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Sleep deprivation has been considered a global health epidemic and remains the most understated and unrecognised cause of physical and mental illness, writes Ronette Zaaiman, MSc. Clinical Psychologist, The LightHouse Arabia – Center for Wellbeing

An industrialised culture where those who go to bed early or get up later are judged as lazy or where sleep deprived overworked employees in large firms are favoured and praised, sets up a dangerous precedent. It has been proven that insufficient sleep impairs productivity, motivation and critical thinking, has severe health consequences and ultimate economic costs.

Every cell, tissue, organ and system in your body, even your DNA, is impacted by sleep loss. Lack of sleep has been indicated as a cause of devastating diseases, such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes and cancer. It is also closely linked to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and mood dysregulation.

Ronette Zaaiman, MSc. Clinical Psychologist, The LightHouse Arabia – Center for Wellbeing

You may know you lack sleep by the dark circles around your eyes, frequent yawning, difficulties in sustaining focus and an urge to close your – potentially burning – eyes and sleep. If you feel the need and are able to take a nap before noon, you have sleep to catch up on.

The benefits of healthy sleep are numerous: a longer life, improved memory and increased creativity, physical health and weight control. Sleep is paramount for your immune system, supports your mood, lowers anxiety and assists in both physical and emotional healing. During sleep our bodies and minds are restored in complex ways. Restoration that cannot occur by doing anything other than to sleep.

In simple terms, sleep makes us healthier, smarter and happier. 

6 tips for improving sleep health

  1. Prioritise sleep. It may be tempting to skip sleep in order to work, socialize, exercise or watch another episode on Netflix, but it is vital to treat sleep as a priority. An adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Develop a consistent sleep schedule. Set an alarm for bedtime, in addition to the alarm waking you up. Naps may be useful to catch up on lost sleep, but they are not recommended after 3pm. Stay consistent – even over weekends.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes, 4 or more days of the week, but avoid exercising within the last 2-3 hours before bedtime. Avoid large meals and many fluids late at night, as indigestion and frequent awakenings to urinate disrupt sleep.
  • Avoid sleep-disruptive substances. The effects of caffeine (in coffee, colas, dark chocolate and certain teas) take up to 8 hours to wear off. Nicotine causes light sleep and waking up too early, due to nicotine withdrawal, while alcohol, even when used moderately, impairs sleep quality and disrupts sleep. Certain prescribed medicines can cause delay or disruption to your sleep.
  • Use caution when it comes to sleeping pills. Sleeping pills do not produce natural sleep but rather, cause sedation. It is recommended to only use them in the short-term, and only when prescribed by a medical doctor. 
  • Unwind before going to bed. Take a hot shower or bath and do a relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music. Dim the lighting and avoid screen time 2-3 hours before going to bed. Ensure that your bedroom is dark, cool and gadget-free. Get a traditional alarm clock so you can charge your cell phone out of reach.

What you can do when you are struggling to fall asleep:

When you are feeling wide awake: Don’t stay in bed for more than 30 minutes. Get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again. Try a light snack or a glass of lukewarm milk.

When you feel anxious or are ruminating: Get up, and splash cold water on your face for 15-30 seconds. Then get back into bed and breathe deeply, focusing on the air entering your nostrils and filling your chest and abdomen and breathe out slowly. Continue this mindful breathing, focusing on your physical sensations as you are breathing.

When your mind is preoccupied with your To Do list: Grab a pen and paper, and list out the things that need to be done. Your brain will register that attention has been given, and you may sleep better afterwards.

Avoid catastrophising: Remind yourself that you need rest, and aim to relax and rest your brain. Do not give up on sleep and get up for the day. With your eyes closed, try listening to classical music or the radio at low volume. Public radio is a good choice for this, because there is little fluctuation in voice tone or volume.

It is time that we reclaim our right to a full night of sleep and with that, the magnitude of our potential and the wholesomeness of our wellness.

Author: Ronette Zaaiman, MSc. Clinical Psychologist, The LightHouse Arabia – Center for Wellbeing