Almost half of Australia’s adult population sleeps poorly. A new national study by the Sleep Health Foundation says we are in the grip of a sleep epidemic that is costing us productivity, causing accidents and affecting our mental health. One in five people admitted that they’ve nodded off while driving – we won’t to elaborate on how dangerous that could be.
That’s why July 2-9 is being observed as Sleep Awareness Week – to draw attention to how important sufficient, high-quality sleep is. There are two groups of people here – one, who have been diagnosed with a known sleep disorder – insomnia (lack of sleep), narcolepsy (excessive sleep) etc. Then there are those not specifically diagnosed with a sleep disorder, but who don’t sleep enough and well.
Let’s look at the first group – those with a diagnosed sleep disorder. Our body clock works on 24-hour day-night cycle called the Circadian Rhythm. When daylight ebbs, our brain releases melatonin and induces sleep. When this Circadian Rhythm is disturbed for extended periods of time it is often diagnosed as insomnia, narcolepsy or delayed phase sleep disorder. Once diagnosed by a GP, a person is usually given a sleep management plan that is a combination of medication, changes to diet and lifestyle.
Those who do not have a sleep disorder and still don’t sleep enough also pose a challenge to the health system. Why are we so sleep-deprived as a nation? Well, blame it on our 24/7 lifestyle. Here are some things the report pointed out:
- Screen time: A quarter of all adults surfed the net most nights of the week, just before bedtime. Heightened stimulation and light emitted by the screen can keep a person awake long after the device has been switched off and impact the quality of sleep.
- Work pressures: 22% of all working adults worked an hour before bedtime leading to heightened stress and overactive minds (69% of this cohort reported sleep problems).
- Household chores: A quarter of all adults also reported that their work and home duties did not allow them to sleep enough. Busy families are juggling full-time work, kids and household chores.
- Side-effect of other conditions: Inadequate sleep is also the collateral damage caused by chronic illnesses. Some conditions like heartburn, mental health issues and lung disease impact sleep more than others.
- Too much stimulant: High caffeine consumption has emerged as a cause of poor sleep – 61% of those who had over 6 caffeinated drinks a day reported having trouble sleeping.
- Breathing: Loud snoring and sleep apnoea affects those over the age of 40 more than other groups. 70% of them experienced daytime sleep symptoms and fatigue.
So, what can we do to try and sleep well? Here are some of the steps recommended by the Sleep Health Foundation:
- Listen to your sleep drive. Your body will indicate when you need rest. Your sleep drive is lowest in the morning and increases towards the evening. Don’t take daytime naps or fall asleep in front of the TV too early in the evening. It will impact your sleep drive, keeping you awake well into the night.
- Help your body’s natural rhythm. The natural rhythm is driven by light, a key factor in melatonin production (it is called the ‘hormone of darkness’ that increases production when daylight ebbs). It’s a good idea to get some morning light soon after you wake up. That’s why fresh air and exercise is recommended for a regular sleep cycle. The reverse is equally true at night. Dim the lights closer to bedtime and make sure the room is totally dark when you want to fall asleep.
- Keep stimulants to a minimum: Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine are all stimulants that can impact the sleep cycle. Keep them to a minimum during the day, and avoid them entirely for several hours before bedtime. People believe alcohol helps them sleep better, but it can interfere with the quality of sleep.
- Wind down: creating the right environment can help you sleep well. Switch off the TV and avoid taking a digital device into the bedroom. If you think it helps – meditative music and muscle relaxation are fine. Make sure the bed is warm and comfortable.
- Keep it regular: Sleeping and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends keeps the Circadian Rhythm in good health. Keep meal times regular too, eating dinner ideally two hours before bedtime.
- Stay out of bed during the day: Avoid reading a book, surfing the internet or watching TV in bed during the day. It can keep you awake long into the night.
Most of the time, simple changes to your routine should help you get a good night’s rest. But if you find that you have been sleeping poorly at night for weeks and it is impacting your productivity at work and your personal life, see your GP right away. The GP may ask you to take more tests or see a specialist and put you on the right treatment pathway.