Why we need sleep and how to get some
We need sleep so that our body and mind can function properly. We have all heard this. But can a lack of sleep really wrack havoc on us?
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at NIH.
When you’re tired, you can’t function at your best. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes and focus better. “The fact is, when we look at well-rested people, they’re operating at a different level than people trying to get by on 1 or 2 hours less nightly sleep,” says Mitler.
What does it mean to be operating at a different level? Beyond sleepiness, sleep deprivation is known to affect our mood. It increases anxiety and depression, exacerbates pain and undermines executive functions. Executive functions are the range of things we do each day that make us productive and successful – they include making judgements, planning, organising, concentrating, memorising information. Sleep affects performance: not only is it more difficult to take in new information when we are sleep deprived, but it is also important to get a good night’s sleep after learning something new. Sleep seems to help us process and retain the information that we learn.
Lack of sleep impairs reasoning, attention to detail and problems solving. It reduces productivity. It even makes it more likely we’ll have a traffic accident.
And sleep isn’t just necessary for the mind. In the body, the hormones that influence our weight get out of balance. Stress hormones are affected. Our immune system becomes less effective. Breathing, blood pressure and cardio-vascular health are impacted. In fact, the research shows that a lack of sleep can lead to diabetic-like conditions in otherwise healthy people.
How much is enough? Scientists think that sleep needs change over a lifetime. Babies may need 18 hours a day, toddlers drop down to 11 to 14 hours of sleep. Through childhood and adolescence, the need for sleep reduces until it approaches the adult average. And the average appears to be around 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
How does that fit into our busy lifestyles, where sleep can take second place to the demands of the workplace, children or our social life?
It’s important to remember that while chronic sleep loss may slowly undermine health, a poor nights sleep now and then won’t cause much more than a tough next day. It’s more important to focus on building a healthy sleep routine that allows adequate rest most nights, than to have perfect sleep every night.
Here are some sleep hygiene tips to ensure a good nights rest:
- Prioritise sleep. Choose a bedtime you can commit to that allows you to get the right amount of sleep.
- Create a sleep routine. Build in some time each night to unwind before you go to sleep.
- Although short naps of 20-30 minutes can help improve alertness, limit napping. It does not replace poor night-time sleep. Napping too late in the day can cause problems in getting off to sleep later.
- Reduce nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, they all interfere with sleep.
- Don’t eat close to bedtime.
- Increase exercise – although exercising too close to bedtime can cause problems, generally speaking exercise has been found to improve sleep quality.
- Try to get up at the same time each day.
- Get sunshine/natural light on your body each day – it helps maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle.
Dr Amanda Mullin is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, and the Director of Mindworx Psychology, an award-winning Clinical Psychology and Executive Coaching Practice based in Sydney, Australia. With a family of her own, a stellar career, and her own set of hurdles to jump, Dr Amanda understands the challenges faced in avoiding burnout and the search for positive mental health.
Dr Amanda is the creator of the popular “Think Differently” program with the big, fat, hairy, audacious goal to change lives for the better.