Sleep, oh gentle sleep
Loss of sleep is a very common problem in today’s society and according to data, nearly 70 million people in the United States and one in three people in the UK suffer from sleep disorders (sources: Cleveland Clinic and National Health Service). Sleep is vital for both physical and mental well-being and long-term lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on our health.
Sleep deprivation occurs when a person gets less than a sufficient sleep over a long period. The amount of sufficient sleep varies from person to person: while some people can cope with 5-6 hours sleep per night, others need at least eight hours to feel alert and awake. The recommended amount of sleep is 8-9 hours for adults; teenagers and children need more.
What are the symptoms of ongoing loss of sleep? The most common symptom is feeling excessively tired through the day but other symptoms include: mood swings - including feeling depressed, difficulties with learning and concentration, forgetfulness, feeling unmotivated, feeling hungrier, being clumsy and lack of sex drive.
However, there are also more serious problems related to ongoing lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to emotional difficulties, obesity and an increased risk of diseases. When a person is deprived from getting a healthy amount of sleep, the body is less able to strengthen the immune system and to produce cytokines which fight infection meaning they can take longer to recover from illnesses but also have an increased risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Lack of sufficient sleep can also lead to obesity. When sleep is cut short, the body does not release hormones that regulate the feelings of appetite and growth leading to an increased feeling of hunger. Sleep is also important for our mental health. Just a single sleepless night can cause irritability and mood swings and in the long-term sleep deprivation can reduce the ability to think positively and cause depression and anxiety.
Sleep deprivation can also increase a person’s risk of having an accident. When a person does not get sufficient sleep, it leads to micro-sleeps, which is when the brain attempts to get sleep through short sleep attacks. During these sudden attacks, a person cannot process sensory information and the consequences can be fatal if the person is for example driving or operating heavy machinery.
There are ways a person can try to improve the amount and quality of sleep they get before seeking help from medication. One is to develop a regular bedtime routine and waking up time and keeping it consistent every day of the week. Having regular exercise during the day, although not too close to bedtime, can also help as can avoiding eating two to three hours before going to bed. It is also advisable to turn off electronic devices at least half an hour before going to bed as they can stimulate the brain and to keep the bedroom dark, quiet and at a comfortably cool temperature.
In addition, relaxation techniques such as muscle relaxation through alternative tensing and untensing may help to calm the body and prepare it to sleep. Meditation techniques, breathing exercises and some yoga practices like yoga nidra can also help. There are many of these available for free on the internet.
It is, however, possible to catch up on lost sleep, but it won’t happen with a single early night. The recovery time depends on how long a person has been having restricted sleep and can take several weeks. Once a person has obtained a healthy amount of sleep, the negative effects of sleep deprivation are reversed. To pay back sleep debt, a person needs to get additional sleep each night. The National Health Service advice is to start on a weekend and add an extra hour or two of sleep a night. Gradually, as the amount of sleep debts decreases, so does the time a person sleeps. A person should start feeling the benefits of additional sleep quickly and feel more energised and less drowsy during the day. However, if the problems getting enough sleep persist or a person is still feeling tired after sufficient sleep, medical advice might be required.
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
― Mahatma Gandhi