Sleep is the single most effective activity you can do to rest your brain and body each day. Good sleep has profound effects on our overall well-being; conversely, not enough sleep has devastating effects on our health. We neglect proper sleep because we do not understand why we need it and how it affects our overall well-being. An average of 8 hours of sleep is recommended by the WHO and Sleep Foundations, and continuous sleep research is backing this.
To understand the importance of sleep we will consider some negative effects of inadequate sleep on our health, most of which is already visible within the first day or two after sleeping less than 7 or eight hours a night. It is also important to know that sleep lost cannot be gained by oversleeping (binge sleeping), as the negative effects of poor sleep would already have been experienced in the body. Every major system, organ and tissue suffers with sleep deprivation.
Following are some of the effects of sleep deprivation, which has been researched extensively during the past ten years.
Cardiovascular system – Hypertension, blockage of veins, increased risk of heart attacks.
Immune system – stripped immune resilience.
Digestive system – Diabetes, weight gain and obesity, cancer.
Nervous system – overactive sympathetic nervous system, high cortisol levels, body in fight- or-flight state.
Mental health – lack of concentration, memory and learning affected, Alzheimer’s, increased risk of anxiety and depression.
The positive effects of good sleep, on the other hand, is infinitely more health relevant and can heal, rejuvenate, and revitalise your mind and body. Good quantity and quality of sleep should be something we all pursue as a vital pillar of overall wellness.
Let us consider and discuss practical ways to improve our sleep.
Consistency: keep to a fixed sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
Avoid daytime naps: a power nap around 13:30, of no more than 30 min, can be beneficial if it does not disrupt sleep at night. Extended naps during the day can cause broken night- time sleep.
Avoid caffeine: do not drink caffeinated drinks after 12:00 in the afternoon. Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks the working of adenosine – a sleep inducing hormone – in your body, and hence tricks you into feeling alert and awake.
Avoid alcohol before bedtime: whilst alcohol have a relaxing effect, and can sedate you to fall asleep more easily, it negative impacts your quality of sleep by (i) affecting the deep (REM) sleep and (ii) keeping you in the lighter stages or NREM sleep pattern.
Exercise regularly: exercise helps continuous sleep. Try not to do heavy exercise before bedtime, but earlier in the day, as feel-good hormones being released during heavy exercise can disrupt sleep.
Avoid large meals and lots of fluids late at night as this might cause indigestion and lead to frequent bathroom visits, interfering with good sleep.
Have a comfortable bedroom: cooler temperature, around 18 degrees Celsius, is ideal. Keep bedroom dark and noise free (mute cell phones). A comfortable mattress, pillow and linen help promote a good night’s sleep. Hide the clock if you are a ‘clock–watcher’.
Sunlight exposure: Daylight is key in regulating our daily sleep-wake rhythm (circadian rhythm). Wake up with the sun, if possible, or use very bright light in the mornings. Get outside during the day for at least 30-60min of exposure to the sun and turn down the light before bedtime.
Limit screen time before bed: avoid screen time two hours before bedtime as the blue light from screens stimulates wakefulness.
Do not lie awake in bed: If you struggle to sleep, rather get up, move to a different room, and sit in the dark until you feel sleep heavy again. Do not watch TV or screen time during this time.
Ultimately, adequate time spent sleeping is not a waste, but revitalising and necessary for overall well-being.
Importantly, specific sleep issues, like sleep apnoea, insomnia and medication-induced sleep problems should be diagnosed and treated by a doctor.
Walker, M. Why we sleep – Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. 2017. Simon & Schuster. New York.
Swedish Health Services (Washington, USA). Importance of Sleep When Living with Chronic Pain. https://www.swedish.org/services/pain-services/pain-management-guide/sleep-and- pain. Last date of access: 9 May 2021.