Struggling to drift off? Waking up groggy and tired? You might inadvertently be reponsible for your lack of sleep.
Somehow, getting a good night’s sleep is seen as a luxury. But contrary to popular belief, sleeping isn’t just about getting some rest and feeling less crabby in the mornings – it matters far more than we think. The health benefits of sleep are well-documented – it can improve concentration, sharpen planning and memory skills and even help you regulate your weight. In fact, getting seven to eight hours a night might even lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, inflammatory diseases and cancer. Sleep is more powerful than any drug in its ability to repair and revitalise the human brain and body. While you sleep, your brain shifts into action, getting rid of biological debris, solidifying memories and even repairing damage to your DNA. So when you’re sleep-deprived, even for a brief period, your brain struggles to make enough antioxidants to get rid of free radicals and spent molecules, causing some of the neurons to die off – permanently.
The molecular debris can also affect the adjacent healthy cells, inhibiting their ability to form and recall memories or plan even the simplest tasks. ‘If you shorten sleep both short-term (one night) or long-term (two weeks), the ability to retain newly learned information decreases,’ says Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute. ‘This would be new information, as well as new tasks like playing the piano.’ The consequences of sleep deprivation, says Dr Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University, are ‘scary, really scary’. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US considers insufficient sleep ‘a public-health epidemic’.
Keen to make sleep a priority? Here are some of the things you might be doing to unknowingly sabotage your most replenishing pastime:
1.) YOU SLEEP ON YOUR STOMACH Bad news for those who snooze on their stomach – it is widely regarded as the worst sleeping position of all. Lying on your tummy flattens the spine’s natural curve, which can cause lower back pain, and keeping your head turned to one side all night twists your spine and strains your neck. Train yourself to sleep on your side – even if it means taping a tennis ball to the front of your pyjama top!
2.) YOU SHOWER IN THE MORNINGS According to a 1997 study conducted by New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, your body temperature naturally drops at night, starting two hours before sleep. So, having a warm bath at night enhances the effect. Joyce Walsleben, associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine Sleep Disorder Center, recommends a 20–30 minute soak, two hours before bed. ‘If you raise your temperature a degree or two with a bath, the steeper drop at bedtime is more likely to put you in a deep sleep,’ she says. (Showering, though less effective, can work too.)
3.) YOU USE ONLY ONE PILLOW An extra pillow can make a huge difference to how well you sleep. Sleeping on your back? Wedge a pillow under your knees to take pressure off your lower back. If you sleep on your side, sleeping with a pillow between your knees will help keep your spine aligned. And, if you’ve got a very soft bed (or an hourglass figure, for that matter) you can also place a pillow under your waist for extra back support.
4.) YOUR PILLOWS ARE TOO POUFY The pillow under your head is not supposed to prop up your head too much – ideally, it should lift your head just far enough to keep your spine straight while you’re sleeping. If you’re unsure, lie down and ask your partner or a friend to check – any curving will compress the discs in your spine or pinch the nerves – ouch!
5.) YOU NEVER NAP Napping is associated with lazy Sunday afternoons and cranky pre-schoolers, but there are huge benefits to a quick midday snooze – as long as it is intentional and not because you didn’t get enough sleep the night before. For most people, early afternoon is best for napping – between 1pm and 4pm, when your alertness dips. If you’re an early riser, nap on the earlier side of the time slot, but if you burn the midnight oil, make it later. According to sleep scientist Sara Mednick, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, the benefits of
napping depend on the duration. A mere 6-minute nap can help improve your declarative memory – that is, your ability to recall facts and knowledge, whereas a 10–20 minute power nap gives you a quick boost of alertness. ‘Twenty minutes keeps you from upsetting your schedules, getting into deeper sleep and waking up groggy, refreshing you enough to continue safely,’ says Joyce Walsleben. If you have a bit more time, go for a 60-minute nap (good for cognitive memory processing and lowering blood pressure), or even a 90-minute nap, which aids creativity as well as procedural memory and allows you to complete a full sleep cycle. The result? Minimal grogginess.
6.) YOUR ROOM ISN’T DARK ENOUGH At night, your body releases a hormone called melatonin, which makes you drowsy – but only if it gets the right cues from your environment. Bright lights and screens can interfere, so switch off the TV an hour or two before bed and dim the lights. ‘Melatonin is your hormone of darkness – it won’t flow with the lights on,’ says Walsleben. ‘Transition to dark as early as 9 or 10 o’clock.’ Invest in blockout curtains if the street lights shine in. The other culprits, of course, are your tablet, computer and cellphone – that blue light activates your brain, interfering with your natural sleep cycle, so keep it far away or place the device screen down. Or you could wear a sleep mask!
7.) YOU DON’T HAVE ANY BEDTIME RITUALS Sometimes your body needs help recognising that it’s time to wind down, and bedtime rituals can help – simple things like listening to some soothing music, reading, stretching or doing breathing exercises. ‘We suggest that
people establish regular nightly routines to help their brain shift into sleep mode,’ says Gary Zammit, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders
Institute in New York. ‘Laying out your pyjamas, brushing your hair or your teeth – these habits can be very sleep-conducive.’
8.) YOU SLEEP IN SATIN PJS… or between satin sheets. Synthetic materials retain body heat more than natural fibres, which can result in a temperature change that wakes you up. Instead, choose sheets and pyjamas made from cotton, bamboo or other natural materials.
9.) YOUR MATTRESS IS TOO SOFT – OR TOO HARD Turns out Goldilocks was onto something! A too-soft mattress can cause lower back pain, whereas a too-hard mattress might make you wake up with a stiff back and shoulders or hip pain.
10.) YOUR PET SLEEPS ON YOUR BED WITH YOU Love curling up with Fido at night? It’s not a great idea. New research, presented at the Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, proves that sharing a bed with pets increases sleep disturbances and ultimately decreases the quality of sleep you’re getting. Of the co-sleeping pet owners they surveyed, 30% reported
waking up because of their pets at least once a night, 63% had poor sleep quality and 5% said they had trouble falling back to sleep after
being disturbed by a pet. The takehome message? ‘Pets really don’t belong in your bed,’ says Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University
of California-Davis school of veterinary medicine and an expert in zoonosis (the transmission of disease from animals to humans – yikes!).
11.) YOU’RE HAVING DINNER TOO LATE Ideally, you should have dinner at least three hours before you go to bed. For some, this seems impossible, especially if you’re working late and trying to fit in grocery shopping and a trip to the gym before coming home to cook. But consider this: going to sleep on a full stomach puts you at risk for acid reflux – this, in turn, can lead to oesophageal cancer, which has risen five-fold since the 1970s. According to New York physician Jamie Koufman, who specialises in acid reflux, ‘the single most important intervention is to eliminate late eating.’ Unexplained post-nasal drip, cough, or difficulty swallowing could all be signs of acid reflux.
12.) YOU DON’T HAVE A SLEEP SCHEDULE Bedtimes are not just for kids. Keeping your bedtime consistent helps your body know when it’s time to shut down. Also try to get up at the same time each day – yes, even on weekends! It reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle for better sleep.
13.) YOU’RE NOT GETTING ENOUGH SUNLIGHT DURING THE DAY Not sleeping well? It might be that you’re not allowing your body clock to be set properly by day and night cycles. This is a very common problem for people who work night shifts, as they have to be awake when their environment is telling them to go to sleep. But it can also be a problem for anyone who doesn’t get outside enough – when your night/ day cues are not strong enough, it can wreak havoc on the functioning of your circadian clock.
14.) YOU’RE DRINKING BEFORE BED We’re not just talking coffee here – even drinking too much water could disrupt your sleep by forcing you to get up in the middle of the night. And while alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it ultimately interferes with the quality of your sleep – and it can make snoring worse, which could have an impact on your bed partner.
15.) YOU THINK YOU CAN CATCH UP ON SLEEP ‘There is a lasting price to pay for sleep loss,’ says Dr Sigrid Veasey, a leading sleep researcher. ‘We used to think that if you don’t sleep enough, you can sleep more and you’ll be fine tomorrow. We now know if you push the system enough, that’s simply not true.’ *Fairlady Magazine SA*