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Dr Carmel Harrington

Dr Carmel Harrington

Sleep therapist
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Sleep well, be well

Experts — Posted 01/06/14

Of all the things to sacrifice in the interest of saving time, don’t let sleep become one of them.

Despite the fact that most would agree that sleep is important for our health and wellbeing, the majority of adults seem quite prepared to cut back on it. Population studies show that many of us are now only sleeping about 6.5 hours during the working week, a far cry from the 8.5 hours per night our grandparents slept.

While there is no doubt that today's world is different to that of our grandparents, when we sacrifice sleep for wakefulness we run the risk of serious physical and mental ill-health.

Sleep is vitally important to our physical health and without adequate sleep we are more susceptible to cold or flu infections and more likely to develop certain cancers, as well as heart disease and type 2 Diabetes. 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 15 per cent –a combination that quickly results in weight gain.

Lack of sleep also impacts our productivity and academic performance because it impairs our ability to think and learn and is associated with numerous mental health issues including an increased incidence of depression.

All of these adverse consequences can be improved by sleeping well – but what does this involve?

How to sleep well

As a generalisation, adults need between 7-9 hours sleep every night, although everyone's requirement is individual. Some signs of insufficient sleep include always relying on the alarm-clock, excessive use of caffeine as a pick-me-up and sleeping longer on weekends than during the week.

If you do any or all of these things you should increase your sleep time. Don't try to do this all in one go, but rather try going to bed 15 minutes earlier for a few days, then 30 minutes earlier for the next few days and so on until you get to the point when you wake up before the alarm and feel well-rested and motivated.

For some, doing this and making sleep a priority works very well. However for many, improving sleep is more difficult. One such group includes those who suffer a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnoea, restless legs or insomnia. If you think you have a sleep disorder speak with your doctor because once diagnosed it can be treated.

It is also important to be aware that good sleep practices enhance our ability to sleep and should to be practiced routinely. These include:

1. Setting a regular bedtime. Our body rhythms need consistency and without it consolidated sleep is often elusive.

2. Having a going-to bed routine. At least one hour before bed, relax in a dimly lit room, put away any work and turn off all electronic devices. Perhaps do a meditative exercise or have a warm shower.

3. Not exercising or having a large meal within three hours of bedtime.

4. Refraining from caffeinated beverages in the afternoon.

5. Ensuring your sleeping environment is dark, quiet and cool.

Many people unwittingly sabotage their sleep. One of the best ways to ensure optimal sleep is to keep a sleep diary. This can assist in your understanding of exactly what helps, or hinders, your sleep and enables you to use this knowledge to achieve the sleep you want and need.

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