With the office buzzing as we prepare the final details for our Book Launch next Thursday, we thought it was important that the team embraces a healthy approach to their sleeping habits and try to get the recommended amount of hours per night - a feat that our web gurus and designers should probably pursue more often! With this in mind, we turned to an interview with Australian sleep expert, Dr. Carmel Harrington, to help the team uncover what may either be aiding or hindering a good nights rest. 

What Are The Main Causes Of Sleep Problems Among Australians Today?

We often think that sleep problems are a consequence of poor sleep habits, like drinking coffee too late in the day. However, research indicates that the reasons are more varied than this and while sleeplessness may well be a result of poor sleep behaviour, it is frequently associated with another underlying problem such as depression, anxiety, sleep apnoea and/or alcohol/substance abuse.

Are More People Experiencing Problems Today?

The fact that the sale of sleeping aids has increased dramatically in the last decade indicates that more people today are experiencing problems sleeping than in our parents' day. Research from the US indicates that annually about one in three adults suffer problems sleeping.

An estimated one in every ten adults takes a prescribed sleeping pill and a further one in ten take an over-the-counter sleeping aid. More worryingly, while sleeping pills used to be mostly the domain of the elderly this is no longer the case and there has been a twofold increase in the use of sleeping pills by people in the 20–45 age group in the last 10 years.

What Are The Consequences Of Not Getting Enough Sleep?

When we do not sleep well our mood is affected – and not to our advantage. A bad night of sleep will invariably result in a poor mood state which will include such characteristics as grumpiness, a short temper, intolerance and a general lack of motivation.

Not only are we generally in a bad mood after poor sleep but we are also less inclined to want to exercise and to participate in general activities. This lack of energy directly affects our sex drive, which also decreases as a consequence of sleeplessness.

Sleep also directly affects our ability to learn and to think. In a sleep deprived state it has been shown time and again that we become poor decision-makers, we are much more likely to make mistakes and our ability to learn is seriously impaired.

An interesting and important study in this regard, involving over 1500 full-time university students aged 17 to 25 years of age, found that sleep quality and duration were among the main predictors of academic performance – the better the sleep the better the performance.

While the negative impacts on mood and thinking are considerable, a far greater and more serious problem of sleeplessness is the increased likelihood of an occupational or motor vehicle accident.

Studies show that people with sleeping problems are seven times more likely to be involved in such accidents. Indeed, some of the more famous occupational disasters such as the Air France crash in 2009, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion have been found to be a direct result of operator fatigue.

While the short-term consequences of sleeplessness are well recognised by anyone who suffers from them, the long-term consequences of on-going sleep deprivation may come as a surprise.

People suffering from chronic sleeplessness are far more likely to develop depression; certain types of cancer; cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease; and metabolic diseases, such as Type II diabetes and obesity.

What Should People Do To Adequately Prepare For A Good Sleep?

Research indicates that one of the major causes of sleeplessness is anxiety. This doesn't imply a pathological state, but rather simply that we are worried about something.

When we have a busy day we often don't have time to deal with some of the stresses and worries that occur. But if we don't deal with these during the day, when we go to bed and try to sleep our mind will immediately go to these issues.

As soon as we do this our mind becomes alert and we cannot get to sleep. On the other hand, it may be that we are so tired that we will actually fall asleep quite quickly only to wake up a few hours later to immediately start thinking about these issues. Happily, implementing some simple steps may significantly improve the ability to sleep for many of us.

If you have had a busy and stressful day make sure you factor in some exercise - maybe walk the dog, or get off the bus one stop earlier. When you get home devote some time, no longer than 30 minutes, to thinking about the issues of the day and perhaps write them down, along with any potential solutions, in a book.

Importantly, when you finish, close the book and put it away. Not only are you physically putting aside your worries, but you have now managed to deal with your concerns, rather than waiting until going to sleep. And, as always, good sleep practices are a must for good sleep.

What Should You Do If You Have Problems Getting To Sleep, Or If You Wake Up During The Night And Find It Hard To Return To Sleep?

Discovering exactly what is causing our sleeping difficulties can sometimes take a bit of time. Ensuring good sleep habits, like not having caffeine after midday, refraining from alcohol and switching off all technology at least one hour before bedtime will enhance our ability to sleep and is a good first step to improving sleep.

Practising a relaxation or meditation exercise is also a great way to prepare the body and mind for sleep and will often assist with initiating and maintaining sleep.

If however you find yourself lying in bed not able to get to sleep after about 30 minutes - whether it be at sleep onset or in the middle of the night - it is better to get up, sit in a dimly lit room and do something relaxing, like reading a magazine or maybe even doing a breathing exercise to relax. It is important not to go back to bed until you fell sleepy again.

Once in bed, if you are not asleep within about 30 minutes (this is an approximation as clock watching is definitely not recommended) get up again and repeat the process. By doing this you are teaching your mind and body that bed is for sleeping and you will find that over time you develop the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep on a nightly basis.

How Does One Know When External Help May Be Needed?

The primary indicator that you may need help with our sleep is that despite your best efforts you more often than not feel tired and unmotivated. It may be that no matter how much you sleep you still feel exhausted or it may be that you struggle to get the sleep you so desperately want, either way it is important that you speak to your doctor.

It is essential that we recognise that sleep is fundamental to our physical and mental well-being. It is as important to our health and well-being as nutrition and exercise and we need to start thinking of it as our third pillar of health and give it the respect it deserves.

Originally posted on: 10 July 2014
Last updated on: 12 April 2024
Carmel Harrington

Carmel Harrington

Dr Carmel Harrington has been researching sleep for 20 years. She has written books on the topic and advises companies and educational institutions on sleep health. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children's Hospital Westmead, a member of the Australasian Sleep Association and the Sleep Health Foundation.

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