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What Does It Mean to Be Too Tired To Sleep?

Your body’s exhausted, it’s 2 a.m. and you have an early start in the morning. So what the fuck is up with you, stupid brain?

What do Donald Trump, Napoleon, Leonardo da Vinci and a giraffe have in common? Aside from having friends in high places, they’ve also each been reported as requiring less than five hours sleep a night. In fact, according to this infographic from Delayed Gratification magazine, America’s current commander-in-chief gets by on just three hours of shut-eye per night — or one more than horses and one less than sheep.

That’s all very well for heads of state and ungulate mammals, but for the rest of us, the feeling of your brain spinning as you toss and turn is a form of waking nightmare — one that gets worse the more you think about it.

So What’s Going On When We Can’t Sleep?

Rubin Naiman, a leading sleep researcher at the University of Arizona, has coined the term “T’wired consciousness” to describe the situation of being simultaneously tired and wired. His explanation is that this form of insomnia is related to “hyperarousal,” a condition normally associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. This implies that it’s a delayed reaction to nervous tension amassed earlier in the day: “[Feeling T’wired is] a kind of excessive, turbo-charged wakefulness … characterized by racing brain waves, a rapid heart rate, overheated core body temperature and dysfunctional hormonal rhythms,” he told The Huffington Post.

Other researchers have similarly drawn links between a stressful workday and having trouble dozing off at night, while a 2005 study at the University of Konstanz, Germany, zoomed in on an inability to detach yourself from your job when you’re off the clock as something likely to cause disturbed sleep. Even worse, this study notes that being preoccupied with work right up until bedtime can create a vicious circle of wakefulness: Worrying about work causes sleepless nights, which makes you too tired to do your job properly, which makes you worry about work so you can’t sleep, and so on and so on and so on and…

But Aren’t Our Smartphones Also Responsible?

Nick Littlehales is a sleep coach and author of the bestselling book Sleep who’s spent almost two decades training Britain’s elite athletes in recovery techniques. He believes our 24/7 lifestyles and almost umbilical attachments to our phones and tablets are pushing the world into a global insomnia epidemic. For him, the culprit keeping our brains revving throughout the night is easy to identify: “Our exposure to blue light has been increased to a level that it’s now having a serious effect.”

Blue light, Littlehales explains, is light at short wavelengths, which we experience most intensely from either daylight or bright artificial sources, such as light bulbs and phone or computer screens. This type of light, he says, interferes with our circadian rhythms (i.e., our inner biological clocks that naturally regulate our waking and sleeping states) by triggering the release of serotonin, a hormone that promotes wakefulness.

According to Littlehales, our increasing exposure to blue light over the past 150 years — “We created the lightbulb, then we created daylight saving time, then we brought technology into our lives” — has been knocking us ever more out of sync with our natural cycles of rest and alertness. That, he claims, is what leaves so many of us lying awake at night wondering why our brain feels like it’s on its third espresso shot, despite our deadweight physical fatigue.

How Do We Get Back on Track, Sleep-Wise?

Littlehales says we should start by dismissing the “myth” that we require eight straight hours of sleep a night. If you’re waking up at 3 a.m. and can’t nod off again, his advice is simply to “chill out, don’t worry about it.” So long as you don’t wake yourself up further by turning all the lights on, he says you should just treat this as personal time. “Put the washing machine on, listen to some music, even watch a film,” he says — although he recommends watching soothing nature documentaries over something like Die Hard.

Being up and about in the middle of the night is “perfectly natural,” he explains, “because we’ve always slept in [intervals dispersed throughout the 24-hour period] as human beings, right up until we invented the light bulb. We only ever tried to sleep in one block at night since that point.” Instead, he insists we should approach our nighttime rest in chunks of 90-minute “cycles,” and as long as we’re getting at least two of those sleep periods in before we start our day, that’s enough for most people to function — not just normally, but at their best.

The trick, he says, is to supplement those three hours of solid slumber with adequate spells of recovery during the day. This could be half-hour naps at midday or in the early evening. “Even if you don’t go to sleep, 20 to 30 minutes spent just being zoned out, away from screens and harsh light, can raise your alertness and awareness by 54 percent,” Littlehales explains. This figure is backed up by a 1995 NASA study which found mid-flight naps for long-haul pilots improved their performance (although you’d hope these naps didn’t take place while they were actually at the controls).

Littlehales’ overall prescription is that when you add up all your 90-minute sleep cycles, daytime naps and zone-outs, it comes out to about 7.5 hours of downtime every 24 hours. Hitting this target by way of small chunks rather than long stretches, he says, is the best way to incorporate an effective sleep regimen into a world that’s being distracted by tech — whether it’s still dealing work emails at midnight or just aimlessly swiping through the latest dating app — around the clock. “Trying to force yourself to go to sleep just doesn’t work,” he says.

He also dismisses the frequently touted remedy of avoiding screens for an hour before bed as “absolute rubbish.” “The fear of missing out is only going to get worse,” he says, so we shouldn’t bother trying to fight it at night. “We’re not going to stop doing this, so we’ve got to find a way to redefine ourselves as human beings, understand what triggers our personal performance and get in harmony with it. Because if we don’t, we will crash and burn.”