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Refuel
How to break the sleep deprivation habit - for good
2nd July 2019

We’ve all done it. Burned the candle at both ends.

WORDS BY KAREN LAING

Told ourselves we’d prioritise an early night but got engrossed in a book, TV programme or finishing up a piece of work.

But chronic sleep deprivation is a serious health condition. It not only affects our mental and cognitive function - something any tired grown up or child can easily relate to - but it is linked to physiological effects which increase our risk of disease and ultimately morbidity.

According to a recent study from Michigan University, sleep deprivation is also thought to be responsible for Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger explosion. So the next time you forget your mic belt or front door keys because you’re tired, be grateful you weren’t the sleepy brains behind something a bit more catastrophic. The 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the largest sleep deprivation study to date, was looking at the links between lack of sleep and an inability to get back on track when you’ve got distracted.

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A 2016 study by the Sleep Health Foundation revealed that 34-40% of Australians don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. And according to 2011 research from the Mental Health Foundation (UK), around 30% of all adults suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, which is getting less than seven hours sleep a night over an extended period of time.

Whilst these figures include those adults with conditions like insomnia - and of course those little sleep stealers that are babies and children - sleep deprived is a state of being that many adults can relate to. But have we grown to accept it rather than prioritise taking action against it?

What are the risk factors of sleep deprivation?

Cognitive Function

The one we’re probably most familiar with is the affect of tiredness on our cognitive function. Our working memory is more sluggish, we find it difficult to make decisions and our reflexes will be slower. This puts us at higher risk of accidents, injury or just forgetting stuff that makes life more stressful. And of course, there’s that old saying, ‘don’t make a life changing decision when you’re tired!’ How about ‘don’t try for a one rep max when you’re tired,’ either?

Hormone Response

Sleep deprivation also messes with our hormones. One study found that cortisol levels are raised in the evening following a sleep deprived day. In other words, you’ll get tired and wired. So if you ever have those days when you’re virtually dropping off in the afternoon but get a second wind at night, that’s why.

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Physiological Changes

What’s fascinating (and a bit scary) about the effects of chronic sleep deprivation are the ways our bodies respond on a physiological level. Another study found that over time, our bodies have a reduced response to glucose (increased risk of type 2 Diabetes and obesity) and increased inflammatory markers. This means chronic shortage of sleep is associated with obesity, heart disease and early death.

Studies have shown that the effects of chronic sleep deprivation are as bad as those of acute sleep deprivation. In other words, however you end up without enough zzz’s, it’s still bad for your health.

So what can we do about it?

For starters, it’s time we stopped wearing our ‘I only sleep for 5 hours a night’ label as a badge of honour. Take control where we can. Take the same approach to sleep as we would for weight loss, increasing fitness or any habit change - small, consistent steps.

What are the biggest sleep stealers?

When it comes to controllable changes, let’s consider first the big sleep disruptors.

  1. Blue Light. We’re all addicted to technology, artificial light and screens but the blue light they emit affects our sleep cycle. TVs in bedrooms, checking phones or computers late at night can keep us awake.

Solution: Switch off screens one-two hours before bedtime and/or invest in some blue light restricting glasses.

There’s more information on blue light and sleep in this great article from Harvard medical school.

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2. Cortisol. Our cortisol is supposed to be high in the morning to get us up and alert and lower in the evening. Sleep deprivation; late nights at work; chronic stress and even exercising in the evening can all elevate our cortisol at night putting us out of whack.

Solution: Take your exercise before midday in daylight. It’s brilliant for resetting your cortisol cycles. So if you’re tired or stressed, take your run in the morning and stick to yoga or weights in the evenings.

For more information on managing your cortisol levels, check out this article on Healthline.

3. Alcohol. It might seem like a tempting option to wind down with a drink before bed but sleep cycles after any alcohol will be disrupted.

Solution: If you want a drink, have one earlier in the evening but if you’re trying to get on top of your sleep it’s better to go cold turkey whilst you reset your sleep cycles.

Not convinced? Check out this article from the National Sleep Foundation.

Insomnia

Of course there are several other reasons you might not be getting enough sleep: Shift work, kids, insomnia or other health conditions could affect your restful zzz’s but taking simple steps to control those things we do have control over could have a significant impact on your health.

If you love to stay fit and active, you already have the tools to help yourself towards a better sleep life. Put exercise and a great diet together with managing the sleep stealers in your life and you’ll be well on the road to a sharper, healthier you. Sleep helps our brains to restore and heal itself. Why not give it a try for a week to see how you feel?

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