Sleep-deprived? This is why it’s bad for you

In 2017, the first ever world-wide Sleep Census revealed that only one in five South Africans get a full eight hours of sleep each night. 80% of our population is sleep-deprived and 85% of South Africans feel their personal life could benefit from a better nights sleep. With increased work hours and longer commutes to and from work it is no wonder that our sleep has felt the pinch.

Can we afford to get less than the 7,5 hours sleep we need each night?

Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and leading author, says in his latest work: ‘The importance of sleep, quite seriously, cannot be overstated. It is more powerfully linked to our mortality than nutrition and exercise.” For a healthy nation, we need healthy sleep.

To help us see the importance of sleep, we take a look inside the body to see what sleep-deprivation looks like on a cellular level:

1. Your brain starts eating itself – That’s the reason why you feel foggy and find it hard to find words… the pathways you need are literally disappearing as you speak. Problem-solving, resilience and creativity are not friends of sleep-deprivation.
2. Your muscles start wearing and tearing – Every cell in your body recovers, regrows and repairs during sleep. Without the right amount of rest, you will have muscle aches and pains now and increased chance of injury in the long-term.
3. Your immune system crashes – Your body’s defense system is slow to detect intruders and even slower to react appropriately. There may be no response and you fall ill or the wrong response, such as an auto-immune response where your body attacks itself. Think asthma, eczema and allergies.
4. Your sex drive takes a dive – The testosterone that both men and women need to feel sexy is made during sleep. So skip the Zzzz and you are likely to skip the Oh oh oh as well.
5. Your mind starts warping – Psychiatric illnesses such anxiety, depression, bipolar mood disorder and Alzheimer’s disease all have one thing in common: sleep deprivation. It is unclear what comes first, the mental disorder or the sleep disorder but one thing is clear: getting enough sleep is a protective factor against developing a mental illness. It is also a factor in coping and recovering from mental illness.
6. Your mood turns rather blue – The more you sleep, the happier you shall be. Dopamine and seretonin are made while we sleep and stored for the day ahead. Skip enough sleep and you may end up feeling helpless and hopeless – two descriptions linked to depression. Sleep-deprived people are also more likely to have conflicts with their colleagues and family members.

Kate Leaver describes sleep as “the Swiss Army knife of medicine”, for good reason. Want to maximise the benefits you could get from your sleep? Read more on this Sealy blog: 50 things you need to know about sleep.

Simple tips for dealing with insomnia

Insomnia is a disorder characterised by difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Many sufferers get into bed at an acceptable hour but take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep and report multiple night wakings. In severe cases, the periods of sleeplessness stretch on for hours. This means that those that suffer from insomnia live sleep-deprived.

Insomnia cannot be treated directly. What must be unpacked and addressed are the underlying causes. Here are the most common:

1. Depression
Mood disorders and sleep disorders go hand-in-hand as they are governed by the same batch of neurotransmitters. Mood disorders can be successfully treated with the use of anti-depressants that help in the production of dopamine. This means you will sleep better if you were struggling to fall asleep due to anxiety or irritability. It will also mean that you find it easier to do things during the day (like cook, exercise and work) which also improve both the quality of your sleep and how you feel about your life.

2. Allergies
Insomnia can be linked to underlying allergies – both environmental and food-related. Eliminating the allergies where possible and taking a course of antihistamines can ease the insomnia and get you back on track.

3. Addiction
Overcoming addiction is a great battle. Alcohol, prescription pills and recreational drugs like cocaine and tik all wreak havoc on sleep. Sleep disturbance is also considered a trigger for relapse into drug abuse, which is why it is vital that those recovering from addiction, do all they can to get their regular zzz’s every night. Only non-addictive sleeping tablets should be taken.

4. Hormonal imbalance
Pregnancy and menopause can trigger insomnia due to hormonal changes. Some individuals will require hormone replacement therapy to help them sleep until the transition period comes to an end. Many women report that massaging with essential oils (like lavender and chamomile) and/or taking a mineral supplement (such as magnesium and zinc) helps them fall asleep faster.

5. Anxiety
Lying awake counting your worries is unhelpful. Write down your problems, keep a gratitude journal and get yourself a pet. These will all reduce your anxiety, slow your heart rate and decrease your stress hormones.