‘I’m a Functional Medicine Doctor, and This Is the Most Common Sleep Problem Among My Patients’

Photo: Getty Images/The Good Brigade
If you're the kind of person who drifts off to sleep easily and wakes up refreshed eight hours later, you, my friend, are an anomaly. The sad truth is that most people in the U.S. are not sleeping well.

In a 2019 Well+Good survey of nearly 1,500 people, 92 percent of respondents reported feeling fatigued more than one day per week. Survey-takers also spent an average of six hours per week lying wide awake in bed. Lately, stress or anxiety is what keeps some people awake. But for others, a partner who snores or too much caffeine might be to blame.

Among the most common sleep interrupters, functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, MD, calls out one culprit in particular as near universal. "Something that I see in almost every single one of my patients is being out of sync with their environment," says Dr. Lipman of a phenomenon dubbed "cultural arrhythmia" in his new book, Better Sleep, Better You ($23), co-authored by Casper co-founder Neil Parikh.

Experts In This Article
  • Frank Lipman, MD, functional medicine doctor and chief medical officer at The Well

How does 'cultural arrhythmia' happen?

Cultural arrhythmia manifests in different ways for different people, says Dr. Lipman. Sleep interruption occurs when people paying more attention to the clocks on their phones than the clocks in their bodies. Not spending enough time relaxing, not getting enough natural light during the day, and getting too much artificial light all contribute to poor sleep behavior. When and what you eat can cause cultural arrhythmia, too.

Contrary to the habits of many people in the United States, Dr. Lipman says you should eat your largest meal around lunch. "Your digestive rhythm peaks around noon," he says. "If you eat a large meal at dinner, your body has to process that food at a time when those functions are not optimal. It takes away from other processes, sleep being one of them."

Learn more about the connection between food and fatigue:

Your exercise habits can work for or against you in your quest for a good night's rest. In general, Dr. Lipman says to avoid working out too close to your bedtime. Unsurprisingly, exercise energizes your body, which in turn makes falling asleep more difficult.

Maintaining consistent daily habits, including going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, is also important for syncing your body with its environment, according to Dr. Lipman. "Our bodies do best on consistency and regularity," he says. "Sleep is your primary rhythm and the more your other metabolic processes can be on a schedule and in rhythm, the better for your sleep rhythm."

How to get your body in sync with its environment

Do you up in the morning feeling unrefreshed? Are you tired throughout the day, relying on caffeinated drinks? Do you regularly experience brain fog or headaches?

If you find yourself answering "yes," try to identify the contributing factors. Maybe you're waiting until the clock strikes 11 p.m. to go to bed even though your body is telling you it's tired at 9:30. Or maybe you realized you're spending the entire day in front of the computer without stepping foot outside. Addressing the pain points in your life can help you get back in sync with your environment—and hopefully get more restful sleep.

It's important to acknowledge that complications with sleep are, well, complicated. Cultural arrhythmia may not be the only thing separating you from sleeping well. Rejiggering your meal and exercise habits won't solve the problem of too much stress or sharing a bed with someone who snores like a freight train. If you have a job that requires you to work at night and sleep during the day, Dr. Lipman says it's even more difficult to get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep. In these cases, other steps need to be taken, such as installing blackout curtains, integrating an "evening" routine in the morning or afternoon (whenever you are able to go to sleep), and taking naps.

If you can't get to the bottom of your specific sleep issues, it's important that you speak with your doctor to address your particular needs.

At the end of the day,  Dr. Lipman says understanding cultural arrhythmia might help you find healthier sleeping habits, but it's not meant to make you feel inadequate. "Do your best and see how you feel when you make the changes, but don't let it be another stress in your life if you can't make the adjustments," he says. "When it comes to sleep, there are so many little changes that one can take that make a huge difference in how you sleep." Getting to the bottom of your sleep problems isn't a lost cause, but it's important to focus on that which you can control.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cult-fave wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...