Regular sleep loss has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and stroke, not to mention a reduction in life expectancy. So how can we improve our sleep and just how much of it do we need? Our reporter asked sleep expert Breege Leddy
1 If you don’t snooze you lose
Sleep plays a vital role in overall wellbeing, helping to protect both our mental and physical health. A good night’s sleep improves brain function making concentration, decision making and learning far easier. The flip side, however, is a darker affair. A lack of sleep can play havoc with your life, making even the most manageable of tasks more difficult.
“The most common daytime impairments would be fatigue, poor concentration, poor short-term memory, you could become irritable or moody, you might have low motivation and be more prone to errors, you could have problems driving and suffer with headaches,” explains sleep therapist Breege Leddy. “So if it starts to have a knock-on effect on one’s daytime functioning and has been going on for longer than three months, it would really require cognitive interventions with behavioural therapy at that point.”
2 Not all sleep is the same
While sleeping, we drift between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. On a typical night, it is normal to go through several 90-minute cycles of REM to non-REM sleep and back. The body uses the deep stages of non-REM sleep to repair, renew, strengthen the immune system and consolidate memory. As we get older, we get less deep sleep.
3 Sleep disorders come in many forms
There are over 80 known sleep disorders, the most common of which are insomnia (a difficulty falling or staying asleep) and obstructive sleep apnoea (interrupted breathing during sleep.)
“We can all relate to what it feels like to suffer from sleep disorders in a way because we have all had one or two sleepless nights. Unfortunately, those with sleep disorders are feeling like this on a regular basis,” says Leddy.
“Sleep disorders bring night-time problems, but they also have daytime consequences. For example, those with obstructive sleep apnoea can be very sleepy during the day because their sleep is fragmented; they are being brought from a very deep stage of sleep, right back to a very light stage of sleep and that means the quality of the sleep they are getting is not very good.”
4 Keeping to a specific bedtime is not important
Surprisingly, having a regular bedtime will do little to ensure a restful sleep.
“The time you go to bed is not the most important, your get up time is the most important,” advises Leddy. “Having a regular getting up time, seven days a week, is really important because that time will anchor your whole body clock or what is known as the circadian rhythm.”
5 Having a lie-in will disrupt your sleep
When the weekend rolls around, many of us reward ourselves with a few extra hours snoozing. However, having that lie-on may actually be doing more harm than good.
“Most of us are pretty good Monday to Friday, getting up at a regular time because we have to go to work, but then we have a lie-on at the weekend and that knocks out the whole body clock,” Leddy explains. “So a lot of people now suffer from what is called ‘social jet lag’.”
According to a study carried out by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, those who suffer from social jet lag, caused by changing their sleep patterns at the weekend, are at an increased the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
6 Ensuring quality sleep is a day-long affair
“From the minute we get up in the morning, what we do has a knock-on effect on how we sleep that night,” Leddy explains.
7 Technology interferes with sleep
It is recommended that we log off all smart devices a minimum of two hours before bed to allow the mind to unwind.
“We need to prepare the body for sleep, so at least two hours prior to sleep, all smart devices should be shut down,” Leddy says. “Before bedtime, we need to prepare the body, but also to prepare the mind, so there should be no smart devices or TVs in the bedroom, and ideally, if you have a problem with sleep, you shouldn’t read in bed either.”
“Smart devices create a very busy mind and give us cognitive stimulation prior to bed, particularly through social media,” Leddy adds. “But the light that these devices emit also plays a part. All smart devices emit blue light and blue light has been proven to cut down on our production of melatonin, the sleep promoting hormone.”
8 Eating before bed is a bad idea
Eating a large meal or even bedtime snack directly before may make you feel drowsy, but it will generally not result in a restful sleep.
“It is important to keep regular meal times during the day and not eat too late at night. Ideally, meals should be finished by about 7pm,” Leddy says.
9 Women need more sleep than men
According to a recent study carried out by the Sleep Research Centre in the UK’s Loughborough University, the female brain works harder than a male brain throughout the day, resulting in the need for approximately 20 minutes of extra sleep per night in order to recover and repair.
10 Power naps should be short and snappy
“Try to avoid long naps during the day,” Leddy advises. “The twenty-minute nap is thought to be the most refreshing nap and earlier on during the day is best because if you nap later on in the evening, that is going to eat into the sleep debt that we build up during our wakeful hours.
“If you have a longer nap, you are more likely to go into a deep sleep and if you wake up from that, you will tend to feel quite groggy.”
11 Your bedroom is key to restful slumber
Your bedroom should be a sleep sanctuary.
“The bedroom environment has a lot to do with how good or how poor we sleep,” Leddy explains. “The bedroom should be as dark as possible, as this will boost the production of melatonin, which is the hormone we produce and is a natural sleep promoter. Also make sure that the room is nice and quiet and cool. Cooler is always better.”
12 Think quality, not quantity
Not everyone needs eight hours’ sleep – some need more and some need less.
“There are recommendations out there on how much sleep we need to get, so newborn babies need anything from 11 to 19 hours, then, as you get older, the need for sleep decreases,” explains Leddy. “So for a young, healthy adult, anywhere between six and 10 hours is appropriate, but the seven to nine hours is what is recommended, and of course, in the middle of that is the famous eight hours, which we are all obsessed with, but very few of us are actually getting.”
“On average, we are only getting about six-and-a-half to seven hours per night, but it all depends on the quality of sleep that you get,” Leddy adds. “You could be getting your eight hours, but if it’s not proper quality, good, consolidated sleep, then you are not going to see the benefits or function the way you should.”
13 Exercise needs to be timed correctly to promote sleep
Regular exercise can be hugely beneficial in terms of getting a good night’s sleep, but Leddy advises against working out too late in the evening.
“Exercising too late at night can make sleeping difficult. We need to prepare the body for sleep and go into a relaxation mode before bedtime to prepare.”
14 Caffeine can affect sleep many hours later
It is widely accepted that it is best to avoid caffeine before bed, but few realise that caffeine can actually stay in our bodies for up to 12 hours.
“Caffeine is probably the most common drug that we use to keep alert, so it’s best to reduce caffeine intake and not to drink coffee after 2pm in the day,” Leddy advises.
15 You should only sleep when you are tired
Lying in bed, wide awake, attempting to count sheep only serves to increase sleep-related anxiety says Leddy. “Once you get into that winding-down mode, only go to bed when you are actually sleepy.
“A lot of us go to bed because we think we should be in bed. We go by the clock on the wall as opposed to our natural body clock, but if you can’t sleep, get up out of bed. You cannot make yourself sleep. If you are sleepy enough you will sleep, but the harder you try, the less likely it is that it will happen.”
* Breege Leddy is the acting manager of Sleep and Clinical Physiology in The Mater Private Hospital, Dublin and set up The Insomnia Clinic, which offers cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. For more information, see www.insomniaclinic.ie
Health & Living