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The modern human’s relationship with sleep is complicated. For one, there are more distractions like our mobile devices and the noisy environment around us. Studies have shown that almost one-third of Americans get less than six hours of sleep and almost 1 in 5 adults in the UK have trouble falling asleep every night. Psychologists have even found that the pandemic has changed our sleeping habits, with some people sleeping more than ever, while others face shortened schedules due to shift work or stress. With our sleep debt increasing, what can we do to get a good night’s rest?
What causes poor sleep?
Circadian rhythms are “24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes”. The sleep-wake cycle is one of the most important circadian rhythms. It is tied to the cycle of day and night. If this sleep-wake cycle is thrown off, it can cause significant sleeping problems, such as insomnia. Sleeping problems involve difficulty falling asleep, struggling to stay asleep and often waking up several times during the sleep cycle, or waking up too early and not being able to go back to sleep.
Circadian rhythm sleep disorders are caused by continuous or occasional disruptions of sleep patterns. Sleep should be restful and uninterrupted in order to allow your brain to go through all five stages of the sleep cycle. We often blame stress, our electronic screens and taking work home for our lack of sleep.
- Increased screen time: Screen exposure before going to bed has a negative effect on the quality of leep. Smartphones and other devices may emit blue light, which increases feelings of alertness. Engaging activities such as texting or scrolling through social media increases brain stimulation and watching videos or other content may elicit emotions that make it difficult to relax.
- Lack of work-life balance: A lot of us bring our work home and work overtime or on the night shift. We may eat large meals at later periods of the day because our eating schedules are pushed back in favour of meeting deadlines. Lying down in bed with a fall stomach may make it harder to fall asleep.
- Stress: Studies show that thinking about your worries or being in a depressed mood may make it harder to fall asleep. Moreover, feeling stressed may also cause people to wake up more often during the night or have stress dreams like nightmares. (Loss of sleep leads to an increase in stress.)
Side Effects of Poor Sleep
Besides feeling tired, irritable and unfocused throughout the day, persistently inadequate sleep in adults, defined as sleeping 7 hours or less, may lead to an increase in health risks:
- Weaker immune system: Prolonged lack of sleep could lead to you catching a cold or the flu easily.
- Weight gain or obesity: Sleeping less may cause you to put on more weight. Sleep-deprived people have reduced levels of leptin (the chemical that makes you feel full) and increased levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone).
- Type 2 diabetes: Studies have shown that people who usually sleep less than 5 hours a day have an increased risk of developing diabetes.
- Heart disease: Poor sleep increases blood pressure. A study found that falling asleep at midnight or later disrupts our body clock and may increase heart disease by 25% in adults.
- Skin damage: Sleep is the best time for your body to repair its skin barrier and reduce sagging by making new collagen. (Proteins like collagen, which provides the underlying structural support of our skin, and elastin, which allows it to keep its shape, are produced during our sleep.)
General Tips to Improve Your Sleep
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults aged 18-60 years sleep at least 7 hours each night to promote optimal health and wellbeing. How can this be achieved?
- Build a consistent sleep schedule: This includes waking up at the same time every day, eating and working out at the same times every day and wind down about an hour before bedtime. Avoid napping during the day. Adjusting your routines will help your circadian rhythm to stay on track and avoid unwanted brain stimulation when you prepare to go to sleep.
- Build a sleep-conducive environment: Keep your bedroom cool and dark. People sleep best at around 18.3 degrees celcius, give or take a few degrees. This is because the body cools itself down for sleep, reaching its lowest temperatures at early points in the morning.
- Catch up on lost sleep when you can: During the weekend, go to bed when you feel tired and sleep an extra one or two hours. Don’t set an alarm in the morning- this will allow your body to wake you up.
- Cut down on caffeinated drinks: Perhaps your daily coffee or energy drink is keeping you awake at night. Don’t rely on these drinks as a short-term pick-me-up and instead focus on sleeping earlier. Cut out other stimulants such as sugar and nicotine at least four hours before bed.
- Find your best sleeping position: Not everyone’s ideal position is sleeping on their back but you don’t have to change it if you feel like you don’t have any issues with falling asleep. A comfortable sleeping position is essential for sleep.
(Read more on the benefits of beauty sleep here.)