Sleep. Everybody needs it. New mums crave it. Toddlers fight it. Teenagers randomise it. Worried parents stress about it. Dolphins (as voluntary breathers) only allow half their brain to do it at any given time.
In terms of health and well-being, sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise and understanding sleep facts and function is an important first step to a good night’s rest for the whole family.
First, a few facts:
- The body never adjusts to shift work (or constant party / work cycles for that matter!).
- Driving while tired is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.
- Sleep deprivation lowers leptin levels, which promotes an increased appetite – and you burn more kilojoules sleeping than you do watching television.
- Tired people experience cognitive impairment (affecting their attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning and problem solving).
- Chronic sleep deficit is associated with health risks such as stroke, diabetes and heart problems.
- The average healthy adult needs seven to nine hours sleep each night. Teenagers and children require as much as ten to twelve hours sleep and those over 65 need around six hours.
- Insomnia is not indicated by lost sleep, but rather by the effects the next day (irritability, headaches, and / or fatigue).
Although the precise functions of sleep are still being debated, here are some theories on why we sleep:
- Restore (repair and rejuvenate) what is lost when we are awake.
- Support the immune response.
- Strengthen motor skill learning, memory formation and (a more recent theory) brain plasticity.
- Aid digestion and metabolism.
- Facilitate waste clearance within the brain.
- Increase creativity (especially when dreaming).
- Support emotional and mental health.
So, how do we capture those elusive hours of shut-eye? Here are a few sleep hygiene tips:
- Adopt a regular sleep pattern – try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time on at least six days a week (even on weekends and in the holidays).
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes – these substances all decrease the quality of your sleep.
- Reduce technology use for a few hours before bedtime – screens emit blue light which interferes with melatonin production (our sleep-inducing hormone). Blue light can be blocked by using blue-blocker glasses or installing f.lux (software that ‘warms’ your computer display at night).
- If you worry at night, try keeping a journal and writing down your worries before settling into bed.
- Establish a calming pre-bed routine to prepare both body and mind for sleep.
- Aim to have a cool, dark and quiet bedroom and turn off any devices (phones, tablets, etc) that might interrupt your sleep.
- Seek professional help when needed – severe snoring, or persistent trouble falling or staying asleep may need professional help: your GP is a good place to start.