Harnessing the power of a good night’s sleep
We all need to wake up to the health and wellbeing benefits of regular shut-eye by setting consistent bedtime routines and making sure we get enough.
When you’re struggling to meet a work or study deadline, it’s often sleep that goes. Got a big night out? You lose the snooze.
With life now all about how much we can cram into each day, sleep is the first casualty. But cutting the kip could be seriously affecting our long-term health.
As Allan Rechtschaffen, a pioneer in sleep research, says: “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.”
The University of Western Australia’s Romola Bucks says sleep not only plays a critical role in thinking and learning through changes that occur in our brain cells only when we are asleep, but depriving ourselves can be deadly.
“Most of us know a lack of sleep leaves us feeling grumpy and tired, and can impair our alertness, concentration and problem solving,” Associate Professor Bucks says.
“However, long-term sleep disruption can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and many forms of heart disease.”
“As a neuropsychologist, I am fascinated by how disrupted or poor sleep impacts on brain health, both memory and thinking skills, and mood.”
Sorting out your sleep
During the past 10 years, the Perth-based sleep expert’s work has focused on a common – and often undiagnosed – sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).
“This is where your throat collapses while you are sleeping, stopping you from breathing properly, which causes loud snoring, gasping and choking,” she explains.
“In order to restart breathing, you either wake up entirely, or rise up from deeper into shallower stages of sleep. These arousals disrupt the normal pattern of sleep, and can happen more than 100 times each hour.”
Long-term sleep disruption can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and many forms of heart disease.
“As many as 13 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women have OSA of at least moderate severity. That’s more than 1 million Australians – as many as those with diabetes or asthma.”
“Alarmingly, however, it’s thought as many as eight in 10 people might be undiagnosed, perhaps because it is a nocturnal disorder.”
Associate Professor Bucks says OSA not only increases the risk of a multitude of health-related issues, it also makes it seven to eight times more likely you will have a car accident.
The good news is that there are treatments for the condition. The most common is a device that blows air into the airway through a mask worn over the nose and mouth at night.
But sleep is critical, even if you don’t have OSA.
UWA PhD candidate Ian Dunican is working with the Australian Institute of Sport, Western Force rugby union club and Perth Lynx women’s basketball team on the link between sleep for recovery and performance in elite athletes.
The Lynx’s season was split into two and Ian looked at the sleep patterns, travel schedules, pre-bedtime routines and training regimen of each player.
“Players were fitted with Actigraph sleep-monitoring devices, with biomathematical modelling used to quantify cognitive performance from sleep, training and interstate travel,” Ian says.
The study revealed that changing the pre-bedtime routine was key.
“This included switching off all electronics at least an hour before bed, using mindfulness or meditation apps and sleeping in a cool room,” he says.
The study highlighted that the team’s afternoon training sessions better suited the circadian rhythms of most of the athletes.
How much sleep is enough?
Former British PM Margaret Thatcher once famously claimed she governed the country on only four hours a night.
Professor Peter Eastwood, head of UWA’s Centre for Sleep Science, says the National Sleep Foundation recently published a guide on how much slumber is required.
“They show the amount of sleep we need reduces as we age, from two thirds of the day in newborns, to about seven or eight hours in the over-60s, while a teenager needs around nine hours – seven can be OK – with fewer problematic.”
“Oversleeping (sleeping more than the recommended hours per night) is equally challenging, and can indicate an unrecognised disorder such as hypersomnia, depression or anaemia,” Professor Eastwood says.
So, whether your bedtime problems arise from lifestyle or work choices, or an undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorder, improving your slumber wellbeing is just as vital as taking regular exercise and following a healthy diet in the aim for a long and happier life.
Recommended sleep durations
0-3 months = 14-17 hours
1-2 years = 11-14 hours
3-5 years = 10-13 hours
6-13 years = 9-11 hours
14-17 years = 8-10 hours
18-25 years = 7-9 hours
26-64 years = 7-9 hours
Over 65 years = 7-8 hours
Written by Liz McGrath