleep, then they would have been far more beneficial than any number of Stage 1 hours.

Now, the link with this and sleep hygiene is this: when we spend too long in bed, we tend to spend a lot more time in Stage 1, and a lot less time in the refreshing delta sleep. Thus, the quality of our sleep suffers. Eventually, the amount of Stage 1 sleep can approach 100% of the time spent asleep. Even today, there is a very clear direct link between the amount of purely Stage 1 sleep I get and the amount of time I spend in bed. If your problem is not with the amount, but with the quality of your sleep, you should pay special attention at this point. In a nutshell:

The longer you spend in bed, the less chance you have of getting the deep sleep you need.

Shortening the time spent in bed increases the chance of getting the deep sleep you need.