Not sleeping enough? It could be causing a whole host of problems

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We spend one-third of our lives sleeping or attempting to do so, according to research. As children, deep sleep is the time our body releases growth hormones – our bones, muscles and more build in slumber.

As we age, it is while we sleep that our body repairs and rejuvenates – and multiple anti-ageing beauty products promote that aspect.

If all that does not give a big-picture view of the benefits of sleep, there is enough material out there professing the ill-effects of bad sleep hygiene.

According to Dr Leow Leong Chai, director of Sleep Disorders Unit and senior consultant, Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, at Singapore General Hospital: “People who sleep for less than six hours per night on average have reduced life expectancy compared to those who sleep seven to nine hours per night.

“Insufficient sleep duration or poor quality sleep has been shown to affect daytime functioning in terms of cognition, decision making and memory, as well as being implicated in causing mood disturbances, weight gain and many other chronic health conditions,” he adds.

These chronic conditions can range anywhere from diabetes to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and mental health issues. On the same count, underlying health conditions can affect the quality of sleep. Yet, we take it for granted.

“Human beings are the only animal in the world that puts sleep under volitional control – we choose to push it aside to supposedly try and do other things that we think are more important.

But this choice comes with sacrifice,” says Dr Richard Swinbourne, team lead of Sport Nutrition and sleep scientist at Singapore Sport Institute. He has been working with athletes, educating and intervening on good sleep hygiene.

Sleep deprivation

Singapore is known for many things, but one smear on its good repute: its sleep-deprived population.

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“Singaporeans only average about six-and-a-half hours of sleep per night, which is about 30 minutes less than many other developed countries – we have consistently held the position as one of the top three among the most sleep-deprived nations,” explains Dr Leow.

And this sacrifice indeed has consequences.

“Sleep complaints include Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – one in three Singaporeans are affected by it, with 90 per cent remaining undiagnosed – insomnia, sleep deprivation due to poor sleep hygiene, and circadian rhythm disorders,” says Dr Leow.

One could put the blame on excessive smartphone usage, distractions in the form of social media and streaming apps, as well as light pollution stemming from Singapore’s reputation as a city that is constantly abuzz.

It could also be the population’s workaholic lives and high- achieving mindset.

The stress of the constant race for better grades to ease the climb up the financial and career ladder is inculcated from a very young age, and is ever present on the mind, says Dr Swinbourne.

“Research has shown that there is a correlation between sleep and academic performance in young people.

"There’s a huge memory and learning component to sleep – we actually learn and practise stuff in our sleep, but an instinctive reaction is to stay awake, and try and cram in more,” he explains.

There is a pressing need to prioritise sleep for better health and well-being, and the government has been making inroads on that front through Active Health, an arm of Sport Singapore, with community workshops as well as online classes to promote better sleep.

Sleep hygiene 101

It is hardly a term we associate with sleep, but it is something that our parents and grandparents have tried to foster in us as babies.

“Parents of newborns develop PhDs in the sleep hygiene space very quickly because they want their baby to fall asleep faster,” says Dr Swinbourne, as they go through a few routine steps to wind the baby’s brain and body down and prepare it for overnight hibernation.

That’s what sleep hygiene is all about.

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Having a meal that contains some carbohydrates and protein, drinking warm milk, which has tryptophan – we make melatonin from that – and having a shower or a bath before bedtime are some tried and tested tactics, says Dr Swinbourne.

“A warm shower raises the blood temperature, which in turn warms the skin, making the body temperature drop a bit.

"That’s the biological signal the body requires to prepare for nightfall, which is, in fact, a primal instinct since the time of hunter gatherers.”

This architecture of sleep changes a lot from childhood to adulthood as our bodies produce less melatonin as well. So there needs to be a conscious effort to re-engage, say Drs Leow and Swinbourne. Here are some good habits to have:

Keep to a fixed sleep schedule

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Practise going to bed and waking up at the same time, even on weekends. There’s a tendency for those who have poor night sleep to nap during the day – limit nap time to 30 minutes at the most, or try not to nap after 2pm.

Get some sun

Try to expose yourself to bright light (eg sunlight) for 30 minutes every morning.

Have a turndown routine

Develop a bedtime routine involving personal care and relaxing activities, such as those mentioned earlier, and utilise your smartphone’s bedtime countdown timer.

Avoid stimulants before bed

Avoid stimulating activities such as vigorous exercise, work, watching a thriller or horror movie, or reading a page turner too close to bedtime.

The use of electronics can also affect the ability to fall asleep – turn your screen to night mode if you have to use your phone or tablet.

No nicotine or caffeine after 4pm

Avoid drinking coffee or tea after 4pm. Excessive intake of nicotine or caffeine, and taking it too close to bedtime, affects the body’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Eat light at dinner time

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Heavy meals or too much fluid before bed could contribute to poorer sleep, as you might need to make a trip to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Do not look at a clock

If you are still unable to sleep after 15 to 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy enough to fall asleep again. Then go back to bed.

ALSO READ: Why you need a good night's sleep every day: Not getting any quickly triggers physical and mental problems, study finds

This article was first published in Her World Online.