Saturday October 1st 2022

It’s all in your bed

Tanya Roper vividly recalls the day her world fell apart. It was a Monday and she’d just come off a long and tiring weekend shift.

“I was at the office until late on Sunday and had to wake up early next morning for a day shift, which began at 9am,” says the 25-year-old journalist. “That night, I attended university classes and was due to write a test the very next day.”

Young, healthy and high on caffeine, Tanya gave little thought to the fact that she’d been on the go for 24 hours with barely two hours’ sleep; there was too much to do and less time to do it in.

“When I finally got home after university, I had to study. Afterwards, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t sleep, even though I was tired. I was sick with worry about my test and just kept going over my work all night. That’s when my body gave up on me.”

Before the internet, boozy all-nighters and home movies, our ancestors slept an average of nine hours every night. We woke early, worked hard and were tucked in by sunset.

Modern living has little respect for rest and relaxation. We’re wired to the world from dawn to dusk.

The common consequences of sleep deprivation are well-known; we’re less productive, more prone to the blues and rapidly lose all sense of reason or logic.

But scientific studies suggest that lack of sleep may be the root cause of a whole host of physical and emotional hiccups, including our ability to maintain a sensible body weight, further our careers, keep our hearts healthy and nurture close relationships.

Who needs sleep anyway?

Scientists say that we need sleep because it maintains basic cognitive skills such as memory, speech and intelligent, creative thinking. Many famous politicians and historical figures got by on a scant four hours’ shut-eye a night – but most of us would go to pieces on so little sleep.

A human being’s sleep cycle is complex. We move between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM stages every 90 to 110 minutes and the non-REM cycle is split between light, true and deep sleep.

The last stage of deep sleep – when we’re really “out for the count” – is characterised by very little muscle activity and rhythmic breathing. Anyone woken during this heavenly state of unconscious may feel disoriented, confused and grumpy, as it takes several minutes to adjust to being awake.

Your sleep needs may differ wildly from someone else’s – researchers have found that people need between 5 and 11 hours’ sleep every night, with the average hovering around 7.75 hours.

The best way to understand sleep is to study what happens when we don’t get enough of it. Just a small amount of sleep deprivation has a hugely negative impact on our brains and bodies.

After just one night of disturbed or no sleep, you’ll probably feel grumpy or irritable and experience periods of forgetfulness and a shortened attention span.

“I felt so tired and sleepy after that one night of no sleep,” admits Tanya. “I felt lazy and anxious and found myself avoiding any situations that threatened to tax me emotionally.

“At work, I was so unproductive. I just wasn’t capable of dealing with a workload and I also found my relationship suffering. I snapped and just wanted to spend less time with everyone.”

What frightened her most was how her body reacted to sleep deprivation.

“I noticed that not getting enough sleep for just two days resulted in flu-like symptoms a week later. This had happened before. My body initially adapted well, so I carried on as usual. But as soon as those symptoms started, I knew that I needed a rest.”

Continued lack of sleep soon starts wreaking havoc with parts of the brain that control language, planning, memory and sense of time. In short, you shut down. A period of 17 hours without sleep, warn health experts, could result in a decrease in performance equalling the blood alcohol level of consuming two glasses of wine.

The trouble with being tired

A good rest after one night’s bad sleep makes all the difference – but continuously abusing your body could have nasty, even fatal, consequences.

Several surveys on the impact of modern living on our sleep habits suggest that late-night partying, television, working in the evening and too many chores are directly affecting our health.

Sleep-deprived people are at risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and a range of other major illnesses – and all because we try to pack too much into our on-the-go lifestyles.

Najib T. Ayas of the University of British Columbia says that we live in a “24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week” society and that research is only now discovering how dangerous this is.

A recent study, for example, linked irregular or insufficient sleep to increased risk of colon and breast cancer, while other research papers conclude that sleep disruption negatively affects hormonal function.

Some of the serious consequences of sleep deprivation include :

  • Impaired ability to drive a car
  • Depression or anger
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Lack of focus and concentration
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Difficulty responding to rapidly changing situations, such as an emergency

Apart from stressful lifestyles, sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea also result in day-time sleepiness, which can cause stress or high blood pressure. Worryingly, lack of sleep has been cited as a contributory factor in several international disasters, including Chernobyl and the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Woman on top – why sleep is sacred

The battle of the sexes spills over into the bedroom, where scientists have proved that women’s sleep needs are very different from men’s.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has also found women less likely to fall asleep easily – or get as much sleep – as men, for both physiological and societal reasons.

Women are multi-taskers who tend to fill more roles than their husbands or partners. They are career girls, mothers, dedicated friends and usually take on the bulk of household chores. Female night-owls stay up late to work, help with homework, do the washing or have some much-needed “me time” – resulting in less sleep.

Gender-specific conditions such as the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause also hamper sound sleep. In a NSF-conducted poll, half of all menstruating women surveyed admitted that bloating disturbed their sleep, while pregnancy aches and pains, as well as emotional problems, also resulted in sleep loss.

Female biology dictates the rise and fall of hormone levels in response to various conditions such as menopause and breastfeeding, resulting in hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia and breathing problems that all impact dangerously on sound sleep habits.

Women are particularly vulnerable to heart problems, weight gain, stress and accidents because of sleep loss. Our emotional well-being also suffers and many women polled by the NSF reported deteriorating relationships, poor nutrition, depression and anxiety linked to sleep deprivation.

Writer Karin Schimke, 37, says new mothers are commonly victims of the vicious sleep deprivation cycle – and are hopelessly unprepared when it happens.

“Instead of being told how they could deal with it, they are taught that the baby has to tow the sleeping line and all kinds of horrors are committed in the name of getting more sleep,” says Karin, mum of two.

“Mothers need to be sleep-trained – not babies. You must sleep when the baby sleeps. An eight-hour block of sleep is something you stop having about a month before the baby is born and for several years thereafter.

“I realised that sleep was not a thing to be toyed with and I took it where I got it. I also learnt that sleep in installments was one hundred times better than no sleep at all.”

First-time mum Je’anna Clements, 38, says that sleep deprivation has made her question whether or not she could physically survive having another child.

“Just trying to survive lack of sleep – such as avoiding accidents – is a daily issue,” explains poet Je’anna, mum to toddler Béo. “I have, for example, learned to use the handbrake in traffic jams since I can’t trust myself if I roll backwards.

“My biggest health problem from sleep deprivation is thrush. I have been on so many courses of medication – both allopathic and homeopathic to dietary – but once that sleep (loss) kicks in it just comes back again.”

Wakefulness and the war on weight

In our fight to be slender, we tend to neglect a basic biological fact – sleep promotes an ideal body weight

Chronic sleep deprivation interferes with metabolic function, possibly causing weight gain and difficulty losing excess body fat.

Scientists say this phenomenon results from the release of excess cortisol, a stress hormone. Lack of sleep also dips levels of leptin, the appetite-suppressing hormone and shoots up levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite.

In an American study, researchers found that the decrease in average number of hours of sleep corresponded with a national obesity epidemic. A survey of 10 000 adults concluded that people aged between 32 and 49 who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to be overweight.

Administrator Sherry-Lynn McDougall found that, apart from chronic sleep deprivation, she couldn’t shake her baby weight after giving birth to her second child.

“I had a two-year-old who had never slept through a single night and I had a newborn baby,” recalls Sherry-Lynn.

“I felt like an utter failure and the realisation that I was gaining weight instead of burning it off during breastfeeding like the super-mummies around me put me into a deeper depression.

“My husband, not for lack of trying, could not put two and two together and understand that the sleep deprivation, weight gain and depression were all linked – one ‘feeding’ off the other.”

New York-based Sleep-Wake Disorders Center head Michael Thorpy has commented that being committed to losing weight equates with making an equal commitment to getting more sleep.

Top tips for sound sleep

Knowing that lack of sleep may ruin your health and waistline should get you back where you belong for a third of your day – in bed.

Most sleep problems can be nipped in the bud by going to bed early, de-stressing, improving your diet and exercising regularly. Chronic sleep disturbances should be monitored by your doctor, but the following tips may help.

  • Mend your mind. Breathing exercises, meditation, massage, aromatherapy and thinking calm thoughts all promote rest and relaxation. Don’t allow the day’s negative issues into your bedroom.
  • Work it off. Exercising in the morning results in a well-rested body at night. Try not to hit the gym in the evening though, as exercise releases stimulants and may keep you awake.
  • Ban the booze. A little drink won’t do any harm, but too many glasses of wine could make you jumpy, irritable and unable to switch off at night. Drinking may also cause snoring, which reduces oxygen in the blood and disturbs sleep.
  • Cut back on caffeine. Coffee, tea, chocolate and other caffeine-containing substances are stimulants. At night, drink herbal teas or water instead.
  • Face food facts. Heavy meals, spicy or fatty foods can interfere with sleep. Tyramine-containing foods such as bacon, ham, cheese, pepperoni, aubergines, raspberries, avocado, nuts, soy sauce and red wine are also no-nos, so stock up on good carbohydrates instead if you’re feeling peckish before bedtime.
  • Create a “dream room”. Your bedroom should be a place of peace and tranquility. Televisions, stereos and computers are distracting.
  • Take cat naps. A 15-minute nap during the day – particularly between 2pm and 4pm, can keep you alert. If you can’t nap at work, at least take some time out during that period.
  • Get help. If sleep problems continue, speak to your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder.
  • Make rest a routine. Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time each day helps establish good sleeping habits.

Resources and recommended reading :

Copyright : Beth Cooper, 2010. FIRST PUBLISHED IN TRUE LOVE MAGAZINE (2007)

Related Tags: , ,