The ABCs of Good Sleep Explained

By Dr.N.Ramakrishnan

Does it often take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night? Or do you wake up frequently during the night – or too early in the morning – and have a hard time going back to sleep? When you awaken, do you feel groggy and lethargic? Do you feel drowsy during the day particularly during monotonous situations?

If you answered “yes” to any one of these questions, you may have a “sleep debt” that is affecting you in ways you don’t even realise. And, you aren’t alone. Surveys reveal that more than 60% of adults experience sleep problems. However, few recognise the importance of adequate rest, or are aware that effective methods of preventing and managing sleep problems now exist.

Why do you need sleep?

Sleep is not merely a “time out” from our busy routines; it is essential for good health, mental and emotional functioning and safety. Researchers have found that people with chronic insomnia are more likely than other to develop several kinds of psychiatric problems and are also likely to make greater use of healthcare services. People suffering from sleep apnea are likely to have higher blood pressure while they sleep and suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness.

Even occasional sleeping problem can make daily life feel more stressful or cause you to be less productive. Overall, sleep loss has been found to impair the ability to perform tasks involving memory, learning, and logical reasoning. This may contribute to mistakes or unfulfilled potential at school or on the job and strained relationships at home. In fact, sleeplessness has been found to be a significant predictor of absenteeism. Lost productivity due to sleepiness is a significant burden on the national economy.

Insufficient sleep can also be extremely dangerous, leading to serious or even fatal accidents. Several auto crashes may be fatigue related. These drowsy driving crashes cause deaths and lasting disabilities. This problem has been found to affect drivers aged 25 or under more than any other age group.

How much sleep is enough?

Sleep needs vary. In general, most healthy adults need an average of six to eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness with less than six hours of sleep. Other can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept ten hours. And, contrary to common myth, the need for sleep doesn’t decline with age (although the ability to get it all at one time may be reduced).

So, how do you measure how much sleep you truly need? If you have trouble staying alert during boring or monotonous situations when fatigue is often “unmasked” you probably aren’t getting enough good-quality sleep. Other signs are a tendency to be unreasonably irritable with co-workers, family or friends, and difficulty concentration or remembering facts.

Is all sleep the same?

It may surprise you to learn that during the hours you seem to be “out cold”, a lot is actually happening. Normal sleepers have a relatively predictable  “sleep architecture” the term used to described an alternating pattern of REM (rapid-eye-movement) and non -REM sleep. REM sleep is when you dream and is characterised by a high level of mental and physical activity.

In fact, your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing are similar to what you experience when you are awake. Scientists define the best sleep as having the right mix of REM and non-REM sleep. Getting enough sleep without interruptions from your environment or from internal factors such as your breathing is more likely to maintain your natural sleep architecture and results in restful and restorative sleep.

Who’s at risk for poor sleep?

Virtually everyone suffers at least an occasional night of poor sleep. However, certain individuals may be more vulnerable to longstanding difficulty. These include students, shift workers, travellers and persons suffering from acute stress, depression, or chronic pain. And employees working long hours or multiple jobs may find their sleep less refreshing.

Old adults also have frequent difficulty with sleep problems, but inadequate sleep is not an inevitable part of the ageing process. The total amount of sleep needed isn’t reduced. However, many of the sleep stealers can combine in the elderly including impaired health, pain and increased use of medications.

Teenagers have difficulty falling asleep until late at night and awakening early in the morning. Many young adults keep relatively irregular hours and as a group they report higher rates of dissatisfaction with the sleep they are getting.

What are the Biggest “Sleep Stealers”?

  • Psychological factors

Stress is considered by most sleep experts to be the No.1 cause of short-term sleeping difficulties. Common triggers include school-or job-related pressures, a family or marriage problem and a serious illness or death in the family. Usually the sleep problem disappears when the stressful situation passes. However, if short term sleep problems such as insomnia aren’t managed properly from the beginning, they ca persist long after the original stress has passed. That’s why it’s a good idea to talk to a physician about any sleeping problem that recurs or persists for longer than one week.

  • Lifestyle stressors

Without realizing it, you may be doing things during the day or night that can work against getting a good night’s sleep. These include drinking alcohol or beverage containing caffeine in the afternoon or evening, exercising close to bedtime, following an irregular morning and nighttime schedule, and working or doing other mentally intense activities right before or after getting into bed.

  • Shift work

If you are a shift worker, sleep may be particularly elusive. Shift work forces you to try to sleep when activities around you- and your own “biological rhythms” – signal you to be awake. One study shows that shift workers are two to five times more likely than employees with regular, daytime hours fall asleep on the job.

  • Jet Lag

Still another sleep stealer is jet lag, an inability to sleep caused when you travel across several time zones and your biological rhythms get “out of sync”.

  • Environmental Interferences

A distracting sleep environment such as a room that’s too hot or cold, too noisy or too brightly lit can be a barrier to sound sleep. Also interruptions, from children or other family members can also disrupt sleep. Other details to pay attention are the comfort and size of your bed and the habits of your sleep partner. If you have to lie beside some who has different sleep preferences, snores, can’t fall or stay asleep, or has other sleep difficulties, it often becomes your problem too!

  • Physical Factors

A number of physical problems can interfere with your ability to fall or stay asleep. For example, arthritis and other conditions that cause pain, backache, or discomfort can make it difficult to sleep well. Sleep apnea, which is recognized by snoring and interrupted breathing, causes brief awakening (often unnoticed) and excessive daytime sleepiness. If suspected, a person having signs of sleep apnea should see a doctor.

Disorders that cause involuntary limb movements during sleep, such as restless legs syndrome, break up the normal sleep pattern and are also likely to make sleep less refreshing and result in daytime sleepiness.

For women, pregnancy and hormonal shifts including those that cause premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or menopause and its accompanying hot flashes can also intrude on sleep.

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