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NEGLECTING SLEEP IS THE HIDDEN RISING PANDEMIC

Subtitle: Highlighting the importance of sleep in keeping ourselves well

Why are we ignoring one of the most important elements of a healthy life?

A proper night’s sleep is vitally important to our general sense of wellbeing. It’s what keeps our stress levels in check, washes toxins away, and helps protect us from contracting diseases by boosting our immune system.

Yet so many of us in our modern, busy lives don’t pay as much attention to our sleep patterns as we do our email, avatars and our bottom line.

To illustrate this point, Royal Philips performed a global sleep survey in 2019 that indicated people around the world aren’t getting enough shuteye.

Singaporeans get less sleep than any other country surveyed

Singaporeans weighed in at the top of the list with fewer nocturnal hours than any other country surveyed—reporting that they were only getting an average of 6.3 hours of sleep on weekdays and 6.7 on weekends.

This is well below the expert recommendations of 7 or more hours of consistent sleep per night, and while Singaporean numbers were lower than the global average (6.8 and 7.8 respectively), several countries in the survey weren’t faring much better.

We have the ability to travel around the world in less than two days, speak to people in faraway countries as if they’re in the same room, and cure illnesses that in earlier generations cut lives short.

As advanced as we are, we’re still ignoring one of our most basic needs: quality sleep. It’s no wonder stress and stress-related illnesses are on the rise.

In this article, we’ll take a wide view on:

  1. Why sleep is so important for our health;

  2. What happens when we don’t get enough restful sleep; and

  3. How to get more of this peaceful slumber in our lives.

The importance of sleep

Sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle that includes:

  1. Nutrient-rich foods and clean water;

  2. Physical activity;

  3. Connection with others; and

  4. Nutritious sleep.

Take one of these pillars away and our system begins to wobble.

Just glancing at the mental, emotional and physical results of sleep deprivation is enough to wake a person up (pun intended).

Yet only 53% of sleep deprived people understand the cause of this deficit in their lives.

Healthy sleep requires a full third of our lives, so it’s imperative that we educate ourselves about this essential activity.

Understanding sleep

According to Mark Wu, MD, PhD, sleep is the only essential behaviour whose exact function remains unknown.

While science has been studying the benefits and effects of sleep for decades, there is still so much about the process of sleep that is a mystery.

What we do know is that our body craves sleep like it craves food.

The urge to sleep builds over the course of the day, until it reaches a point where our body literally makes us fall asleep.

Ideally, we’re in bed when this happens, and not behind the wheel of a car or nodding off in an important lecture.

Amazingly, when our body needs to sleep, it can snatch tiny “micronaps” that last a mere one or two seconds while our eyes are still open.

We have so much more to learn about sleep, but what we have found so far highlights the importance of this nighttime activity.

To understand more about how sleep affects our lives, let’s first take a look at how sleep happens in our bodies.

Our bodies go through several sleep cycles each night. Each sleep cycle lasts for about 90 minutes and includes layers or levels of sleep stages.

NREM

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM). When we nuzzle into our pillow and begin lightly drifting off (once we’ve managed to quiet the chatter inside our heads), we begin to enter the first portion of NREM.

This type of sleep is termed “quiet,” because our brain waves, heart rate and breathing slow down.

NREM takes us through four distinct stages from very light (N1), to very deep (N3).

People who meditate often exhibit brain waves that mimic the initial stages of NREM sleep.

This is why certain types of meditation are so calming.

The first stage of sleep (N1) is when we’re going from fully awake to beginning to drift off, and our muscles begin to relax into the bed.

Stage two (N2) takes us into light sleep—slowing our breath, our heart rate, and lowering our body temperature.

In the third stage (N3), our heart and breathing slow even further and our muscles relax even deeper.

It’s during N3 sleep that our bodies begin to repair, reorganize and restore.

This is also when our pineal gland signals the release of hormones that are essential for restful sleep (melatonin) and growth/development.

Once we move into this last stage of NREM, our brain activity slows exponentially, and we become difficult to wake up.

REM

Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This is the stage of sleep that is associated with dreaming.

During REM our brain activity spikes again, resembling our brain waves when we’re awake.

Our eyes dart around under our eyelids, our breathing becomes erratic, and our muscles are immobilized.

Research suggests that REM sleep is important for healthy cognitive functions like learning, memory, mood regulation, and creativity.

Of course, sleep cycles throughout the night are a bit more complicated and asymmetrical than this, but these descriptions give you a general idea of how sleep works to restore our bodies each night.

We’ll dive deeper into the benefits of healthy sleep later on, and provide some suggestions for improving sleep habits for ourselves, and our loved ones.

Before we get there, let’s touch on the effects of sleep deprivation so we have a solid understanding of why we want more of this precious pastime in our lives.

Sleep deprivation affects all age groups

Lack of sleep can take its toll on us at any age.

We’ve all seen the outward effects of too little sleep, in ourselves or in someone close to us; we become cranky or drowsy the next day. We don’t think as clearly and our reaction time is slowed down.

Yet how many of us are aware of the many ways that lack of restful sleep can erode our physical, emotional and mental health?

From cognitive decline, emotional dysfunction and seizures, to heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure—our bodies can begin to shut down when we don’t get the proper sleep.

Starting from birth and running through our golden years, we all need nutritious sleep in order to live in optimal health and wellbeing.

Let’s look at some of the results of regularly neglecting this most basic need.

How sleep deprivation affects our brain

Have you ever rolled out of bed feeling heavy-headed and groggy?

On mornings like this, it can be hard to think or communicate clearly.

Our brains need quality sleep in order to function well. This is true for all of us, and at any age.

For instance:

Babies

Babies who don’t sleep well have a harder time recovering from negative emotions.

In fact, babies who don’t get quality sleep are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems as toddlers.

Perhaps the “terrible twos” can be less frightening if we make sure our babies get plenty of rest.

As if this wasn’t motivating enough, recent research suggests a connection between sleep deprivation in babies and adolescent onset of psychosis.

We tend to think that babies are very resilient (and they can be), however, these studies point to the importance of healthy sleep for our developing brains.

Preschoolers

Preschoolers who don’t get enough sleep may have a harder time making friends, and exhibit inadequate social skills.

Making sure that our little ones get enough shuteye can help them become better play partners.

Lack of sleep in preschoolers can lead to the inability to understand the cause of emotions, which suggests that too little sleep in early childhood could lead to lack of empathy later in life.

School age

School-age children can begin showing signs of learning difficulties and behavioural problems (ADHD may be linked to sleep deprivation), and poor academic performance.

They might also begin to suffer from mood swings, and are at higher risk for major health issues.

Teens

Teens who are losing precious sleep don’t do as well academically as their peers.

They have a harder time concentrating, exhibit poor emotional control, irritability, and behavioural problems.

Experts warn that sleep deprivation in our teens may be linked to higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

They’re also much more likely to cause a motor vehicle accident. This means that making sure our teens get the sleep they need could literally save their lives!

Later in this article we’ll go over just how much sleep a teenager needs.

Adults

When we don’t get enough sleep as adults, we can actually starve the higher cognitive regions of our brains from receiving the energy they need to help us to make good decisions.

Other ways that lack of sleep can affect our brains include:

  1. Anxiety;

  2. Depression;

  3. Brain fog;

  4. Inability to reason or problem-solve;

  5. Impaired alertness, attention, and concentration.

We’ve known for years that a potential connection exists between too little sleep and Alzheimer’s, yet lack of rest for our brains can cause short-term problems too.

We have a harder time focusing on tasks, are more prone to moodiness and irritability.

Our memory suffers and we’re far more likely to be affected by psychological disorders.

Now that we have all of this evidence showing just how detrimental losing sleep can be to our brains, we must start paying closer attention to how we treat this essential part of our lives.

Why sleep is so important for our brains

Experts believe that it’s when we sleep that our brains detox.

Recent research shows that while our bodies are at rest, an extraordinary thing happens.

While blood leaves the brain and neuron activity goes quiet during the NREM phases of sleep, a healing wave of cerebrospinal fluid washes slowly over the brain.

Experts believe that this is how our bodies clean toxins out of our brains so that they will function better during our waking hours.

Those of us who aren’t getting quality snooze time may literally be slowly poisoning our brains. Consider this

Four in ten Singaporeans don’t get enough sleep Healthline study

Researchers also believe that regular healthy NREM sleep can reduce anxiety, help improve our emotional state, and our ability to retain information.

How sleep deprivation affects our body

Have you ever stayed up long past your bedtime and felt your body becoming heavy and sluggish?

While everyone knows what it feels like to get sleepy (except for toddlers, who will deny that they even need sleep, right up until the moment that they droop), physical signs of the need to sleep might differ:

  1. Our eyelids begin to sting and swell;

  2. Our muscles begin to ache;

  3. We start zoning out;

  4. We’re nodding off;

  5. We suddenly feel cold;

  6. Our body tries to sweet-talk us into eating late-night sugary snacks. My personal favourite 😉

For me, a case of the yawns begins to slowly take over, becoming more and more forceful until my body shakes with the effort. Once the yawning begins, I know I won’t last much longer.

These are signs that our body is preparing to put us to sleep. If we ignore these signs, it is possible to get past the sleepiness into what experts call a “second wind.”

It’s important to note that repeatedly ignoring these signs can lead to chronic sleep deprivation and consequently, serious health issues.

Our bodies function better when we give them the sleep they need, and when we deprive them of good quality rest, our bodies begin to show signs of malfunction.

For example:

Did you know that lack of sleep could impair our sex drive?

I’ll leave that one on its own line so it gets the attention it deserves. Lack of sleep can also cause obesity, skin problems, and a weakened immune system.

Researchers found that sleep restriction might lead to greater sensitivity to pain, and make us more accident-prone.

We’re more susceptible to contracting viruses and infections, more vulnerable to cancer, and much more likely to be at risk for:

  1. Heart disease and heart failure

  2. Hypertension

  3. Stroke

  4. Diabetes

  5. Kidney disease

Why sleep is important to our bodies

Much like our brains, our bodies need sleep in order to conserve energy, restore important processes, promote growth, and repair body tissues.

As you can see in the previous section, these processes are incredibly important for the health of our body.

It’s when we sleep that our:

  1. Heart recovers;

  2. Blood pressure regulates;

  3. Immune system bolsters;

  4. Hormones balance (appetite regulation; growth, development and tissue repair; bladder retention; quality sleep; love and wellbeing; etc.).

Imagine the trillions of cells inside our bodies—all working nonstop to keep the multitude of processes running smoothly that keep us alive—doing their jobs seamlessly without our active participation.

We tend to take for granted, these processes that go on underneath our awareness until something goes wrong with the system.

Giving our bodies the time to rest and perform cleaning, repairing and reorganizing is the least we can do!

Creating healthy patterns for ourselves (and anyone who looks up to us) is an essential part of adulthood.

This includes paying attention to the food we eat, the activities we take part in, what we give our attention to, and how well we sleep.

Investing in better sleep helps the bottom line

We’re not the only ones who need to pay attention to how much sleep we get. The organisations we work for also have a stake in how well we slip into sweet slumber.

A recent Rand report details the economic losses for countries like the U.S. and Japan, because of sleep deficits in the workforce. Researchers found $411 billion in lost revenue for the U.S., and $138 billion for Japan.

Here are a few examples of why companies lose money when members of their staff are under-slept:

  1. Lost workdays;

  2. Lower productivity;

  3. More sick days;

  4. Increased errors;

  5. Costly health problems;

  6. Poorer communication;

  7. Reduced ability to problem-solve;

  8. Higher mortality and work-related accidents.

Perhaps these findings will inspire employers to begin adding a good mattress to their staff benefits! Just kidding (only the most forward thinking companies would go this far).

However, Rand does suggest employers take the importance of sleep seriously and offers great recommendations for improving sleep outcomes for their workers.

Hopefully, organisations will take notice, because (just looking at Singapore alone), experts suggest sleep deprivation is so common among working populations that companies are being urged to include education and intervention programs to ensure better sleep habits among their staff.

How much sleep is enough?

Although it is becoming clear that many people in every age bracket need more sleep than many of us are getting, not every stage of life requires the same amount of bedtime.

It is interesting to note that (although sleep requirements range widely from 7 – 18 hours per day) almost no one can survive for long on less than 5 hours per night.

Let’s look at sleep needs for each stage of life, shall we?

Babies

Newborns sleep between 10.5 to 18 hours a day. They catch snoozes between feedings, diaper changes and nurturing.

Every parent knows that new babies can have unpredictable sleeping patterns.

These tiny treasures can remain awake for one to three hours at a time, and they might sleep for a few coveted minutes or—if you’re lucky—all the way up to several blissful hours. Good luck!

Older infants need a bit less sleep (weighing in at 12 – 15 hours a day), between cooing, smiling adorably, crawling faster than seems humanly possible, and sucking on fingers and toes.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Between the ages of 1 – 2 years of age, toddlers need between 11 – 14 hours of sleep when they’re not exploring every nook and cranny of the house, and running away from pursuing parents gleefully.

Preschoolers (3 – 5 years old) need 10 – 13 hours of sleep when they’re not soaking up every bit of information that surrounds them.

School Age Children

Children between the ages of 6 – 13 need anywhere from 9 – 11 hours of sleep each night in order to function properly, because this is a critical development stage:

  1. Learning new things every day;

  2. Gaining social skills that will carry them into adulthood; and

  3. Developing their own personal sense of self.

Ensuring that children get the sleep they need prepares them for success—in school, at home, and in their futures.

Teenagers

Teens aren’t just pulling our leg when they tell us they need more sleep. Between the ages of 14 – 17 years, we need 8 – 10 hours each night.

As teens, our sleep needs are still heftier than adults, and—to complicate matters—we’re not tired as early as we used to be.

A teenager’s biorhythm shifts back by a couple of hours, so their bodies literally don’t tell them it’s time to sleep until two hours after normal adults.

There’s an actual term for this (sleep phase delay), and authorities have recently begun recommending that school districts delay the start of weekday classes so that teens can get the sleep they need to function.

Adults.

Between the ages of 18 – 64 years, we still need 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night.

During these most productive years (and perhaps serving as a role model for others), if we take care of our bodies, they will sustain us for many years.

Elderly

There’s a myth that says elderly people don’t need as much sleep as younger adults. This simply isn’t true.

Adults over the age of 65 still need between 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night.

It’s likely that this myth came about because as we age, insomnia becomes more prevalent, and it can take us longer to get to sleep.

Napping during the day becomes more common as well, especially if sleep is lost at night.

Health issues, anxiety over getting older, and loneliness all play a role in keeping elderly people awake at night.

It’s clear that sleep is a big part of our lives and crucial for our wellbeing, so let’s look at some of the things that get in the way of restful sleep and how we can improve our chances for better slumber.

Common problems with sleep

Stress

One of the top reasons for lack of sleep is stress.

According to a recent study, Singaporeans cite stress and worry as the top reason they’re not getting to sleep.

This is a problem plaguing so many people around the world that stress management has become a common term.

Dreams, sleepwalking and nighttime fears

By the time we reach preschool age, we’re already dealing with stressful situations that might prevent restful sleep.

This is the age when nighttime fears begin to emerge and nightmares become more common, as does sleepwalking and night terrors.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome(RLS)affects children and adults alike, causing the irresistible urge to move our legs. Limiting our intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can help alleviate the symptoms that disrupt sleep.

Children should be tested for iron deficiency, as this is a common cause in youngsters, and adults with RLS should rule out serious health conditions (like hypothyroidism, diabetes and kidney disease).

Pregnancy can cause temporary bouts of RLS, as can undergoing dialysis, as can certain medications (like antihistamines, antidepressants and anti-nausea medications).

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea(OSA) is a serious disorder that can affect children and adults, causing excessive sleepiness during the day and trouble concentrating. If left untreated, OSA can lead to psychiatric illnesses, cognitive decline and memory problems.

Researchers are also looking at a potential link between OSA and Alzheimer’s.

Some common symptoms of OSA include:

  1. Loud snoring;

  2. Unusual sleeping positions;

  3. Morning headaches;

  4. Night sweats;

  5. Moodiness;

  6. Enuresis (bedwetting);

  7. Paradoxical breathing (chest expands on exhale and contracts on inhale).

It may be time to talk with your doctor if you wake up gasping for air or choking, or notice that you’ve not been breathing for spells during the night; wake up with dry, sore throat; or snore loudly.

Other things that interfere with sleep

Other things to consider that might be keeping us from getting the sleep we need include:

  1. Blue light. More research needs to be done, but many experts believe that screen time (TV, smart phones and computers) emit a quality of light that may interfere with our circadian rhythms and block melatonin production (a hormone that is so essential to restful sleep).

  2. Scary movies. Watching disturbing or scary movies before drifting off may make it difficult to get to sleep, or cause nightmares that interfere with feeling rested.

  3. Caffeine. Consuming coffee, caffeinated teas and chocolate before bedtime can keep us wide awake long past our bedtimes.

  4. Sugar. This stimulant is known to rev up our brain and body, causing hours of tossing and turning while our mind runs through all of the day’s events, yesterday’s event and the day before.

  5. Pets. Our favourite companions can keep us from getting restful sleep, even when we’re not aware of them. Studies show both benefits and downside of having pets in our sleeping space. If you like to have your pet on your bed, it may be worth looking at as a potential sleep disruption at night.

Getting the sleep we need

With all of this evidence pointing to the importance of good sleep for our brains to function well, why wouldn’t we pay closer attention to our sleep habits?

Following are some suggestions for getting better quality sleep at night so we (and our loved ones) can thrive during the day.

Children

Babies

Helping baby sleep helps us sleep better too.

New parents are certainly not wondering why they don’t get enough sleep at night.

Our tiny bundles of joy provide all the evidence we need. Luckily, there are recommendations for helping our little ones get off to a good night’s start so we can catch as many Z’s as possible.

Newborns

  1. Encourage nighttime sleep by keeping baby awake during the day in well lit rooms with normal living noise volumes;

  2. Identify signs of sleepiness (like fussiness, rubbing their eyes with their fists, etc.); and

  3. Lay baby in their crib when they become drowsy instead of waiting until they fall asleep (this helps babies learn to get to sleep on their own);

  4. Place baby on their back (ensuring that blankets and other soft items are away from their head and face).

Infants

  1. Develop regular daytime and bedtime routines;

  2. Start a consistent and enjoyable bedtime routine;

  3. Create a “sleep friendly” environment;

  4. Encourage baby to fall asleep independently.

Toddlers

  1. Maintain a daily sleep schedule and consistent bedtime routine;

  2. Make the bedroom environment a consistent and soothing space each night;

  3. Set reasonable limits and then communicate and enforce them consistently;

  4. Encourage the use of a “security” object such as a blanket or a stuffed animal.

Preschoolers

  1. Maintain a regular and consistent sleep schedule;

  2. Create a relaxing bedtime routine that ends in the child’s sleeping space;

  3. Ensure that the child has access to the same sleeping environment every night—in a room that is cool, quiet and dark—without a TV.

School age

Setting healthy bedtime habits for our kids

School age children are going through so many changes (growth spurts, self discovery, and adjusting to the shifting world around them) that sleep plays such an important role in how well they manage.

This is why making healthy sleep a family priority is imperative right now.

We can set boundaries in our homes by limiting children’s screen time, setting routines that encourage a winding-down period before bed, and make sure that our kids have inviting, soothing environments to get the sleep they need.

Primary School (6 – 13)

  1. Teach children about healthy sleep habits;

  2. Continue to enforce a regular and consistent sleep schedule;

  3. Create or adapt a bedtime routine that encourages winding down;

  4. Make an atmosphere that is conducive to sleep—dark, cool and quiet;

  5. Keep TV, computers, and smart devices out of the bedroom;

  6. Avoid caffeine and sugar.

Teens (14 – 18)

  1. Encourage a bedtime routine that includes winding down (reading a good book, listening to soothing music, etc.);

  2. Avoid overscheduling (there should be plenty of rest time in between activities);

  3. Monitor and limit screen time;

  4. Set and enforce a regular bedtime;

  5. Encourage physical activity during the day.

Adults

Leading by example: setting good bedtime habits as adults.

It should be apparent by now that good sleep hygiene is incredibly important to our health, our livelihood and how we experience life. If we expect our children to engage in healthy sleep habits, it behooves us to show them we’re willing to care for our own sleep health too.

We can include mindful body therapies like yoga in our daily routines, begin winding down 30 – 60 minutes before bed, and get to sleep earlier.

Experts suggest reducing our Internet use while increasing our daytime exposure to natural light.

They also suggest that if we’ve been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling (or tossing about) for more than 20 minutes, we should get out of bed. We can engage in a restful activity like reading, listening to soothing music, or meditating before returning to bed—increasing the likelihood of restful slumber.

Adults

  1. Include physical activity during the day;

  2. Reduce our screen time at least 30 – 60 minutes before bed;

  3. Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption during the day;

  4. Eat our last meal of the day 2 – 3 hours before bed;

  5. Lower the lights before bedtime;

  6. Use our bed for sleep and sex only;

  7. Be consistent (same bedtime each night);

  8. Set the temperature a bit cooler for more comfort;

  9. Keep electronic devices (smartphones and tablets, TVs, and computers) in another room;

  10. Avoid large meals, alcohol or caffeine close to bedtime;

  11. Expose yourself to natural light during the day;

  12. Consider keeping pets in another room at night;

  13. Create a comfortable bedroom environment (quite, dark, relaxing and undisturbed).

Tempted to sleep in on the weekends?

With so much information about the effects of sleep deprivation, and long, stressful school days and work weeks, it’s tempting to catch a couple extra hours of snooze time on the weekends.

However, research shows that too much sleep may cause just as many problems as not getting enough sleep.

Regular sleep patterns are shown to be better for our overall health, and keep our biorhythms on track.

This means that waking up at the same time every day is generally better because it reinforces our natural circadian rhythms.

Studies suggest that regular oversleeping (over 9 hours) can actually cause health issues that are similar to what happens when we’re not getting enough sleep:

A study in Spain showed a possible link between oversleeping and dementia, and research points to teenagers “jet-lagging” themselves by oversleeping on weekends.

So it’s clear that healthy sleep patterns, like everything else in life, is about finding balance.

Conclusion

This subject of sleep is so wide and varied that it’s impossible to cover everything here. However, we hope that we’ve given you a good head start and inspired you to want to learn more.