Written by Dr Ben Crowther, August 2020
Most people love sleep. A colleague of mine once even said it was her favourite thing in the world. We all know how frayed at the edges we get without it, and of course sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture. Why we sleep and why sleep is good for us are ongoing questions that researchers are still answering. The latest research indicates it is good for our memory and energy levels. Sleep functions to restore and repair much of the body, from our hearts and blood vessels to our skin and digestive tract. It is a bit of an all-round tonic, and it is now seen as the third pillar of health, along with a healthy diet and physical activity.
Not sleeping enough, such as sleeping less than 6 hours a night, is becoming more common in modern society and there are real health risks associated with this, such as an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and depression. Just as significantly, it increases your chance of having a car accident and a work-related injury. If that doesn’t concern you that much and you’re more worried about looking good for a hot date on a Saturday night, then you might be interested to know that sleep deprivation may also make you less attractive. In a recent small study, 25 participants were photographed after a 2 days of sleep restriction and after normal sleep. The photos were rated by 122 people. The results show that people found those with insufficient sleep were less attractive and they felt less inclined to socialise with them! Sleep needs and patterns are different, as are the reasons that people cannot sleep. Here are a few tips that we often share with patients.
- If you can’t sleep after 15-20 minutes, don’t lay awake getting annoyed. It is best to get up and do something relaxing and then go back to bed. Your brain will find it easier to switch off.
- Try not to drink caffeine after noon. Caffeine blocks natural sleep promoting chemicals. It has a half-life of 5-7 hours, which means only half of it is out of your system by this time, so it can still be very active around bedtime. If you then drink more coffee to stay awake this can obviously be a vicious cycle.
- Try not to use devices that emit blue light such as phones, TVs or computers for 1-2 hours prior to sleeping. The blue light switches off melatonin, which is a chemical that helps you to sleep. Try a weak, warm non-LED light as a lamp if this is needed.
- Some people use lying in bed to sleep as an opportunity to stew over worries and unresolved issues, from the COVID pandemic to whether you put the right coloured bin out. Having time set aside prior to sleep for specific worries can be useful.
- Have a regular time that you go to bed and wake up each day, keeping this consistent on weekends. We are not that different to babies in this way, we thrive on a regular sleep routine. If you are an adult, aim for 7-9 hours sleep a night.
The list goes on, but I will stop there before I put everyone to sleep.