Sleep deprivation is a common problem in our modern day society, affecting many people at some point in their lives. Although occasional sleep interruptions are generally no more than a nuisance, ongoing lack of sleep can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, stress, emotional problems, poor job performance, obesity and a lowered perception of quality of life.
We are going to look at some ways that might help to stabilise your sleep patterns. First, let’s consider the effect sleep deprivation may have on our overall health.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation
- Depressed mood
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty learning new concepts
- Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- Decreased sex drive
The good news is that most of the negative effects of sleep deprivation reverse when sufficient sleep is obtained.
12 suggestions for healthy sleep habits
- Try to keep to a regular sleep schedule as this will help regulate your body clock. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time even at the weekend.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. Steer clear of activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety as these put your body in a state of hyperarousal causing your blood pressure and breathing rate to increase.
- Make a list. If tomorrow’s to-dos tend to race around your brain as you try to drift off, get them out of your head by jotting them down. This way you won’t forget about anything the next day and that may stop you worrying.
- Take five breaths. Even a few deep breaths in and out can help calm your nervous system. Place a hand on your lower belly and feel it rise and fall as you breathe in for a count of three, and then breathe out for another count of three. Repeat this cycle five times.
- Tune into your senses. Doing so keeps you in the present moment preventing you focusing on sleep-inhibiting stressful thoughts. Think about how the sheets feel against your skin, what sounds you can hear outside your window and how the air smells.
- Tense your toes. By tensing and relaxing your toes, you can help your whole body become calm. Do this for a count of ten and repeat this exercise ten times.
- Dim the nightlights. Before bedtime make sure that you have turned off bright overhead lights and dimmed as many lights as possible. Avoid computers, tablets mobile phones and the TV an hour before bed as your eyes are especially sensitive to the blue light from electronic screens.
- Avoid naps especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help recharge your batteries during the day but if you find you can’t fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help.
- Food for thought. While you know it’s not a good idea to go to bed on an empty stomach, being too full is just as bad. Having dinner at around the same time each night will help keep your body on track. A good rule of thumb is to eat your last meal two to three hours before bedtime. Also limit how much you drink before bedtime to avoid trips to the bathroom during the night. Alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes can also disrupt your sleep.
- Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and supportive.
- Exercise daily. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your night-time sleep. What’s more exercise may reduce the risk of developing sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome.
- Evaluate your room. Your bedroom should be cool and free from any noise that could disturb your sleep. It should also be free from any light, so consider using blackout curtains in the summer, eye shades, ear plugs or white noise machines.
While the occasional poor night’s sleep is not a serious problem in itself, persistent sleep deprivation can be. There is no substitute for restorative sleep, and a certain amount of care should be taken to prevent ongoing sleep deprivation in individuals of all ages.
Research into Sleep Deprivation and the Immune System
In the past, research has shown that good quality sleep helps our memories, and now it has revealed that it also helps our immune system. A study shows that the memory and the immune system share common factors which make sleep beneficial for both.
Professor Jan Born, of the University of Tubingen, says that both our memories and immune systems operate by processing information. They both initially take information in a short-term store, which then moves to longer term storage as we sleep.
The immune system creates memories by collecting fragments from bacteria or viruses to create what are called memory T-cells. These help the body recognise previous infections so that it can react to them quickly.
The study authors say that like information for the memory, this information for the immune system is encoded while we sleep, so as not to interfere with the more acute information processing that happens while we are awake.
Professor Born explains: “While it has been known for a long time that sleep supports long-term memory formation in the psychological domain, the ideas that long-term memory formation is a function of sleep effective in all organismic systems is in our view entirely new. We consider our approach toward a unifying concept of biological long-term memory formation, in which sleep plays a critical role, a new development in sleep research and memory research.”
The clear implication of the new findings is that sleep deprivation makes the body more vulnerable to illness.
“If we didn’t sleep, then the immune system might focus on the wrong parts of the pathogen,” says Professor Born. “For example, many viruses can easily mutate some parts of their proteins to escape from immune responses.”
He adds that the study’s findings are a step towards better understanding the immune system – something that will aid the development of various vaccines.
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