There are multiple causes for the so-called lifestyle-related diseases that plague us today. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension can mostly be blamed on poor nutrition, lack of exercise, stress and, as scientists increasingly discover, sleep deprivation.
Over recent decades, too many of us have been cutting back on sleep as our lives have become busier. Long hours spent working, commutes, kids’ activities and housework leave us with less and less time for rest. While a few generations ago most people in the developed world slept for eight to nine hours or more, most people today try to get by on just six or seven or even less. It’s not only the difference in the amount of time but also the quality of the rest we get that is turning us into chronically sleep-deprived zombies.
Sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic proportions and is already on its way to becoming the 21st Century’s number one health problem.
Photo by Mijke Schaap
When you don’t get enough sleep you are more likely to suffer from certain chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease and suffer psychologically from things like mood swings, irritability and memory problems. You are also much more likely to gain weight or become obese because sleep deprivation trashes your normal hormone production and metabolism. That is one of the reasons many people open the fridge when they are overtired or stressed out. A recent study published in the “Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism” concluded that even short-term sleep deprivation can activate the appetite-controlling part of the brain, increasing hunger levels. Researchers have calculated that for each hour a person cuts back on sleep, he or she consumes an average of 360 additional calories, which if not burned off, are stored as fat. It’s a vicious cycle with multiple, negative health effects, which unchecked, can significantly reduce your life span.
It is not just the time you spend in bed but the quality of sleep that is also important. When we are younger, we typically spend much of our sleep time in a state called “deep sleep.” Closer to the morning, we enter a different phase named “REM” (rapid eye movement), a lighter sleep where the eyes move rapidly behind closed lids. Usually, there are several back-and-forth switches between deep sleep and REM throughout the night, but the latter gradually dominate and lets us eventually wake up. Unfortunately, as we get older, the deep sleep phases become shorter and turn more and more often into lighter REM sleep and actual awakening, possibly two or three times per night. It is this repeated awakening that can do the long-term damage. Deep sleep is the most restorative phase when both body and mind can heal from their daily wear and tear. If it is interrupted or cut short too many times, these necessary healing processes are prevented from taking place.
What can you do about it? It is too simplistic to say ‘Get more sleep!’ but if you try it for even just a short time you will realise just how much your life can change for the better, which will then hopefully motivate you to continue with it. Many of you have probably been sleep deprived for so long, you have forgotten just how restorative and important it really is. However, life is rarely that simple, especially if you have filled your waking hours with wall to wall stuff to do or distractions that keep you from your bed or keep your mind buzzing when you are lying there trying to nod off. So here are a few tips.
There can be a number of causes for sleep disruption. Besides age-related changes of sleep patterns, you may be dealing with the effects of late-night consumption of food, alcohol or caffeine, interference from medications, chronic disease like high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep apnoea, or a need for frequent urination.
The following steps can prevent sleep interruptions during the night:
Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine close to bedtime. Avoid large amounts of water and other liquids late at night . Avoid strenuous exercise and other physical activities shortly before sleep. Avoid stimulating or aggravating interactions like arguing, problem solving, watching fast paced movies or listening to loud music, etc. Avoid at all costs the temptation to stay on-line just that little bit longer or to check your phone and emails etc. just before you go to bed, or worse still in bed All the research suggests that the specific light and tones emitted by most of our modern devices plays a big part in telling our brains that we are still busy, that there is work to be done, or something to be responded to, that just can’t wait. You may not realise it, or think it, but the light has triggered chemicals, almost in the same way our fight or flight burst of adrenalin makes you hyper aware.
Practice good sleep hygiene like keeping your bedroom dark, as quiet as possible and at a low temperature. Should the first two be a problem consider wearing an eye-mask and/or some comfortable ear-plugs. If you share your bed, often using two separate blankets or quilts can help you avoid the situation, where you are fighting for the bedding all night. Also, get the TV out of the bedroom or at the very least agree with your partner and more importantly yourself that between certain hours the bedroom is for sleeping, sex and perhaps a little light reading – nothing else! Maybe practice some relaxation techniques as you wind down, like meditating, yoga and massage, etc.
Consider practicing a *personal mantra for those occasions you do wake up but struggle to go back to sleep because your brain begins turning over troubles or tries to solve situations that always seem much bigger at 4am. The worst of these problems, of course, is your belief that without falling back to sleep soon, you will be a wreck again just like you where yesterday, an amplification spiral that just feeds on itself.
Beyond mantras and relaxation techniques many people with sleep troubles are tempted to take sleeping pills or supplements, which may indeed be part of the solution at different times in your life. But there is always the risk of addiction and remember that many of these remedies have side effects and should not be taken, certainly for extended periods of time, without consulting a doctor.
Getting sufficient sleep will always rank amongst the best defence mechanisms we have to stay healthy and handle stress. We function and perform at our best when we are well-rested. We are better companions, parents, lovers and work colleagues when we are relaxed and at ease. We are also less prone to reach for drugs or alcohol when things don’t go as well as we hoped for. However, the most important thing to remember is that getting enough sleep is a life choice, something you must not only consciously want, but also actively work towards through practice and discipline.
*Your personal Mantra Think of a person you have known and trusted for a long time. They don’t need to be from your immediate circle of friends or family and I know some people, who actually use the familiar voice of a celebrity. Now give them a script to read, some words, a simple snappy sentence that will make sense to you. Find some quiet time and just sit there and hear it, over and over again; hear the timbre and pitch of the voice and don’t rush it. Practice it until you can summon it up at will at any point when you are awake. Try it on the train, or in your car to work. Then you are ready to deploy it as a mantra in the middle of the night, over and over again until you let go of the intruding thoughts, or it simply fills the dark silence so much that nothing else can take seed and so you can then hopefully go back to sleep.
The mantra can be anything, so try out a few and don’t be afraid to change the Voice if you find it isn’t working for you. Here are some ideas, but the whole point is to practice something that is specifically targeting you… or more importantly the irritable, worried or exhausted you that wakes up. Something like: “Stop – that can wait until tomorrow… so can that” (if something else pops into your head) or “this will all look so much different in the morning.” The one I have used successfully for many years is very specific to me and my past. It is the voice of Gentleman who worked for me, many years ago – who tells me to “Close the Hanger doors (which was always what you said in the bar after working a long shift in the Military, to someone who insisted on talking about work, when all you wanted to do was drink your beer and talk about football or anything else,) It rarely works first time, but with practice you may be pleasantly surprised.