Sleep and Divorce... What’s the Big Deal?

divorce sleep sleep hygiene Aug 02, 2023

"Ahhh, I slept like a baby last night."

What image does this conjure in your mind? How would you describe a baby sleeping?

Peaceful, quiet, tranquil.



How many nights does this reflect your slumber? Has it changed since you began this divorce process or during the stress of deciding to proceed with the divorce? 

In Virginia, the rate of insufficient sleep (<7 hours per night) is higher than the US average. 50-70 million Americans have sleep disorders. 1 in 4 Americans experience chronic pain. Depression is a common comorbidity with insomnia. Lack of sleep interferes with mood and relationships. Anecdotally, those going through a divorce do not sleep well. 

Coincidence? Let's dive in a bit.

Most of us think of sleep as pleasurable and peaceful. Often it is…AND sleep is work! This is when children grow, learning and memory occur, and when we repair ourselves. We understand sleep restores our energy, but how amazing it facilitates our bodies to heal and repair themselves!

Proper sleep is also essential for assisting you with your divorce preparation. Research shows that sleep affects multiple body systems and functions, including immune function, pain response, and emotional response. Your best efforts during the day may be reinforced with proper sleep…or sabotaged. Let’s learn how to avoid the latter. 

While quantity is necessary, read on to see why quality is more important. 

There are five stages of sleep, and we cycle through these approximately every 90 minutes. The deep phase is where the "work" and sleep magic happens. Slow wave and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep are the two stages of deep sleep. And research tells us that exposure to chronic stress (common during divorce) impacts our REM sleep.

In efficient deep sleep, we are "paralyzed," as neurologist Dr. Stasha Gominak describes. We are most paralyzed in REM sleep. Ideally, we are hoping to have 2 ½-3 hours of REM sleep each night. 

But wait! If we are paralyzed, how can we keep breathing? Our systems are so intricate and unique that our brains can shut down everything but the essentials to do the repair work. Our diaphragm and heart, thankfully, do not get paralyzed.



You and your amazing brain and nervous system make repairs during deep sleep, including emotional turbulence and upheaval.

So what happens in deep sleep that is so important to our health and assisting with pain and your divorce preparation?

As we enter deep sleep, our brain wave pattern slows. This slowing promotes the release of  growth hormone, essential for growth in kids and repair in adults. Dr. Gominak believes the growth hormone is the "boss hormone" that calls other hormones into action as needed. Sleep can't do its job if this crucial phase is interrupted by movement. This can lead to unpleasant symptoms. Night after night-no opportunity to repair or calm the nervous system. 

The result? Symptoms or issues may linger or progress. Proper sleep serves as a piece of healing, growth, and restoration. 

A simple way to remember this is: Deep sleep heals the body. REM sleep heals the mind. The ratio of deep to REM leans heavily toward deep early in the night. Later in sleep, we get more REM and less deep in each cycle. What does this mean? If you sleep less than 7 hours per night, you miss out on valuable REM sleep! With this divorce stuff going on around you, efficient restorative sleep is an opportunity to be ready to think, engage and respond. 

Let's imagine a Beltway construction project. VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) is doing night repairs and shuts down all lanes from 10 PM-6 AM. The site is prepared (sleep hygiene and nutrition), and they start working. Uh oh, it's 11:30, and an ambulance needs to get through (you are startled awake with fear around custody). The work is interrupted to let the ambulance through. Back to work. 2 AM, what now? A hazmat truck needs to get through (your little one comes in because they want to know if they can still play soccer after the divorce). More construction delays! Now imagine this happens every night multiple times. When and how will this project be completed? Night delays will lead to daytime delays with traffic issues. You wake sore and achy, your fear and anxiety are heightened, or you feel dizzy at your morning meeting. This is what it is like for a body and mind that do not get proper and restorative sleep each night.


How do we improve our sleep?

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene involves preparing yourself and your environment for a great night. Sleeping in a cool room (60-67 degrees F) is an excellent place to start. Limiting caffeine is essential. Individuals respond differently to caffeine influenced by age, weight, and more. Exposure to blue light from TVs, computers, and phones signals the brain to stay awake. This was not an issue before electricity. Our bodies and minds knew to prepare for sleep when the sun went down and the light was scarce.


Sleep nutrition

Vitamin D is an essential component of sleep nutrition/supplementation. It is a hormone and not a vitamin. We make Vitamin D from cholesterol receptors on our skin that we get from the sun. Knowing your D levels is essential. According to Dr. Gominak, the sweet spot for Vitamin D and sleep is 60-80 ng/ml. Work with a clinician for proper recommendations about D supplementation. Geography, season, age, and cholesterol medications can alter D levels.  Other nutritional/supplementation considerations are B vitamins, iron, and cherry juice concentrate (CJC). CJC can help boost melatonin production. Efficient levels of magnesium can positively affect sleep. Magnesium impacts muscle, nerve, and brain function (3 of its 300 functions!) Nervous system health is vital for you during this divorce process. A final nutritional consideration with sleep is our gut bacteria. Sleep is one of the many areas we are learning about the importance of the microbiome. The gut bacteria make 7 of 8 B vitamins and are essential to consider with chronic pain, burning in hands, swelling, and more.


Sleep mechanics

An efficient airway (sleep mechanics) is essential for quality sleep. Where is your tongue when your mouth is closed and at rest? An efficient state is on the roof of your mouth. When it is pushing on your teeth or dropped down, this alters the airway. Take a slow deep breath with your tongue on the roof of your mouth and then not. Is it different? The mechanics can be addressed through manual work by a trained clinician or appliances created by a functional or biologic dentist.



Go to sleep! 

It seems so simple. Yet it is pretty complex and essential for your health and healing. And now you know it is also vital for your divorce preparation

What changes will you make to allow the construction crew to do its work at night and facilitate better days? And how will this enhance your preparation and navigation through your divorce?

Please be sure to consult your healthcare coach or provider about making any changes that may or may not interfere with your current regimen.


References and where to learn more:

Anderson KN, Bradley AJ. Sleep disturbance in mental health problems and neurodegenerative disease. Nat Sci Sleep. 2013 May 31;5:61-75.

Palagini,L, Baglioni C, Ciapparelli A, Gemignani A, Riemann D. REM sleep dysregulation in depression: state of the art. Sleep Med Rev. 2013 Oct;17(5):377-90.

Roehrs et al, 2015 Sleep in America® Poll

Sleep and Physical Therapy with Dr. Catherine Siengsukon

Dr. Stasha Gominak

Tart Cherry Juice

Sleep Stats

Sleep Stats

Temperature for sleep

Sleep and Wellness

Sleep Stages

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