Off to Dreamland, aka Sleep Tight!

My article on the importance of a good night’s sleep was published by Life Positive in their January 2013 issue:

Punishing schedules and packed timetables can play havoc with our sleep. We might ignore this, but this has serious consequences for our well-being

If there’s one thing we hated as kids, it was being told to go to bed. It’s funny how most of us can easily look back to a time when we’d actually rebel against sleeping. Unfortunately, as the years go by and the responsibilities pile on, the reverse becomes true – we’d like to get more sleep, but there’s work to be done and places to be.

Packed schedules and stressful lifestyles have contributed to what’s often considered an epidemic of insomnia. We spend most of the day working, come back home, turn on the TV, and drift off to an uneasy sleep, waking up the next day feeling tired and groggy. There’s also a reverse effect at work here –Some of us look at sleep as ‘something for the weak’ and pride ourselves on needing just a couple of hours each night.

What we don’t realise is that a lack of sleep – or rather, a lack of quality sleep – has a deleterious effect on our systems. You might look at sleep as ‘resting’ time for your body but that would be understating it quite a bit. Sleep’s more than just giving ourselves a break – it’s necessary for your mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

Essential

While the exact mechanism behind sleep is still a mystery, what scientists do agree upon is its importance. Contrary to popular belief, our minds are actually quite active during sleep, and some studies say that REM sleep (the period of sleep associated with dreams) causes a 20% spike in our brain metabolism.

In fact, sleep is when your bodies repairs itself and cleans away the clutter of our daily routine –  REM sleep has been linked to higher creativity, and can also have a lasting impact on our mood the next day. Research has also shown that a lack of sleep is associated with mood changes, lowered immunity, higher incidence of lifestyle diseases, poorer work performance, higher chances of getting into accidents, and much, much more. At the same time, proper sleep is linked to with higher levels of energy and greater life satisfaction.

For something that so vital to our health, sleep gets a surprisingly little amount of attention – we’ll agonise over our diets and meticulously draw up fitness plans, but sleep gets relegated right to the end of our priorities. While as kids we’d be encouraged to get more sleep, as adults, this gets dismissed as a waste of time – why sleep when you could be working or partying?

Unfortunately, getting less sleep than what you need affects your health as much as overindulging in food or drink does. While there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ amount of sleep , most experts say that anything less than seven hours puts us at risk of impaired performance and judgement. Having said that, there are some people who are perfectly fine with just five hours of sleep, while others find nine hours to be the optimum amount. (…cont)

 Some signs that you don’t get enough sleep are:

–          Feeling fatigue and a lack of motivation

–          Irritability, aggression

–          Forgetfulness

–          Weight gain

–          Water retention and skin problems

–          Difficulty focusing at work or school

A lack of sleep doesn’t just cause these short-term health issues, but can also have long-lasting consequences for your health. According to some studies, some possible complications that might lead from long-term sleep deprivation include:

–          A higher risk of diabetes, obesity, and depression

–          Lowered sex drive

–          Increased stress levels and blood pressure

–          Lowered self-esteem

–          Learning difficulties

–          Poorer job performance and lowered creativity

–          Higher risk of accidents

–          Some studies also indicate that a lack of sleep over the long term could even lower our life expectancy

How to improve your sleep

If you’re one of those who can’t get a peaceful night’s sleep easily, there are some areas you can work on:

Exercise: For those of you who feel too full of energy come bedtime, exercise can help you sleep better. A caveat – exercising too close to your bedtime can have the opposite effect.

Eat on time: Another consequence of a busy lifestyle is irregular meal timings. Apart from causing weight gain, eating too late at night might give you restless sleep.

Avoid stimulants: Coffee might help you get through a hectic work-day but avoid caffeine, cigarettes, or any other stimulant too close to bedtime. For some people, even something as mild as green tea can keep them up for a while.

Avoid alcohol at night: A nightcap might seem like a good way of getting sleep after a long day at work, but in the long run, it’ll make sleep more difficult to come by. The same goes for sleeping pills – you’re also putting yourself at risk of a substance abuse problem if you come to depend upon these.

Turn off that TV: No, don’t just turn it down – turn it off, and then turn off the power switch. Look around your bedroom – there’s probably a TV, a set-top box, a laptop, and perhaps a set of speakers – all of them fitted with bright LEDs that can be very disturbing for anyone trying to sleep. Even if you choose to leave the mains power on for your electronic devices, covering their LEDs with some tape might help alleviate this issue. For those of you wakened by the early-morning sun, a simple trick like thicker curtains can go along way.

Devices and apps: If you’ve tried these suggestions but nothing seems to work, you could look at sleep devices like white noise machines (you can also buy white noise apps for your smartphone). Some people find these extremely conducive to a good night’s sleep, while for others, putting on a relaxing CD  – nature sounds, guided meditation, or soothing chants – might do the trick.

Keep a diary: Keeping a daily journal that also includes your sleep quality and dreams will let you assess what affects your sleep. You can also check out smartphone apps that help you keep a dream/sleep journal.

Don’t worry: Worrying about getting enough sleep might actually harm your sleeping pattern. For many people, waking up in the middle of the night is a common occurrence –one that shouldn’t cause any alarm. This has its roots in the way our bodies have evolved, and for some people, wakefulness for a short period at night is perfectly normal.

Wind down gradually: Just as we rarely jump from a sleepy state to complete alertness, winding down your evenings gradually can help your body adjust better.

Protip: Power naps can recharge you
While sleeping in the day can be a recipe for sleepless nights, there are times we don’t have a choice. If you’ve been pulling too many all-nighters at work or college and find yourself too drained – a power-nap could help keep you fresh for the afternoon’s presentation. The trick is to have a cup of tea or coffee before your nap – which should be around 25-35 minutes long. Studies have found that a short power-nap of around half an hour has a much higher restorative effect – any shorter can be ineffectual, while sleeping longer puts you at risk if going into deep sleep. A cup of coffee beforehand will also ensure that the caffeine kicks in just as you’re getting up – perfectly timed! Just don’t use this tactic too often as there’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

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