When we think of staying fit and healthy, we're often inclined to think about exercise, nutrition or stress management. Of course all of these are important, and they're all things we can actively work on during the day to improve our health and wellbeing. But what about at night?
Sleep and how we prepare for it should also be a major focus - after all we spend roughly a third of our lives sleeping. Unfortunately, the 24-hour nature of modern life is interfering with our sleep patterns. We're also now sleeping less than we did in the past, and the quality of our sleep is decreasing too. All of which can have some seriously adverse effects on our weight, our health and our lives.1
Sleep can be a silent culprit, and one which is often overlooked. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. So perhaps now more than ever, with screens in the bedroom and email at our fingertips day and night, we need to acknowledge the part that sleep plays in our everyday health and wellbeing.
Dr David C Batman, international occupational health advisor, says good sleep is essential for cognitive and physical performance, learning and memory, protects the immune system, enhances mood and has restorative powers. Research also suggests a relationship to weight gain and aging, with sleep duration an important regulator of body weight and metabolism.2
At the other end of the spectrum, the effects of poor sleep habits are significant. Sleep deprivation impairs our judgement, reaction time and general awareness. And when it comes to your job, it can result in absenteeism, tardiness, reduced productivity and increased healthcare costs. As for the safety issue, studies show that hand-eye coordination when sleep deprived is as bad or worse than when you're intoxicated.
What's stealing our sleep?
It can be easy to ignore the main reasons for a lack of sleep, especially if we put it down to external factors or simply as part of our routine. Dr Batman outlines a few common sleep stealers as:
- Physical illness/chronic pain - tossing and turning may make it hard to fall asleep and may cause you wake in the night.
- Depression - falling asleep may not be a problem but waking up in the night can be frequent and long-lasting.
- Anxiety - falling asleep can be difficult.
- Stress or inability to deal with stress.
- Medication - side effects could be responsible for poor sleep.
- Babies/children - tending to the youngest members of the family can often contribute to broken sleep and/or poorer quality of sleep.
- Work schedules/shifts - some people adapt well to irregular hours, however this is not the case for everyone.
- Alcohol and medications - these may aid in falling asleep but will not help deep sleep over the long term. Plus you can wake up feeling poorly rested and unwell.
- Screen time - too much blue light can suppress our melatonin levels, which in turn can impede our ability to fall and stay sleep. There is also the temptation to answer messages/emails/calls when they come through, even with your device switched to vibrate.
Promoting healthy sleep patterns
So what can we do to get a better night's sleep? If you're having sleep problems or feeling consistently tired, there are many simple techniques to try:
- Keep screens out of the bedroom - remove the temptation, maybe read a book instead.
- Cut down your screen time - including staying screen-free for the hour leading up to bedtime.
- Write down tasks for the following day - so you won't lose sleep worrying about what's coming up in your diary.
- Develop a pre-sleep routine - discover what works for you and stick with it.
- Manage your stress levels throughout the day - sometimes easier said than done, but too much stress can keep you awake at night.
- Take up calming activities - such as meditation, mindfulness, reading, or Yoga.
- Know where to find help and support - sleep.org.au is a great place to start, but there are plenty of other resources to be found online.
- There are plenty of things we don't understand about sleep, and our sleep patterns may change with age. But one thing you can be sure of is that we all need it.
- Batman, D. C. (2016) Webinar: Time to wake up to the impact of sleep on employee performance.
Disclaimer - Information provided here is general in nature and should not be seen as a substitute for professional medical advice. Ongoing concerns about sleep or other medical conditions should be discussed with your doctor.