The gloriousness of sleep

Did you know it is Sleep Awareness Week right now? It is! And I am excited about it.

I love all things about sleep. I love doing it. I love what it is able to do. I love all the things we can do to make sure that we can do it better. I love watching people start doing these things and seeing their health improve as their sleep does. I love how when we wake up my housemates and I ask each other how we each slept, as if we’re all naturally aware that this is going to be a big influence in what happens next. I’m so into sleep, one wonders why I am not a sleep psychologist – yes, there is such a thing.

Last year, the Sleep Health Foundation used Sleep Awareness Week as an opportunity to conduct a survey of Australian adults to discover which factors are helping and hindering their sleep. Over 1000 people were polled and the results offer a fascinating insight into Australian sleep habits, which you can learn all about here.

Sleep is as essential for our health as oxygen, food and water. Yet, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about it. The science tends to agree that it’s important for restoring physical and mental health, refreshing the mind and repairing the body.

However, we know lots more about what happens when we are deprived of sleep. And it’s pretty bad.

Firstly there are the impairments that happen in our brain. Cognitive processing can be significantly affected by lack of sleep and include things like: slowed response time; inattention; reduced short term memory; impaired judgment; fragmented thought processes (thoughts begin but stop abruptly); fine motor impairment, and; gross motor impairment. And when this stuff is happening in our brain we might see the following behaviours stem from this: slurred speech; clumsiness; inability to remember names of people and objects; inability to bring eyes into focus; difficulty recognizing objects by touch (astereognosis), and; inability to finish vocalising an idea or sentence.

Secondly, there has been buttloads of research done into the effects of sleep on emotional state -both correlational and experimental (yes, researchers actually bring people into labs and keep them up all night). Evidence suggests that when people are sleep deprived, they feel more irritable, angry and hostile. Sleep loss is also associated with feeling more depressed. In addition, sleep deprivation seems to be associated with greater emotional reactivity - people who suffer from sleep loss are especially likely to react negatively when something doesn’t go well for them. For those of you interested in the brain – some research suggests that sleep deprivation enhances negative mood due to increased amygdala activity (a brain structure integral to experiences of negative emotions such as anger and rage) and a disconnect between the amygdale and the area of the brain that regulates its functions. In other words: sleep loss leads to increased negative mood, and decreased ability to regulate that anger.

Researchers have also found that people who are more sleep deprived report feeling less friendly, elated, empathic, and report a generally lower positive mood. Sleep deprivation also seems to put a damper on people’s ability to reap the emotional benefits of a positive experience. In one study, people who were more sleep deprived did not report increased positive affect after an achievement, whereas people who’d had an adequate amount of sleep did feel better after their achievement.

And then there are all the physical effects. Don’t sleep enough and your resting blood pressure  will rise, you’ll be at increased risk of cardiac morbidity and you’ll eat more food. According to the science.

So how much sleep is enough?

In the good old days (before electricity), people used to sleep between sunset and sunrise. Which meant that a typical person’s sleep averaged a generous ten hours – the same amount enjoyed by other primates such as chimpanzees and baboons. Today, in developing countries the average adult sleeps for only six or seven hours per night, with seven to nine hours considered optimal. In 2015, The Sleep Foundation found that on average Australians go to sleep at 11:14pm and wake at 6:32am achieving 7 hours and 18 minutes of sleep a night.

Most of us feel fatigued at least some of the time. Really common causes of sleep deprivation include shiftwork, travel, illness, poor sleeping habits and some medications.

Another major cause of sleep trouble is mental illness.

There are over 70 types of independent sleep disorders around today and these can impact and vary by psychiatric diagnosis. But the overlap between sleep disorders and various psychiatric problems is so great that researchers have long suspected both types of problems may have common biological roots.

Studies using different methods and populations estimate that 65% to 90% of adult patients with major depression, and about 90% of children with this disorder, experience some kind of sleep problem. Sleep problems affect outcomes for patients with depression. Studies report that depressed patients who continue to experience insomnia are less likely to respond to treatment than those without sleep problems. Even patients whose mood improves with antidepressant medications are more at risk for a relapse of depression later on. People who experience depression in conjunction with sleep disturbances are more likely to think about suicide and die by suicide than patients with depression who are able to sleep normally.

In anxiety, sleep problems have been found to affect more than 50% of adult patients experiencing generalized anxiety disorder, are common in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and may occur in panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias.

When I was unwell, my sleep was a mess. I slept for a lot of hours throughout the day, probably around 16. And I constantly felt tired and lethargic. And my sleep was broken, in that I could never sleep for more than a few hours at a time. More often than not, I was wide awake at 3:30am. 3:30am is never anyone’s friend.

But possibly the greatest cause of sleep deprivation is parenthood.

I’m not a parent, but I did try and be a ‘Nanny’ a couple of weeks back to two of my favourite under 2 year olds. After the first night of bed hopping and waking for feeds (not me, the younger ones) and needing to settle (again not me) and not knowing who was in which bed I felt unable to function the next day. It was like I had pulled an all-nighter at a dodgy nightclub and sunk jaeger bombs all night. Instead I had just spent a good 8 hours in a bed with an 18 month old, following Better Homes and Gardens. It does not surprise me that the research shows that parents lose, on average, between 450 and 700 hours of sleep during their child’s first 12 months of life.

One of the good things about sleep deprivation though is that it can generally be managed by getting good sleep. And even if you suffer from illnesses or sleep conditions (such as insomnia or sleep apnoea) there are treatments and management strategies that help. If you are having difficulties sleeping, why not try some new sleep hygiene tips. It is Sleep Awareness Week after all.



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