Many important processes occur in the body and mind while we sleep. Sleep provides the rest necessary for the immune system to fight disease, and is the time when hormones are being produced to repair tissues and maintain the chemical balance in the body. During sleep the mind processes memories from the day. It’s easy to see why sleep is very important for good physical and mental health.
What is good sleep?
The amount of sleep needed is different for each person according to their age and life stage. Younger people often need more sleep, while the ability to sleep for 6-8 hours at one time may reduce as people get older. Generally a healthy adult needs an average of 8 hours sleep a night. You know you are sleeping well when you wake up alert and refreshed.
Do I have a sleep problem?
A sleeping problem is generally described as not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep. You may have trouble falling asleep, wake frequently throughout the night or wake up very early in the morning. As well as insomnia, some people also experience medical problems including sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, disturbed dreams and nightmares. If you experience sleep problems for a month or more, you should consult your G.P.
When you miss out on good sleep, you may experience the following issues:
- apathy and loss of energy
- problems with concentration and impaired judgement
- an inability to deal with stress
- risk of physical health issues e.g. heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes
- mood problems and irritability
- an inability to perform complex tasks in terms of speed and accuracy
- potential illness and workplace accidents
What causes sleep problems?
Sleep problems can happen for many reasons. Environmental factors including noise, light or temperature can interrupt your sleep. Psycho-physiological issues such as stress, shift work disrupting the natural body clock, health problems or mental health concerns can all affect sleep.
Poor nutrition and dehydration will also contribute to you feeling fatigued.
It’s helpful to start by understanding your sleeping patterns. Keeping a sleep diary for one to two weeks can help you pinpoint what things are helping or hindering your ability to have a restful night’s sleep.
Tips for better sleep
During the day:
- exercise regularly during the day or early evening
- get out in the sunlight during the day
- keep naps under 15 minutes, and not after 3:00pm
- drink a warm milk or relaxing herbal tea
- sleeping pills should only be used as a short-term solution, and under the guidance of a GP
- avoid smoking, especially late in the evening. Nicotine is a stimulant that can keep you awake
- set a regular sleep pattern if you’re not a shift worker. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, including weekends.
- try going to bed a little later if you find you are waking too early in the morning
- have a hot shower or bath before bed. The rapid cool down in temperature afterwards relaxes the body and sets you up for a more restful sleep
- turn down the bedside clock or phone brightness, face it away from you, or remove it altogether
- wind down before sleep by writing down any persistent worries. Give yourself permission to put these worries aside until the morning
- use a relaxation technique or visualisation strategy to help you get ready for sleep, or play relaxation music
- don’t watch TV, use the laptop or smartphone in bed. The bright light from the screen reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that tells our body it’s time to sleep. Charge phones overnight outside of the bedroom
- bed should only be associated with sleep and sex
- if you find quiet reading makes you sleepy, read for a short time—brief magazine articles are better than a book you ‘can’t put down’
- wear earplugs if your partner snores or your environment is noisy
- make sure the room and bed is comfortable. You want to create a dark and quiet room with a comfortable bed and a moderate room temperature, ideally between 15-18 degrees
Sleep and shift work
Working late shifts can affect the quality of your sleep. On average, shift workers sleep 2 to 4 hours less than the average.
We all have a 24-hour body clock that sets the rhythm of our sleep-wake cycle. Humans have been programmed to be awake during the day and asleep during the night.
This programming is cued by exposure to light and dark and is called the circadian rhythm. Over the 24-hour cycle, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature rise over the day in preparation for activity and fall overnight, helping us slow down and to feel sleepy. Digestion also slows down overnight. With the break from regular circadian rhythms, it’s no surprise that shift workers commonly experience digestive issues and problems with fatigue and concentration.
9 ways to manage shift work
- Take a nap of about 90 minutes before you go on a night shift
- Try to do the tasks that need more concentration earlier in the shift
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol four hours before you go to bed
- Eat three balanced meals over the course of the day. Regular meal times cue your body to know when it is time to sleep. Avoid eating the largest meal of the day within three hours of sleep
- Talk with your manager about creating a healthy workspace. The best workplace is bright and cool, to help employees maintain alertness
- Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible. Use curtains to keep the bedroom dark. The room should be quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Remove the telephone, and use earplugs if needed. A fan or “white noise” machine will help to muffle noise
- Talk to your family about what they can do to support your sleep routine. Get their help to maximise chances of having uninterrupted sleep and avoiding noisy activities
- Create a schedule of your shift times and sleeping times and put it up on the fridge so everyone can see it. Also include planned activities that you can do together as a family
- If you have children, set rules around when you can be interrupted and when you can’t – be specific and give examples.