What is orthosomnia (and is it ruining your sleep)?
Between smart watches tracking our sleeping patterns, apps to help us calm down before bed, alarms set via our home assistants, and dozens more modern tricks and tips we may be trying to help achieve that ‘better’ nights sleep, could we actually be causing ourselves more stress?
Technology has become an intrinsic part of our lives. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember the last time we were more than a few feet away from our smartphone or smartwatch. We’ve got tech that can help predict depression, tech to help address alcohol dependency, endless apps to help us get organised, ease our stress and get a better night’s sleep. Tech even helps us stay on track and keep our motivation levels high when we’re struggling at work. Yet, could some forms of tech be causing us more stress than good?
Missing out on our much-needed rest and relaxation doesn’t just make us feel tired - our lack of sleep can be bad for our health. Along with feeling grumpy and not working to our full potential, not catching enough z’s leaves one in three of us feeling more stressed, on edge and less focused. According to the NHS, regular poor sleep puts us at risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a shorter life expectancy.
Typically, we need eight hours of good-quality sleep to function properly. If you find yourself waking up tired or longing to catch a quick catnap, chances are, you aren’t getting enough sleep.
While it’s hard to deny the benefits of a good night’s sleep, do we really need the endless stream of sleep tech gadgets the market is trying to sell to us? Or could our obsession with sleep trackers be leading to a rise in insomnia and orthosomnia?
What is orthosomnia?
You may have heard of orthorexia - a rise in ‘clean eating’ that has led to a condition bearing all the hallmarks of a new type of eating disorder which sees individuals obsessed with the ‘purity’ of what they are eating. Orthosomnia is a new term being used to describe an unhealthy obsession doctors have started seeing, where people focus on getting a ‘healthy’ amount of sleep.
As Dr Abbot explains to Health, “We realised we had a number of patients coming in with a phenomenon that didn’t necessarily meet the classical description of insomnia, but that was still keeping them up at night. They seemed to have symptoms related to concerns about what their sleep-tracker devices were telling them, and whether they were getting good quality sleep or not. They were actually destroying their sleep by becoming so dependent upon these devices.”
In some cases, we are becoming more stressed, and our sleep is suffering further, as we become more and more focused on what our sleep trackers say.
If tech isn’t the answer, what can we do to get a better night’s sleep?
Cut back on caffeine
Nutritional therapist Olianna explains, “Caffeine can greatly deteriorate sleep quality. Limit coffee to no more than two per day, and avoid caffeine (tea, coffee, and coke) at least eight hours before going to sleep.”
Caffeine isn’t the only thing we should keep in mind ahead of our bedtime. According to Olianna, we should avoid alcohol at least three hours before heading to bed.
“Even though alcohol causes sleepiness, it is responsible for sleep disturbances. Alcohol absorption requires eight hours, which ‘steals’ from our rest. Ideally, avoid alcohol before sleep, as it reduces melatonin levels, hence can disrupt sleep, leaving you unrefreshed the next morning.”
Create a sleep-friendly space
According to experts, we have a strong association between sleep and our bedrooms. Ensuring our sleep space offers a relaxing environment can be key to helping us get a more restful night’s sleep.
If possible, try to remove distractions such as TVs, phone chargers, and other gadgets from the room. Investing in a good quality mattress and dark, thick curtains or blinds can help you to create a more comfortable space.
Routine is key
Having a regular bedtime shouldn’t just be for kids and teens. Keeping regular sleeping hours can help our brain and internal body clock become used to a set routine. To help us keep to this regular bedtime, it can help to create a wind-down or self-care routine you can perform before bed each night.
Experiment to find out what works best for you. Light exercise, such as yoga can help you to relax before bed and burn off any tense energy.
Listening to calming podcasts, gentle music, or white noise machines can be another way to help calm racing thoughts and begin unwinding. Similarly, reading a good book or taking a warm bath can help you to get yourself into a positive, more relaxed mindset ahead of bed.
If worries about tomorrow keep you up, creating a to-do list can help you to clear your mind and organise your thoughts ahead of time. Practising mindfulness or meditation for just a few minutes each night can help you to reconnect with your emotions, feel more aware of how you are feeling (mentally and physically), and identify anything that may be weighing more heavily on your mind than you may have realised.
Start a sleep diary
Keeping a sleep diary sounds a little counter-productive if we are saying sleep trackers can cause us to become more anxious, however, sleep experts often recommend them to help diagnose any sleep problems. The NHS recommends a simple sleep diary you can easily download and fill out over the course of a week.
By keeping a written record of your sleep, you could uncover habits or activities (which you may not realise you are doing) that are actually contributing to your trouble sleeping. It may also help reveal underlying issues, such as stress or medication, that you may want to talk about with your GP.
Consider your mental health and wellbeing
We all feel stressed and anxious from time to time. Could your stress or anxiety levels be impacting you more than you realise? As one counsellor explains:
“When someone is feeling depressed or in a low mood, disturbed sleep is very common. Stress, anxiety and worry can lead to a lack of sleep. When we talk about anxiety, the problem is more related to dealing with the future and its possible uncertainties. Getting worried about a possible danger makes the body muscles tenser, and the mind ruminates about ‘what could happen if…’”
Life coach Robert suggests we should focus on resolving our issues before heading to bed. “If there is an unfinished project or an issue in the day that you haven’t dealt with that is bothering you when you go to bed, try making an action plan for the next day. Even having one definite task that you will perform to resolve the issue can help.
“It can also be good to ‘count your blessings instead of sheep’. Think of three things you are grateful for right now. They don’t need to be big things. Write those down too.”
By working through and acknowledging what is bothering us before trying to go to sleep, we can feel a sense of relief, as we have written things down to tackle at another time. We no longer need to keep these worries at the forefront of our minds. And, when we remind ourselves of what we are thankful for, it can help to put us into a more positive mindset before we go to sleep - helping us to feel more relaxed and calm.
Try complimentary options
Alternative or complementary therapies can offer a natural, holistic way of promoting relaxation and refocusing our energies on our health and wellbeing. While many are not scientifically proven, individuals report having a positive impact on their sense of wellbeing, as well as in assisting with specific issues such as stress and insomnia.
Aromatherapy can be a simple way to tackle insomnia by yourself or with the help of an experienced aromatherapist. Burning a relaxing scent in your home, adding essential oils to your evening bath, or spraying certain fragrances on your bedding such as lavender can all help prepare your mind and body for sleep. If you aren’t keen on lavender, other essential oils that promote sleep include cedarwood and bergamot.
Crystal therapy can be another complimentary option worth exploring; a holistic form of therapy that taps into the energy of crystals and how they affect your body and mind. Thought to help individuals unblock, focus, and direct their energy, those who try crystal healing report an improvement to their sense of wellbeing, a decrease in sense muscles and sleep problems, as well as a deep feeling of relaxation. If you aren’t sure where to begin, keeping amethyst beside your bed is thought to help aid individuals in achieving a more restful night’s sleep.
The benefits of having a nice, relaxing massage should come as no surprise, but trying an Indian head massage can help improve your sleep routine. Focusing primarily on your head, neck and shoulders, the techniques used can help encourage healing and restore balance in your body.
Hypnosis may also be able to help with temporary or persistent (chronic) insomnia. Tackling the potential causes that are preventing you from relaxing and falling asleep, hypnosis can compliment treatments surrounding anxiety and depression that may be disturbing your sleep. If you are unsure of the cause of your sleep problems, working with a clinical hypnotherapist can help you to uncover what may have triggered these problems.
Article originally published: 10 July 2019
Article updated: 22 September 2022