With up to one half to one-third of Australians experiencing sleep deprivation, there is no doubt that this is a vital health issue for most of us. With short-term effects ranging from fatigue, irritability and reduced concentration and to longer-term issues impacting immune functioning and cardiovascular health, there is no doubt that sleep is an often overlooked aspect of maintaining health.

But first here are a few facts on sleep itself.

The Specifics on Sleep

When we sleep, our bodies cycle through two alternating phases—REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep—both of which are important for different reasons.

Facts on REM

  • 20–25% of total sleep each night.
  • Involves active dreaming, irregular respiration, and relaxation of the skeletal muscles.
  • Essential for brain and mental health, processing and consolidating emotions, memories, and stress.
  • Stimulates brain regions used in learning and developing new skills.

Facts on NREM

  • 75–80% of total sleep each night.
  • First phase of sleep each night in healthy people.
  • Involves tissue growth and repair, energy restoration, and the release of hormones that are essential for growth and development.
  • Divided into three stages, with each stage representing deeper sleep and slower brain waves.

REM and NREM sleep typically alternate in 90-minute cycles, approximately three to six times per night. If and when we don’t sleep enough, however, these cycles and the essential functions performed during these cycles are interrupted.

Sleep deficiency can alter brain activity and make it harder to make decisions, solve problems, cope with change, control your emotions, and keep your mood up. It can also impact your blood pressure, blood sugar, body weight, immunity, reflexes, and reaction times.

So how much sleep is enough?

  • Adults: 7–9 hours
  • Primary School Children: 9–10 hours
  • Teenagers: 9-10 hours

Statistics show that many of us don’t sleep enough to meet these recommendations. A study done in 2017 by the Sleep Health Foundation reports has shown that 33-43% of Australians sleep poorly or not long enough.

There has also been a 5-10% increase in sleep problems from when the data was last collected in 2010. So what can we do to reverse these statistics?

HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS

Since getting a good night’s sleep is essential to so many aspects of health, it makes sense that we prioritise sleep no matter how demanding our schedules get. In fact, prioritising sleep really comes down to developing healthy sleep habits like these:

1. Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning, and stick to your routine even on the weekends. This will help you reset your circadian rhythm, the rhythm that dictates your sleep/wake cycles. Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine can help cue your body to start winding down. Try taking a warm bath or shower, reading, or enjoying a warm cup of herbal tea before turning in.

2. Optimise your environment for sleep. Keep your room cool, between 15-20 degrees Celsius, and as dark as possible. Darkness signals your brain to produce the hormone melatonin that makes you sleepy and keeps you asleep. Use a sleep mask or blackout curtains to create your own darkness, and ban light-emitting gadgets and TVs from the bedroom, or at least shut them off a few hours before bed.

3. Exercise daily. Physical exercise during the day is crucial to promoting good sleep at night. Getting some activity outdoors is even better, as exposure to natural light during the morning and midday can help regulate your sleep. Even a 10-minute walk can help if you feel pressed for time. But try to avoid exercising within a couple of hours of bedtime.

4. Avoid stimulants before bed. Avoiding stimulants like caffeine or nicotine and even sugar after mid-afternoon can help. Avoid alcohol, too; while it may help you fall asleep initially, it can cause you to wake during the night. If you have any digestive issues, you might also want to avoid large meals or rich foods—which take longer to digest—before sleep.

Good sleep habits are a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle—as important as eating a well-balanced diet, being active, maintaining meaningful relationships, and managing life’s inevitable stresses. There’s just no substitute for a good night’s sleep, and not much (as the saying goes) that a good night’s sleep can’t fix.

References 

1. Sleep Health Foundation, 2011, Facts About Sleep. Blacktown, NSW , Last accessed [18/06/2016]

2. Sleep Health Foundation, 2017, Asleep On The Job. Blacktown, NSW , Last accessed [18/06/2016]

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