How to get a good night’s sleep

For some, an undisturbed night’s sleep is nothing out of the ordinary, however, to others it is a rare occurrence. There are many who struggle to get a full night’s sleep, or do not sleep enough, and this can have a negative impact on their health and life.

Moneybags journalist Jessica Wood investigates how a lack of sleep can affect your life, and provides tips on how to get to slumber land.

Why we need sleep

According to reports, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States believes that insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. However, over sleeping can also be a problem, as this can signal other issues, such as depression.

According to Dr David Smith, owner of the Kloof Road Medical Centre, it is still not clear why people need sleep. It appears to be a time where [the] brain can defrag information from the day and put it into the correct storage places,” he posits.

Dr Peter Bond, chief medical officer at Old Mutual explains why sleep is important: “Because it protects your mental health, your physical health, your quality of life and your safety.”

Dr Jeannine Cheung adds that sleep is a time when your body and mind can rest and rejuvenate for the next day.

Recommended sleep times

The optimum sleep period differs per person, as well as per age category (see the table below). However, Smith says: “If you fall asleep within 10 minutes of your head hitting the pillow and wake one [to] five minutes before your alarm clock goes off, you’re sleeping the correct amount. [Otherwise] you may need to relook at your sleep habits.”

However, editor of Sleep Health and associated professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, Lauren Hale, recently said in a statement that although there are recommended sleeping times, there are instances where it will not be possible to abide by these recommendations.

“There are always exceptions, whether it’s a flight to catch, a test to take, things to do, and some days you need to sleep over the range because you are sick. But, on a regular basis, you should try to aim for the recommended range,” she says.


Source: Note: The recommended sleeping times are just that, a recommendation. It is important for you to figure out how much sleep your body needs in order to function at its optimum.


How a lack of sleep can affect you

One of the benefits of having a good night’s sleep is that you wake up feeling refreshed and well rested. A lack of sleep can have a negative effect on you both physically and mentally.

“Physically it can lead to fatigue and feeling sluggish. Sleep deprivation is associated with a rise in insulin, which leads to hunger, which in turn can increase weight, resulting in diabetes. [Mentally] it causes fatigue, sluggishness, [and] errors in judgement,” explains Smith.

Bond adds: “Sleep plays an important role with regard to relaxation of the cardiovascular system, so a lack of sleep could lead to an increase in heart problems, high blood pressure, and stroke. It also increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and immune system problems and general well-being. One is also tired during the day which leads to day time somnolence and loss of productivity.”

A lack of sleep can result in a person falling asleep behind the wheel of a car, not only endangering your life, but the life of the other people on the road as well.

A poor sleeper will find it difficult to deal with change and Bond adds that too little sleep will affect your memory and decision-making ability. “It may also lead to behaviour problems, aggression, irritability and emotional outbursts. Long term sleep deprivation may promote anxiety and depressive disorders.”

The causes of sleep loss

Smith points out that one of the leading causes of sleep deprivation is stress, as well as your environment, commitments that you may have at work or at home, and the lifestyle choices that you make.

Bond states that there are short and long term reasons of a lack of sleep. Short term reasons include:

  • Acute illness or injury,
  • Bereavement,
  • Job loss,
  • Travelling,
  • Exam anxiety,
  • Jet lag,
  • Partner’s sleep habits,
  • Chemicals, such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, and
  • Medication

Long term causes of sleep loss include:

  • Mental or psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),
  • Chronic insomnia of unknown origin (psychological insomnia),
  • Chronic insomnia caused by chronic medical conditions, and
  • Chronic substance abuse

One of the causes of lack of sleep is insomnia. Durban based psychologist Claire Newton explains that insomnia is “the experience of inadequate or poor quality sleep.” Insomnia has the following characteristics:

  • Difficulty falling asleep,
  • Difficulty staying asleep, and
  • Waking up too early in the morning, feeling unrefreshed

Newton explains that it is important to treat insomnia as it can have a variety of effects on your everyday life. These include:

  • Daytime fatigue,
  • Impaired mood,
  • Increased irritability,
  • Depression,
  • Psychological distress,
  • Reduced reaction time,
  • Impaired memory,
  • Decreased ability to concentrate,
  • Decreased ability to problem-solve,
  • Decreased ability to make decisions,
  • Increased risk of accidents (including workplace accidents and motor vehicle accidents),
  • Increased risk of injury, and
  • Increased risk of illness, due to a suppressed immune system

How a lack of sleep can impact your work-life

Bond explains that a lack of sleep can result in a loss of productivity at work, as well as poor concentration, forgetfulness and can in some cases lead to people falling asleep at work.

In a recent study in the United States, the National Sleep Foundation found that a reduction in work-family conflict greatly improves a person’s sleep sufficiency.

The study results showed that if an employer helped to reduce stress in the workplace then it had a positive impact on an employee’s sleep: “The workplace intervention did not overtly address sleep, yet intervention employees slept eight minutes per day more and reported greater sleep sufficiency. Interventions should address environmental and psychological causes of sleep deficiency including workplace factors.”

Tips to improve sleep

There are many tips and tricks out there that can assist you in improving your sleeping habits, and get a better night’s sleep. These include:

  1. Sleep hygiene

If you are battling to sleep, try sleep hygiene. This includes activities which keep the mind active, such as:

  • No stimulants, such as alcohol, at night,
  • Keeping to the rule that the bedroom is for sleep only, not for reading or watching TV, and
  • Don’t play high intensity sports or games before bed

Smith adds that hot baths can help, as this will relax you before going to bed.

If none of these methods work, it would be advisable to visit a psychologist or doctor to see if there is a deeper cause to your problem.

  1. Sleep schedules

The National Sleep Foundation provides some basic steps to follow to help you sleep:

Be consistent: It is important to have set bedtime and wake-up times to get your body into a natural rhythm. It is important to stick to this even on weekends. Try not to sleep-in more than an hour or two.

Make gradual changes: If you have to make changes to your sleeping schedule, do this gradually to assist your body in getting used to the new times.

Get up with the sun: Your body is naturally attuned to light and dark, which means that it associates lightness with being awake and darkness with being asleep. Getting a dose of sunlight in the morning can help you get going for the day.

Dim lights at night: Too much light at night can signal to your body that it should be awake, making it more difficult for you to get to sleep and to sleep well.

Don’t hit the snooze button: Although this is always tempting, it is important to set your alarm for the exact time you need to get up and to get up when the alarm goes off. The few minutes extra sleep you get does not actually help.

Watch what you eat and when you eat: While it is important not to go to bed hungry, it is also important not to go to bed on a full stomach. Try to eat your last meal about two to three hours before you go to bed.

Turn off electronics: All the technology that we have at our disposal can be a distraction when trying to get to sleep. Turn these off at least two hours before you go to bed to avoid unnecessary distractions.

Read, but not a Kindle: Reading from a Kindle or tablet keep a person up later at night than reading from a traditional book. According to researchers, people that read off of these devices experience reduced levels of melatonin, which assist in making people fall asleep.

Cheung says that when visiting your doctor for sleep related issues, it is important for the doctor to have an accurate and thorough sleep history, as this can help to ascertain the cause of the problem. If you are having trouble sleeping, try keeping a sleep diary which details what you do each day before bed. This may assist your doctor in determining the cause of your problem.