In the Italian province of Venito there is a family whose members regularly die from lack of sleep. They have an extremely rare form of inheritable fatal insomnia, and once it strikes, usually in middle age, they never sleep again, and their descent to death is inevitable. Luckily for most of us lack of sleep rarely goes that far. But are you getting the quality sleep you need?
Even without the presence of this tragic disease, the effects of poor or insufficient sleep are life changing, ranging from tiredness and irritability, reduced ability to concentrate, through to health effects such as weight gain, impairment of the body’s immune system and increased risk of death due to cardiovascular problems, as well as serious injury or death in car accidents caused by lack of sleep.
Recent research by the Sleep and Circadian Research Group in NSW, shows that nearly 1 in 5 Australians may be damaging their health with too little sleep, while 10% or more note day time sleepiness.
This is a problem that is becoming chronic in our society. In the last hundred years the average length of sleep has dropped 1 – 1½ hours. According to the Mayo Clinic 7½ hours is an average healthy amount, but individual needs vary, with suitable times ranging from 4 hours up to 9 or 10. However sleeping too much is also associated with increased risk of death, so sleep as little as you need. The problem with insomnia is that we can’t sleep enough to be healthy and alert.
There can be specific medical problems for this, such as sleep apnea where the sufferer stops breathing for periods of time while asleep, disturbing or breaking their sleep. Such problems require professional advice. However for many of us the problem is linked to lifestyle choices that we can work on to improve our sleeping, and thus improve our daytime lives.
As we all know from experience, when we are stressed and our minds are racing, it is harder to fall asleep. Research over the years has shown that relaxation techniques including meditation improve sleeping patterns and quality for many chronic insomnia sufferers, while preliminary research done at Harvard Medical School shows that yoga may also be helpful.
Things that can help in developing good sleep habits.
- Be regular in your hours. The body develops a daily rhythm, called the circadian rhythm which includes the wake-sleep cycle. Going with a regular rhythm makes falling asleep at bed time easier.
- Don’t eat too much late at night.
- Avoid or limit alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and stimulants, especially near bedtime. Alcohol may get you to sleep but the sleep will be disturbed with frequent wakenings. The sleep reducing effects of caffeine are well known, but nicotine can also keep you awake. Other stimulants have a similar effect, and may be found in some prescription and over the counter medicines such as some anti depressants, pain medications, decongestants and weight-loss products.
- Get at least 30 minutes a day of vigorous exercise, preferably five or more hours before bedtime.
- De-stress your life as much as possible. Don’t try to fit 25 hours into a 24 hour day.
- Turn off the TV before bedtime. It is an engaging activity that tends to keep people up, soaking up premium sleeping time.
- Loosen tight muscles with a gentle yoga session – and if you’re lucky, get your partner to give you a neck and shoulder massage.
- Try a calming meditation practice before retiring.