Previously, we discussed why millennials just don’t seem to be getting enough sleep. However, studies on sleeping habits in Singapore show that it’s not just the millennials who are staying up later. The rest of us are too – students, young adults, middle-aged and seniors. Not getting enough sleep isn’t a rare, one-off occurrence for people in our society. It may be a widespread issue, but how can you tell if you're sleep deprived?
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Signs that you need more sleep
Physical signs that show that you need more sleep
- Inability to stop yawning
- Clumsiness, loss of balance
- Increase in appetite, especially for starchy food
- Drop in libido
Mental signs that show that you need more sleep
- Feeling “blue” all the time
- Being irritable and impatient
- Unable to concentrate, keep losing focus
- No motivation
Most of us have experienced these symptoms in the short-term, perhaps due to burning the midnight oil on one or two occasions or when you spend a late night out even though you have work or school the next day. “Humans are the only species on earth that intentionally choose not to get the sleep we are designed to get,” says Dr Richard Swinbourne, PhD, Senior Sport Dietitian and Sleep Scientist from Singapore Sport Institute. “We have lost two hours per night on average compared to 40 years ago, and we have not adapted to that. It is slowly killing us through increased disease risk.” If you find that the aforementioned tendencies and feelings are turning into a constant, you may be suffering from chronic sleep deprivation.
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What does chronic sleep deprivation cause?
The effects of sleep deprivation can be classified as either physical or mental.
Physical effects of sleep deprivation
• Weakened immune system
Your sleep time is the time when your immune system recharges and also produces infection-resisting substances like cytokines. When you shorten your sleep time, you’re lowering your body’s defences against infections, resulting in higher occurrences of inflammation and common illnesses.
• Disrupted digestive system leading to overeating
There’s a stereotype that people who sleep a lot tend to be lazy and fat, but insufficient sleep could lead to weight control problems more than you expect. Why is this so? Sleep affects the production of hormones (leptin and ghrelin) that manage our appetite. The less you sleep, the more you'll want to eat even when there's no real need to, and we have a good idea where all those extra calories will go.
• Increased risk for cardiovascular diseases
Because sleep affects blood pressure and blood sugar, sleep deprivation can result in a higher risk of developing a cardiovascular disease. It’s a commonly held fact that excessive consumption of fried and sugary foods increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, but the same can be said for extended periods of sleep deprivation.
Mental effects of sleep deprivation
Not getting enough rest makes you much more susceptible to negative feelings which can overwhelm you. There’s a science behind it – sleep deprivation weakens the functioning of the part of your brain responsible for regulating your emotions. In short, this results in unresolved bad moods, which can lead to depressive or even suicidal thoughts.
• Mental disorders
Sleep deprivation has been found by research to trigger manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder or manic depression. Very serious sleep deprivation cases may even cause one to suffer from symptom of severe mental disorders like schizophrenia.
Each individual consequence of sleep deprivation is worrying enough, but the cumulative effect can be truly dangerous. A meta-analysis of 16 studies found that not sleeping enough can increase the risk of early death by a startling 12%. Clearly, sacrificing sleep in the name of work or leisure isn’t justifiable when you consider the devastating impacts that long-term sleep deprivation can have on your life. But before we discuss how to turn this situation around, it's important to first consider the possible causes of sleep deprivation. Effective solutions only come when the root of the problem is addressed, so keep an eye out for these pitfalls so that you can avoid getting trapped in a vicious cycle of poor sleep habits.
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What’s keeping you awake?
• Work or study commitments
A good number of us probably can relate to this. Our work and school timetables can impede on our natural sleep-wake cycles if we don't take control of them. Letting our schedules run rampant will only lead to a string of late hours and premature wakings.
• Attitude and choices
There are people who swear by gung-ho mottos like “sleep is for the weak” or “the night is still young”. If you’re one of such people, you might have a sleep disorder known as behaviourally induced insufficient sleep syndrome. This disorder causes people to voluntarily and regularly forego their sleep in favour of doing other things. Aside from that, our lifestyle habits could also be keeping us awake unknowingly. For example, drinking caffeinated or alcoholic drinks before bedtime is one sure-fire way to hamper your sleep.
• Environment and sleep habits
Noisy traffic, crying babies and loud neighbours are examples of environmental disruptors of our sleep. While these are hard to control and avoid, we do have a say over our sleep (and pre-sleep) habits. Too much digital screen time before bed triggers the “blue light effect” which makes it harder for us to fall asleep.
Exhausted but unable to fall asleep so all you can do is toss and turn for hours? That’s a typical night for a person suffering from insomnia. The condition can be attributed to a number of factors. Some are hereditary, while others are caused by external influences which you can learn to manage, such as stress and anxiety. Even certain medications can lead to the annoying inability to sleep.
• Sleep apnea
This respiratory condition has more serious implications than just making a person snore a lot. This condition causes reduced airflow to the lungs due to a collapse of a person’s upper airway, which can wake the body up multiple times during the night. The disrupted rest then gives way to sleep deprivation and exhaustion during the day.
• Short-term illnesses
The common flu and colds affect your respiratory system too and can wake you up during the night. Like sleep apnea, it causes your sleep to be fitful to the disruption inflicted upon the body's breathing patterns while at rest.
Once you've identified the primary reason(s) behind your poor sleep habits, you can work towards developing an appropriate solution that will allow you to address the root cause of the issue.
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Solving short-term sleep deprivation
For common illnesses like the flu, or temporary disruptions that change your sleep environment such as a breakdown of your air conditioning unit or a sudden influx of work, catching up with your sleep debt is the first step you can take. Sleep debt is real and yes, sleeping in can help when it comes to “paying” it off. For chronic illnesses like sleep apnoea however, it's best to consult a doctor for a long-term medical solution instead.
Solving stress-related sleep deprivation
Insomnia and bad sleep habits are often caused by stress. It’s hard to truly keep stress at bay, but one solution that has been found to actually produce results is mindfulness meditation. Harvard research findings have found that mindfulness meditation produced tangible benefits when it comes to improving one's sleep quality. Mindfulness meditation isn’t as complicated as it sounds – it’s really all about concentrating on your breathing, focusing on the present and letting go of all your worries and thoughts. The mindfulness part comes in when you purposefully bring your mind back to focus every time you start getting distracted. Try one of these quick 10-min, Hawaiian-inspired meditation methods (but bear in mind that these are not a substitute for proper sleep; they just relieve stress accumulated during the day so you don’t bring it into the bedroom).
- Light meditation: Focus your vision on a spot on the wall slightly above eye level and let your mind relax. After a few moments, your vision will spread out to the periphery – focus on this now and stay in this state as long as you can.
- Heavy meditation: Find yourself a quiet, comfortable spot and close your eyes. Let your mind settle into a relaxed state without falling asleep.
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In general, really, getting enough sleep revolves heavily around having a healthy and regular circadian rhythm, AKA our body’s biological clock. This isn’t hard, as there are many ways to achieve this.
• Keep meal times (and meals) regular
Eating at the same time every day helps to regulate your body’s circadian function. Also, avoid restrictive diets as these are often linked to circadian disruption. For example, consuming too little carbohydrates can reduce thyroid function.
• Eat more protein and less carbohydrates during breakfast
Kick start your day with protein as this will improve hormonal balance and improve productivity throughout the day. Research has also found that high-protein breakfasts help one sleep better at night.
• Don’t eat late at night
Midnight suppers might be socially rewarding, but it can prove to be detrimental to your sleep. Eating around your regular sleeping hours affects melatonin and thyroid production, which in turn affects the quality of your sleep.
• Be active during the day
Keeping yourself active both physically and socially during the day time will help keep your circadian rhythm healthy. During the night, avoid overly stimulating activities as it increases your level of alertness and can make it harder for you to fall asleep. Excessive exercise isn’t a good idea too – too much high-intensity training can cause a hormonal imbalance and disrupt your circadian rhythm.
• Good sleep hygiene is key
Keeping your bedtimes constant and waking up at the same time every day is paramount to good sleep hygiene. Also, avoid blue light exposure before bedtime by staying away from digital devices at least an hour before your sleep.
• Manage your sleep environment
For a healthy functioning circadian rhythm, keep bedroom temperatures cool at night when you’re sleeping. Conversely, avoid really cold places in the daytime as this can be disruptive to your body. Also, make sure you get yourself some natural vitamin D first thing in the morning – open the windows or head out for some sunshine for at least 30 minutes. Natural light plays a big role in optimising your biological clock and helps to regulate levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
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We all need our sleep. Just because we have that rare friend who sleeps four hours a night and never falls ill doesn’t mean we should strive to be like him or her – the repercussions of keeping such habits would most likely catch up with them in the future! The majority of us are better off sticking with the recommended eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, so you might want to start hitting the hay earlier tonight! If your sleep deprivation is caused by something else or if you just need more advice on a solution, don’t hesitate to visit the experts at our Active Health Labs. It’s high-time that we start clocking more quality sleep.
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