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Sleep Health – by expert Dr. Carmel Harrington

Hi,  I’m Dr Carmel Harrington. I am a sleep scientist and have been researching sleep for more than 20 years. As you can imagine I have found out a lot about sleep and I am going to share some of that knowledge with you today.

To begin, a most alarming and important fact that I feel essential to share is that in Australia today almost 1 in every 2 adults has a difficult relationship with sleep and feels they do not get the sleep they need. And this, as many of us know, can have significant and negative consequences. 

One of the first things to suffer when we don’t get the sleep we need is our mood. A bad night of sleep will invariably result in a poor mood state which will include such characteristics as grumpiness, a short temper, intolerance and a general lack of motivation. Not only are we generally in a bad mood after poor sleep but we are also less inclined to want to exercise and to participate in general activities. This lack of energy directly affects our productivity and efficiency which also decreases as a consequence of sleeplessness. 

Sleep directly affects our ability to learn and to think. In a sleep deprived state it has been shown time and again that we become poor decision-makers, we are much more likely to make mistakes and our ability to learn is seriously impaired. An interesting and important study in this regard, involving over 1500 full-time university students aged 17 to 25 years of age, found that sleep quality and duration were among the main predictors of academic performance – the better the sleep the better the performance.

While the negative impacts on mood and cognitive ability are considerable, a potentially more serious problem of sleeplessness is the increased likelihood of an occupational or motor vehicle accident. Studies show that people with sleeping problems are seven times more likely to be involved in such accidents. 

Sleep, or lack thereof also significantly impacts our physical health. In the short-term, getting the sleep we need on a regular basis optimises our immune function and makes us less vulnerable to cold and ‘flu infections – a relevant consideration in our current, pandemic world. In the long term, sleep deprivation increases the risk of developing a chronic illness and people with chronic sleeplessness are more likely to be suffer from depression; certain types of cancer; cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease; metabolic diseases, such as Type II diabetes and obesity; dementia and cognitive decline. 

Given all these potentially serious consequences the relevant issue becomes how do we manage to get good sleep in a world that is on the go 24/7 because unfortunately, while most of us are very well informed about how to eat and exercise well, many of us have lost our way when it comes to sleep. 

Research indicates that one of the major causes of sleeplessness is anxiety affecting up to 50% of people who have sleep issues. This doesn’t mean that half of the sleepless population is going around wringing their hands in a constantly worried state never knowing a moment of peace. Anxiety is often perceived as a negative emotion, but it simply means that you might be worried or stressed about something. 

It is important to recognise that there is a wide spectrum of worry. Our worries may be minimal and reasonable. They may not even be directed at any one thing but just be a generalised feeling of worry that something is not quite right. On the other hand, our worries can get out of control and become so great that they begin to affect how we go about our everyday activities and, we begin to worry over minor things. 

It often makes no difference whether our worries are reasonable or unreasonable – both will make relaxation difficult and cause sleep to become elusive. Once sleeping difficulties begin a vicious cycle can start to build up with our sleeplessness causing increasing anxiety which leads to increasing sleeplessness and then increased anxiety, and so on.

What’s more, often just the thought of missing out on sleep can lead to incredible stress.  Being in a bedroom when you are unable to fall asleep can be enough to bring on feelings of, for some of us, quite intense anxiety, which will make sleep even more elusive.

Our body’s response to anxiety of any sort is to start to produce certain hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol, often referred to as stress hormones. Ordinarily, this is a protective measure that allows us to be alert and to have more energy which better allows us to ‘fight’ the stress. Unfortunately though, our body will increase adrenaline and cortisol production regardless of the source of the stress – whether it is in response to an imminent threat such as someone attacking you with a knife, or in response to a series of worrying thoughts.

The stress hormones cause many bodily reactions, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and increased breathing rate to name just a few, but they also stimulate the alert pathways in our brain and actively prevent us from succumbing to sleep.  

So, even though worrying thoughts mostly do not put us in danger they produce the same physical response, and it is hard to get to sleep when our heart is racing, we are breathing shallowly, and we have a lot of muscular tension. It is like getting out of the car with the motor running – the car might not be moving physically but the engine continues to run. 

If you feel that worry or anxiety is causing your sleeplessness, there are some good and simple techniques that can be implemented that are highly effective at turning off your engine.

If you have had a busy and stressful day make sure you factor in some exercise – maybe walk the dog or get off the bus one stop earlier. When you get home devote some time, no longer than 15 minutes, to thinking about the issues of the day and perhaps write them down in a book, along with any potential solutions. Importantly, when you finish, close the book, and put it away. Not only are you physically putting aside your worries, but you have now managed to deal with your concerns, rather than waiting until going to sleep. And, as always, good sleep practices are a must for good sleep and primary amongst these is making sure to switch off all technology at least one hour before bedtime.

Practising a relaxation or meditation exercise, or using some aromatherapy is a great way to prepare the body and mind for sleep and will often assist with initiating and maintaining sleep. Restorative yoga can also work well to calm the mind and put us in a good place for sleeping well.

If however you find yourself lying in bed not able to get to sleep after about 30 minutes – whether it be at sleep onset or in the middle of the night – it is better to get up, sit in a dimly lit room and do something relaxing, like reading a magazine or maybe even doing a breathing exercise to relax. It is important not to go back to bed until you feel sleepy again. Once in bed, if you are not asleep within about 30 minutes (this is an approximation as clock watching is definitely not recommended) get up again and repeat the process. By doing this you are teaching your mind and body that bed is for sleeping and you will find that over time you develop the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep on a nightly basis.

There are real benefits to taking the time to get your sleep right as there are so many beneficial consequences. Not only will you find that you are happier, smarter and healthier, you might be surprised by the compliments you start to get on how well you look because you actually will start to look more attractive.

The idea of beauty sleep is well supported by research and in a 2010 Swedish study both men and women were consistently rated as healthier and more attractive when well slept compared to when sleep deprived. And there is a good reason for this.

Sleep is the only time in our 24 hours that our body gets a chance to rest, restore and repair and research indicates that new skin cells grow faster during sleep. At night, the body’s goal is to repair damage from the day’s pollution, sun and stress, as well as to hydrate. During our deep sleep, our body secretes Human Growth Hormone (HGH). This hormone plays a key role in healing cells and tissues throughout your body, including your skin. Not getting enough sleep cuts that crucial repair time short, which can wreak havoc on your skin. Fine lines become more prominent, dark circles crop up and your complexion turns pale, dull and droopy.

So, go on, why not start today getting the sleep you need and become the best version of yourself? I cannot stress enough just how essential it is that we recognise that sleep is fundamental to our physical and mental well-being. It is as important to our health and well-being as nutrition and exercise and we need to start thinking of it as our third pillar of health and give it the respect it deserves.

Written by Dr Carmel Harrington, Sleep Scientist and author of “The Sleep Diet” and “The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep”.


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