How bad quality sleep affects you

How bad quality sleep affects you

By Dr Dominique Stott

An increasing number of people find that getting a good night’s sleep can be a real challenge for them

Proper sleeping patterns allow the brain to process information and create memory.

Sleep deprivation is usually associated with an inability to process information, leading to poor judgement, insight and memory, as well as learning deficits.

Sleep disorders are surprisingly common with most people having suffered from some form of sleep deprivation at some point in their lives. However, it is usually for a short duration lasting under a month.

True insomnia is defined as repeated difficulty with either getting to sleep, staying asleep or poor sleep quality in spite of time and opportunity. This sleeping behaviour will eventually result in some form of health impairment.

A lack of sleep can also cause other serious illnesses in people.

Sleep deprivation can be either the cause or effect of psychiatric, neurological or physical disorders. There are also life circumstances that can lead to a lack of sleep, with associated depression and anxiety. These are commonly associated with major life events and stressors, such as divorce or bereavement, which can lead to temporary sleep deprivation.

Common health disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which is generally associated with snoring in obese people, can lead to significantly interrupted sleep without the person being aware of it, she adds. “Chronic pain, significant gastrointestinal reflux and hormonal conditions such as hyperthyroidism can also have a big impact on a person’s ability to get sufficient sleep.

The impact of chronically disrupted sleep will have an effect on many facets of one’s personal and work life, including daytime lack of concentration; poor memory and learning skills; poor judgement and heightened emotional responses and irritability.

When looking at the physical impacts, lack of sleep can be damaging to the immune system and eventually lead to a risk of heart disease due to OSA, and diabetes related to obesity from increased weight gain. There is also the obvious increased risk of accidents in the workplace and motor vehicle accidents or collisions due to poor concentration.

Sleeping tablets are well known to have an impact on the foundation of memory, and anyone using them runs the risk not only of losing memory of events from the previous day, but also excessive drowsiness the following day.

Benzodiazepines, which are tranquillizers, are also addictive and the usage of these tablets by the wrong patient may lead to a far bigger problem than lack of sleep. They can, however, be useful in the short term as prescribed by a doctor.

Antihistamine tablets can also be used as a short-term solution to improve sleep, but their efficacy wears off rapidly.

Here are some practical tips for people to consider in order fostering good sleep patterns:

  • Start the day by exposing yourself to sunlight for up to 30 minutes to help to turn off the production of sleep-inducing melatonin.
  • Practice going to sleep and waking up at a regular time.
  • Avoid ‘lying-in’ to catch up on sleep, or taking daytime naps.
  • Do not do strenuous physical exercise, within a few hours of normal bedtime. It is, however, extremely beneficial to exercise in the morning.
  • Do not watch television in bed or use electronic devices, such a cell phones and iPads, within 30 minutes of going to bed. This is especially important for teenagers.
  • Do not consume stimulants, such as alcohol (especially red wine) coffee or cigarettes, for at least three hours before bedtime.
  • People should avoid eating tyramine-containing foods such as cheese, bacon or avocado in their evening meal, as it causes the release of a stimulant called norepinephrine which prevents sleep. However, eating healthy carbohydrates at dinner triggers serotonin release, which assists sleep.
  • In essence, people should be relaxing before they go to bed. If one doesn’t fall asleep [within] 30 minutes, it is advisable to get up and do something relaxing - like reading until you feel tired - and then get back into bed to try and fall asleep again.
  • Alternative treatments, such as mindfulness, can be very useful methods to assist people in bringing forth a sense of relaxation. By practising this technique at regular intervals during the day, it will be easier to evoke the same relaxation response at night when struggling to sleep. This method has to be taught and practised, but it is of great value when done properly for all kinds of stress alleviating responses.
  • Insomnia can also be a symptom of more serious disorders and therefore it is important to seek medical help to get professional advice if it is prolonged or is causing significant distress in one’s life. It is also advisable to keep a sleep diary for two weeks, stating the exact times of sleeping and waking to show to your medical professional, together with a list of all medications and medical history, in order to determine the cause of sleeplessness.

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