Today is World Sleep Day 2018

16 March 2018

In our over-caffeinated, over-worked and being able to be contactable at all hours society, having less and less sleep has unfortunately become the norm, with Under-sleeping being described as “the next sugar”.

Woman sleeping

Research from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey Universities have found that people are on average sleeping 2 hours less than they were in the 1960s, and unfortunately, it is our health that is picking up the brunt of this issue. For example, did you know that an adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only until their early 60s without medical intervention?

As time has gone on, we have learnt to cram as much as possible into our day; this usually means that we try to override our need to sleep. In the short term, you are more likely to catch common colds and illnesses as it suppresses your immunity. You are also going to experience poor motivation, be more irritable, have slower reaction times and have an increased appetite, which can encourage poor food choices. Over time, this can lead to serious health problems such as obesity, cancer, heart disease and type-2 diabetes, not to mention the significant impact it can have on your general cognitive health, including your mental health and wellbeing. Deep sleep (the part where we start to dream) is a therapeutic state, and helps our brains to ‘make sense’ and process the day’s events, making them easier to understand and tolerate. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep creates a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a region in the brain associated with processing emotions such as anxiety and anger. In children, a lack of sleep has been associated with bullying and aggression; in teenagers to suicidal thoughts. 

Things that can affect our sleep

  • Binge-watching TV shows
  • Sending emails at 11:30pm at night
  • Scrolling through facebook/Instagram/twitter
  • Shift-work
  • Light pollution (especially living in a City)
  • Noise pollution
  • LED lights (these omit more blue light than old fashioned light bulbs)

One of the most common questions asked to a sleep professional is “How much sleep do I need?” Firstly, the 8 hours of sleep a night for all is a myth. The question is harder to answer than you might think because sleep requirements are only partially determined by the length of sleep, and sleep needs vary on an individual basis. This also varies across someone’s lifespan, and may also be influenced by responsibilities or other external circumstances (such as a pressurising job, noisy neighbours, or having a child). When people ask this question, what they usually really mean is “what things do I need to do in order for my sleep-wake time to be improved?”

Many things influence the efficiency of our sleep (that is, the percentage of time we spend in bed that we are actually asleep) and the quality of our sleep (that usually is, the amount we feel rested, which has been shown to be correlated with the time that we spend in deep sleep and REM sleep).

One such thing is sleep pressure: from the moment that you wake up, your body starts to accumulate sleep-inducing substances in the brain. This means that as the day goes on, the need for sleep rises. Therefore, the longer you are awake, the more you need to sleep. This is called sleep pressure, and this helps you to fall asleep and stay asleep until the next morning. If for any reason, you fail to completely reduce this sleep pressure through sleeping enough, you will accumulate “sleep debt”. By sleeping, we essentially ‘wash’ our brain of all the ageing toxins that age our brain over time. A small sleep debt can be repaid with an earlier night, but a large sleep debt is much more difficult to completely balance, if at all.

How to improve your sleep

  • Figure out how much sleep you need to be at your optimum level of performance, and only spend that amount of time in bed. One way that you can do this is through keeping a sleep diary and rating your mood and performance on the following day.
  • Stop pulling all-nighters. That applies to you disco divas on the dancefloor as well as those burning the candles at both ends to finish a piece of work. Did you know that once you have been awake for 19 hours, you are as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk?
  • Your environment. When was the last time you changed your bedding? Is your room well ventilated? Can you hear your next door neighbours? Is the streetlamp from outside causing your room to be bright orange until 1am every morning? Simple fixes like buying an eyemask, some ear plugs and a new set of pillows can help improve the quality of your sleep overnight.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Children that are given a solid routine (usually something like, dinner, bath, story, bed) usually wake up without the need for an alarm clock. However, the first act of rebellion we do as older children/young adults is throw our bedtime routine out of the window. Humans have evolved under the light-dark cycle and our circadian rhythm reflects this. By ensuring we give ourselves routine, we are aiming for the best possible efficiency and quality of sleep.
  • The 15 minute rule. If you can’t sleep in 15 minutes of getting to bed, get up and out of your bed, go into a different room and do a (boring) activity like reading that will help you to feel what we call ‘sleepy tired’ (do not use anything that omits blue light such as a tablet, your TV or your phone). Once you are sleepy tired, return back to bed and try to sleep again. If in 15 minutes you are unable to sleep, repeat the process.
  • If you are still experiencing sleep difficulties, consult a professional who can provide you with further support. Remember, taking sleeping pills long-term will only create more issues.

Simply, the evidence says that the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life will be. So sleep! Sleep well, don’t feel guilty about it, and enjoy every second.

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By Dr Rhia Gohel, Health Psychologist and Physical Health Specialist Practitioner