It’s amazing how even the fittest, healthiest people who eat well and make the effort to work out can neglect their sleep needs.
Busy people often cut back on sleep when under pressure – failing to realise sleep issues can lead to long term health problems such as an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even dementia, as well as short term drowsiness and tiredness.
But there are more subtle effects too – including the effects on higher executive function – the higher level cognitive skills you need for planning, problem-solving and working memory. This can lead you to being under par at work. Sleep deprivation can also affect your self-control, emotions and decision-making.
Why sleep quality matters too
It’s not just sleep quantity that matters – but sleep quality too. If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) – where your airways momentarily collapse for a few seconds several times a minute, depriving you of oxygen while you sleep – you might not even be aware of it, but it’s interfering with your body’s metabolic processes. This can raise your blood sugar and blood pressure and lead to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.
If you snore and suffer daytime sleepiness you could have undiagnosed OSA, so it’s important to get tested and treated. Other risk factors for sleep apnoea include being overweight, having a thick neck, smoking and having a large tongue or large tonsils or adenoids.
Why your body needs sleep
We spend a third of our life asleep, but don’t think of it as time wasted. When you’re sleeping your blood pressure drops, breathing slows down and the body goes to work on repairing and rebuilding tissue. Sleep is also the time when hormones are released which are essential for growth and muscle development and the regulation of ghrelin and leptin, the “hunger” hormones which control appetite (sleep deprived people tend to eat more and gain weight). Cerebral spinal fluid is pumped more quickly throughout the brain during sleep, washing out waste so you wake up mentally refreshed.
How much sleep do you actually need?
Mrs Thatcher famously got by on three hours sleep a night but most of us need a lot more than that. After a two year study, the US National Sleep Foundation revised its recommendations in 2015 as to how many hours we need per night, as follows:
- school age kids (six to 13): 10 to 13 hours;
- teens (14 to 17): eight to 10 hours;
- adults (18 to 64): seven to nine hours;
- older adults (over 65): seven to eight hours.
What about power naps?
A short day time nap of under 40 minutes can refresh you – but nap for any longer and you may be raising your risk of metabolic syndrome, the medical name for a number of symptoms that can lead to heart disease including high blood pressure, excess fat around your middle and high blood sugar and cholesterol, according to new research from the University of Tokyo.
How to sleep better
Unfortunately, insomnia, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep long enough to feel refreshed, affects one in three people.
But there are some simple ways to sleep better including:
- Sticking to a set time for bedtime and getting up – even at weekends and on holiday.
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark with no light pollution, a comfortable mattress and pillows.
- Practising a winding-down routine with a warm bath, relaxing music and a milky drink before bedtime.
- Saving worrying for daylight hours. Write down what’s worrying you and block it out when you’re in bed.
- Avoiding heavy meals, too much alcohol and smoking for two to three hours before bedtime.
- Getting treatment for medical conditions that wake you at night including joint pain, restless legs syndrome, cramps and nocturnal trips to the loo.