Despite the fact that most of us probably think that sleep is important for our health and well-being, we seem quite prepared to cut back on it. Today many of us are sleeping an average of only 6.5 hours a night, a far cry from the 8.5 hours our grandparents slept, and from the recommended 7-9 hours we are told is essential to our optimal wellbeing.

Why is this so? Well, a lot of us choose to skimp on sleep in order to get in an extra hour of work. We do this in the belief that we will get more done, though this is far from reality. Any productivity gains that we think we may be achieving are quickly undone by the negative effects sleep deprivation has on our ability to access higher-level brain functions. When sleep deprived, tasks are performed more slowly but with a higher error rate. Indeed the negative effects on our brain function are so great that people who are legally intoxicated outperform those lacking sleep.

Any productivity gains that we think we may be achieving are quickly undone by the negative effects sleep deprivation has on our ability to access higher-level brain functions.

Not only is our brain health impacted by lack of adequate sleep, but so too is our physical health.

When sleep deprived we are much more likely to catch a cold or flu which, while annoying, is usually short-lived. However it is the long term effects of poor sleep, such as the greater risk of developing a range of serious chronic diseases including heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and breast cancer, which are more devastating. Obesity, one of the most troublesome health issues that we face today, is also linked to our lack of shut-eye. When we are sleep deprived, even though we are hungrier and eat more, our metabolic rate drops by as much as 10% – a combination that quickly results in weight gain.

Sleep also very much affects how we view ourselves and the world around us. Being well-slept maximises our self–esteem and sense of optimism, and so it is not surprising then that when chronically sleep deprived we are five times more likely to develop depression.

However there is good news…

When we do get the sleep we need on a regular basis we are healthier, happier, more motivated and dynamic, better thinkers, and are more likely to eat and exercise well. Just in case we need more convincing, research shows that we even look more attractive!

It is not that we don’t recognise that sleep is important to us. An estimated one in ten adults now takes a prescribed sleeping pill and a further one in ten take an over-the-counter sleeping aid. However, the answer to sleeplessness, for most of us, need not involve reaching for a pill.

People frequently sabotage their own sleep without realising it.

Probably the most common sleep stealer is technology. Most of us don’t realise that our sleep hormone, melatonin, can only be produced by the brain in dim or dark light. So if we are on the computer/phone or watching a high-definition TV screen right up until the time of sleeping, we will have trouble getting to sleep and/or staying asleep.

Many of us also do not get enough exercise in our day and so even though our brain is tired, our body isn’t. It is always a good practice to have at least 20 minutes exercise every day and we can get this by going for a walk at lunch time. However, make sure not to exercise within 3 hours of bedtime as this only serves to alert the body.

Caffeine is another big sleep stealer and becomes more so as we get older because our metabolic rate decreases, causing the effects of coffee to stay in our body longer. If you have sleeping difficulties it is important not to have caffeine, in any form, after midday. Green tea is also a stimulant, so best to limit those cups of tea to the morning hours.

Where we sleep also affects how we sleep. If we sleep on an uncomfortable mattress in a light and noisy room we will often experience difficulties either getting to or staying asleep. Our bedroom needs to be a safe sanctuary away from the rest of the world where we can rest and restore our body. It is therefore of primary importance to assess your sleeping environment and ensure that your bed and bedding are comfortable and that the room is dark, quiet and cool.

It is sad but true that many people find it difficult to sleep because they do not give themselves enough down-time. It is important to realise that we need our mind to relax in order to get the best sleep possible, so always try to factor in some time to relax in the evening before going to bed.

A good night of sleep is one of the very best things we can do for our brain and body. Along with exercise and nutrition, it is our third pillar of health, so reclaim your sleep tonight and get the 8 hours you deserve!

This article was written by Dr Carmel Harrington (BSc, PhD, LLB, DipEd), one of the world’s leading authorities on sleep. She has worked as a research scientist and sleep consultant for corporate health and wellbeing programs, schools and brands around Australia and internationally. One of Dr Carmels’s key focus is the link between a good night’s sleep and metabolic health as well as the crucial role sleep plays in promoting good mental health. Dr Carmel is the Managing Director of Sleep for Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children’s Hospital Westmead. She is a founding member of the Sleep Health Foundation and a member of the Australasian Sleep Association and Dr Carmel has written two books on sleep, The Sleep Diet and The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep.

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