Are you spending hours tossing and turning at night? Do you wake up tired each morning? Is an afternoon coffee the only thing keeping you awake in afternoon? If so, you may be one of the 55 per cent of Kiwis1 who are sleep deprived!
Not getting enough good-quality sleep is a big problem. Lack of sleep can affect our health, mood and wellbeing. It can put us a risk, contributing to both minor and major car crashes. It even hits our wallets—New Zealand misses out on at least $40 million each year1 due to lost productivity caused by tired workers.
But what’s causing this shortage of sleep, and how can we get back to good habits? Here we take a look at some of the things keeping Kiwis awake at night, and what we can do to get a better night’s sleep.
Screens in the bedroom
One of the biggest causes of sleep deprivation today is technology. Looking at screens in the evening—smartphones, tablets, computers and television—can mess with our internal clock and make falling asleep harder.
Studies have shown that the blue light produced by screens can interfere with the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us ready for sleep. More than an hour of screen time before bed can delay the natural increase of melatonin that happens in the evening. Using screens can also increase alertness, making it difficult to switch off our brains for sleep. Engaging with interactive devices, such as playing video games or texting, may have a bigger effect on your sleep than more passive activities, like watching TV or reading an e-book. However, the evidence that’s currently available points to all types of screens having a negative impact on our sleep.
The best way to fight sleep deprivation caused by technology is to avoid using screens for at least one to two hours before you go to bed. If this isn’t possible, there are steps to reduce the effects of blue light. Setting your smartphone or tablet screen to automatically dim as much as possible in the evening can help, as well as inverting the screen colour on e-readers. There is also free software available for PCs and laptops that decreases the amount of blue light they emit during the evening.
Caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes
What we put in our bodies during the day can have a big impact on how well we sleep at night. Caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes can all mess with our natural sleep cycles.
You may already know how caffeine effects sleep, and specifically how your body responds to it. Caffeine is a stimulant, and can make it harder to go to sleep. It may also make you sleep more lightly and wake up more during the night. The nicotine in cigarettes is also a stimulant and makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. Alcohol works in the opposite way, making many people feel sleepy. Though a drink may help you fall asleep, alcohol actually disrupts your sleep later. You’re more likely to awake more frequently, have headaches, or be disturbed by night sweats or nightmares when you drink before bed.
As with any vice, caffeine and alcohol are best used in moderation. The effects of caffeine can last for four to six hours, so it’s probably best to avoid coffee or soft drink in the afternoon. Alcohol is best drunk at least four hours before bedtime, or limited to a single small drink. Binge drinking can affect the body’s melatonin levels for up to a week, so keep that in mind during the next big night out. Whilst quitting smoking is one of the best steps you can take to improve your health, cigarettes should at least be avoided for about two hours before bed.
Thousands of New Zealanders wake up feeling tired and groggy, despite getting the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. A medical condition known as Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) may be to blame.
OSA is caused by the muscles in the throat relaxing during sleep, temporarily blocking the airway. This causes the body to stop breathing until the brain wakes it up to take a breath. This process is quick, so sufferers are often unaware it’s happening because they aren’t being fully roused from their sleep. However, this cycle can repeat hundreds of times a night, greatly decreasing the quality of the sleep they are getting. People with OSA may report feeling sleepy during the day, have difficulty concentrating, or even have high blood pressure.
OSA can affect men or women of any age, though it is more common in men, people who are overweight or those over 40 years old. With stats showing just over 28 per cent of Kiwis2 classed as obese, this may be a growing problem for the country. Maintaining a healthy weight may help improve symptoms for some, but if weight isn’t an issue, your doctor may recommend other treatments. Special mouth guards or the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device can help sufferers get better quality sleep.
A better night’s sleep
Getting enough good quality sleep is important. Beyond the tips provided for the issues above, there are other steps you and your family can take to improve your nightly rest, including:
- Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends! This helps “set” your body clock, and could help you fall and stay asleep at night.
- Start a relaxing bedtime routine. A warm bath, reading from a book or listening to soothing music before bed can help reduce stress and anxiety that could interfere with sleep.
- Create a peaceful bedroom. Remove distractions that may be keeping you awake, such as bright electronics, pets or items that make noise. Consider using blackout curtains, ear plugs or “white noise” machines to create a more soothing environment.
- Save the bed for sleep and intimacy only. Strengthen your body’s association between your bed and sleep by removing other activities from the bedroom. Work, television and even intense conversation are best suited to other rooms in the house.
With a few small changes to your nightly routine, you could be on the path to better sleep. If you still have concerns about how much sleep you’re getting, speak with your doctor for more advice.
Looking for ways to help your children or grandchildren sleep better? Try these tips especially for little sleepers!
1. NZ Herald, Quarter of Kiwis have chronic sleep issues – study, Mar 2012
2. Ministry of Social Development, The Social Report 2016