If your snooze button gets a heavy workout, you can’t concentrate without a regular dose of caffeine, or you’re yawning your way through the day — it might be time to assess your sleep habits.
The Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep per night1, but nearly half of Australians aren’t achieving that. Widespread sleep deprivation is influenced by several factors, some of which we can manage — such as technology use and poor sleep habits — and some of which are unavoidable — such as shift work and parenthood.
For men, there can also be a cultural barrier to prioritising sleep, with some seeing less time between the sheets as a badge of honour.
“Overriding our biological need for sleep seems to be a symbol of strength,” Sleep Health Foundation Chair Prof Shantha Rajaratnam says. “On the flip side, let's recognise the fact that our bodies need sleep and use it for strength, rather than the other way around.”
Why is sleep so important?
We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep and despite millions of years of human evolution, that requirement hasn’t changed.
“It must serve an important physiological function and we're just beginning to understand that,” Prof Rajaratnam says.
It’s believed quality sleep helps us reboot our various systems and supports our immune system, metabolism, memory and learning. Like closing all the unnecessary tabs and backing up our hard drive. Scientists aren’t completely certain why we need sleep so badly but what is clear are the outcomes if we don’t get enough of it.
“We know that loss of sleep impacts virtually every physiological system in the body and gives rise to an increased risk of accidents and injuries due to impairments in our neurocognitive function,” Prof Rajaratnam says. “But also, over the long term, it increases the risk of a variety of health conditions — mental health conditions and physical health conditions.”.
Short-term impacts of sleep deprivation include fatigue, reduced concentration, poor memory, worse decision-making skills, slower reaction times and mood changes. The long-term effects on your wellbeing include an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, some cancers, heart disease and mood disorders2.
That’s enough to make the nonstop yawning a little more alarming.
Understanding your sleep
You might not think your body is up to much while you’re out cold, but your brain is very active while you sleep.
During sleep we cycle through four different stages — one forms rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and three form non-REM (NREM) sleep. You’ll start with non-REM stage 1, which is the lightest stage of sleep lasting roughly five minutes. Next is non-REM stage 2, when you transition into a deeper sleep, dropping your heart rate and body temperature. This stage lasts around 25 minutes in your first sleep cycle but lengthens with each one, eventually making up about 50% of your shuteye. Non-REM stage 3 follows, which is the deepest stage of sleep and the most important for your body’s restoration process. Finally, you’ll move onto REM sleep which is when you might experience dreaming, accompanied by rapid eye movements and irregular breathing.
Each cycle through these four stages takes roughly 90 minutes but this changes as your sleep progresses. Sleep cycles can also vary from person to person and be affected by factors such as age and alcohol consumption. On average, we complete the cycle 4 to 6 times throughout the night. These stages might only be brought to your attention when you get woken up from a period of deep sleep and experience extreme grogginess and disorientation that can last for up to 30 minutes. This is called sleep inertia.
Bad habits or a sleep disorder?
There are a number of disorders that can impact our sleep in different ways, some of the more common being insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, snoring and sleep apnoea. Snoring and sleep apnoea are common issues for men.
Sleep apnoea is when you stop breathing throughout the night, usually due to partial or complete blockage of your airways. You (or your partner) might notice that you toss, turn, and snore, or feel exhausted and unrefreshed the next day. Sleep apnoea might affect your mood, productivity, and leave you prone to accidents. Sleep apnoea also increases your risk of health problems and chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, cognitive impairment3 and erectile dysfunction4. If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms, chat to your doctor to get it sorted.
What is sleep hygiene?
No, it’s not a night-time scrub down, sleep hygiene is the range of practices and habits that can help you have better sleep. Understanding the sleep-wake circadian rhythm can help you create the right conditions to sleep easier and stay asleep throughout the night. Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, and behavioural processes your body runs following a 24-hour cycle.
Light exposure during the day prompts our body to send signals that keep us alert and as night falls, our body begins producing hormones that promote sleep.
Follow a consistent sleep schedule, waking up and going to bed each night around the same time.
Get some natural light in the morning, whether that’s opening your blinds or going for a walk.
Exercise daily, but not too close to bedtime.
Keep naps short and earlier in the day.
Avoid caffeine later in the day.
Limit light before bed, dimming lights and avoiding screens.
Ensure your room is at the right temperature.
Keep your environment as dark as possible, an eye mask can help.
If noise is an issue, use earplugs.
Reduce alcohol consumption and smoking.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep don’t stay put stressing over it. Get out of bed and try a relaxing activity for half an hour or so, like reading, stretching or meditating. If these tactics aren’t helping to improve your sleep, speak to your doctor and get some professional support.
 Kellesarian SV, Malignaggi VR, Feng C, Javed F., 2018. Association between obstructive sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Impot Res. doi: 10.1038/s41443-018-0017-7