Are You Burning the Candle at Both Ends?
In today’s busy world, we often think that sleep is expendable – when we’re tired we just grab a caffeine hit and keep going. We pride ourselves on getting by with a few hours sleep – after all, it’s wasted time, isn’t it? Or is it?
The truth is that sleep deprivation kills and I don’t mean falling asleep while driving. Your body can go longer without food than it can without sleep. That’s right – sleep is more important than food for your survival. When you’re asleep, your brain becomes more active. So what’s really going on?
You know the feelings of tiredness. You can’t think as clearly. It’s harder to concentrate. You get grumpy. But did you realise that you’re ten times more likely to make mistakes? Or that a third of all workplace accidents have fatigue as a contributing factor? The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl and the Challenger space shuttle disaster have all been attributed to human error, with fatigue being a factor.
Without enough sleep:
- In men, the testicles shrink and testosterone production fallsYour brain chemistry changes, possibly triggering depression or even psychosis. Children with sleep problems at three years old are more likely to suffer from depression as adolescents. Adults with insomnia are five times more likely than others to become depressed.
- Parts of your brain go to sleep even while you’re awake and apparently functioning normally. This leads to unpredictability and mental disorientation.
- Your memory becomes impaired because your mind encodes and stores memories while you are sleeping – not enough sleep and it cannot do so.
- Your immune system weakens.
- Your heart function becomes impaired.
- Your blood pressure rises.
- You get hungrier. (You produce more of the hormone, ghrelin, which turns on the hunger switch in your brain and less leptin, which tells you you’re full. Ghrelin also slows your metabolism and makes you want to eat high calorie foods. You feel hungrier and it takes more calories to trip the ‘off switch’ in your brain.)
- You become insulin resistant and the pancreas is actually stopped from increasing insulin production.
- Your brain stops responding to glucose and the body can’t process glucose normally.
Put all that together and you have a recipe for piling on the kilos and developing diabetes. Not enough sleep and you are 32% more likely to be overweight, 15% more likely to be obese and 50% more likely to develop diabetes type 2.
Of course, motor vehicle accidents involving fatigue are a well-known consequence of lack of sleep. It is a factor in 18% of all car accidents in Australia. The NRMA estimates that driver fatigue is involved in one in six fatal road accidents. If you have been continuously awake for 17 hours, your brain function is similar to that of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05% – yet how many of us drive when we have been awake for much longer than that?
And if that doesn’t have you heading for bed, consider this. When you’re asleep, you produce HGH (Human Growth Hormone) which increases calcium retention, strengthening bones. HGH also reduces the liver’s uptake of glucose and promotes the growth of muscle mass (and a whole lot more benefits). So if you don’t get enough sleep, all that time and energy spent on exercising will only have limited benefits! To get the full benefit of your exercise regime, you must be getting enough sleep.
Not only is it the amount of sleep that is important, it is also the quality. We have different stages of sleep and we go through these in a ninety minute cycle (approximately). Various factors can change that cycle, leading to feelings of fatigue, even although we have been sleeping.
Some of these are:
- Exposure to noise at night can suppress immune function, even if the sleeper doesn’t waken. Unfamiliar sounds and noise during the first and last two hours of sleep has the greatest effect.
- Some sleeping tablets, such as barbiturates, suppress REM sleep which can be harmful over a long period.
- Digital alarm clocks can disturb your sleep as the light turns off a ‘neural switch’ in the brain causing levels of a key sleep chemical to decline within minutes.
So, how much sleep is enough sleep? Well, like it or not, nature designed our bodies to have about eight hours sleep every day, although this varies. To find out how much sleep you need, try this. Sleep for as long as you want for four nights in a row. The amount of sleep that you take on the fourth night is your required daily sleep. You may not like the results but that is what your body needs!
Now try getting that much sleep every night for a week and notice how alert and energetic you feel! I guarantee that you’ll start to value sleep a lot more and really understand the meaning of the old saying ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’.
10 tips for a good night’s sleep
If you don’t sleep well, then you’re not alone. About one in three Australians don’t get a good rest. If you toss and turn all night long, try these tips.
1) Darken your room. When it gets dark your body produces melatonin, which makes you sleepy. Even small lights like a digital alarm clock or the standby light on a TV can disrupt this process as melatonin production is reduced in response to light. Turn them off or cover them. Get heavier curtains or wear a sleeping mask. The temperature of your bedroom also affects sleep. Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room – about 18°C.
2) Avoid using electronics with a back-lit screen for an hour before bed. This lighting interferes with melatonin production. So turn off the computer and stop using that ebook reader! Or if your device has a blue light filter, turn that on. In most phones and ereaders you can turn on the filter in settings/display.
3) As soon as you wake up in the morning, get some daylight. Go outside, remove your sunglasses and let light onto your face and into your eyes. This helps to re-set your biological clock. Spend more time outside during the day and allow as much light into your home/workplace as possible.
4) If you’re a worrier, set aside some time to write down your worries or the things you have to do. As you do this, imagine you’re taking them out of your head and storing them in a safe place. Give yourself permission to forget them until the morning.
5) Develop a bedtime routine – go to bed and get up at the same time. When you need to make up for a few lost hours, it’s better to have a daytime nap than to sleep in. If you want to change your times, do so gradually, 15 minutes at a time (I know shift-workers can’t do this). If you find yourself feeling sleepy before bedtime, do something mildly stimulating like reading by a soft light, having a warm (not hot) bath, listening to soft music or books on tape.
6) Smoking and drinking disrupt sleep so cut down on the cigarettes or alcohol. Also limit your intake of caffeine especially in the afternoon and evening.
7) Sounds like ocean waves can lull you into sleep as they slow your breathing down. Try listening to nature sounds and imagine yourself to be there. Engage all your senses to create the experience in your mind. You might enjoy other relaxing activities like reading by a soft light, easy stretches, listening to podcasts, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (starting with your toes, tense each group of muscles as tightly as you can and then let them relax).
.8) Exercise tires you, leading to a better sleep but don’t exercise within four hours of going to bed. Regular, moderate endurance (aerobic) exercise has been shown to turn poor sleepers into good sleepers in a study of people aged 55 years and older. They also reported less daytime sleepiness.
9) Try a couple of drops of aromatherapy oils like lavender on your pillow.
10) Avoid eating a heavy meal before bed. Fatty foods take a lot of work for your stomach to digest and can keep you awake. If you’re hungry just before bed, have a light snack.
What to do if you waken up and can’t get back to sleep
It’s normal to waken briefly during the night. In fact, many people won’t even remember it. But if you’re waking up during the night and having trouble falling back asleep, the following ideas may help.
- Stay out of your head – focus on the feelings and sensations in your body.
- Make relaxation your goal, not sleep. Rest and relaxation still help rejuvenate your body.
- If you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes, try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity like reading a book. Use dim lights and avoid screens of any kind — computers, TV, mobile phones, laptops — as the type of light they emit reduces the melatonin production. A light snack or herbal tea might help relax you.
- If you waken feeling anxious, make a brief note of it on paper. Similarly, if a brainstorm or great idea is keeping you awake, make a note of it on paper and fall back to sleep knowing you’ll be much more productive and creative after a good night’s rest.
Older adults also tend to wake up more often during the night. Consequently, you may have to spend longer in bed at night to get the hours of sleep you need, or you may have to make up the shortfall by taking a nap during the day. In most cases, such sleep changes are normal and don’t indicate a sleep problem.