June 18, 2024

How too little sleep undermines your health and productivity

4 min read

Not getting the right amount of shut-eye increases our risk of developing a host of physical and mental health disorders, not to mention the impact it has on our daily life and productivity.

Abdurahmaan Kenny, neuroscience product manager for Pharma Dynamics, says sleep deprivation is a growing problem. “Insufficient sleep has been linked to seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the United States, including cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes and hypertension. Those who sleep less than six hours a night also tend to struggle with weight issues, having a body-mass index (BMI) of 12% greater than those who sleep between seven and nine hours.”

He points out that over time, chronic sleep deprivation may also lead to insomnia. When an individual consistently experiences insufficient sleep over a prolonged period, it can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and the regulation of sleep hormones such as melatonin. This disruption can result in difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep or getting restorative sleep, which are characteristics of insomnia.

“Long-term sleep deprivation can affect various bodily functions, impacting cognitive abilities, mood and overall health. It can lead to increased stress, irritability, difficulty concentrating, memory issues, depression and anxiety, as well as a weakened immune system. Over time, these effects can contribute to the development or exacerbation of insomnia.”

Other critical factors that contribute to insomnia include stressors like grief, chronic pain, substance abuse, medical co-morbidities, impaired social relationships, lower socio-economic status, old age and being female. Insomnia is more common in women because of hormonal fluctuations, a predisposition to depression, anxiety and stress, as well as circadian rhythm disorders and co-existing medical problems.

Insomnia affects an estimated 1 in 4 adults at some point in their lives with 10% to 15% experiencing chronic insomnia and a further 25% to 35% reporting occasional insomnia. Yet, despite the high incidence, insomnia is still largely underdiagnosed and undertreated. Common factors that hinder the diagnosis of insomnia and the management thereof is the along with time-constrained doctor’s consultations, which often do not allow for enough questions about a patient’s overall well-being.

Kenny says addressing sleep deprivation early and adopting healthy sleep practices are crucial in preventing the development of chronic insomnia. If you think you have insomnia, treating it typically involves a combination of lifestyle changes, behavioural strategies and, in some cases, medical intervention.

He suggests the following approaches to manage and treat the condition:

  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule – Maintain a regular sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clock.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine – Develop pre-sleep rituals that signal to your body that it’s time to wind down. This may include drinking a cup of soothing herbal tea like rooibos, reading a book, taking a warm bath, practising relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation, or listening to calming music.
  • Optimise your sleep environment – Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Keep the room cool, dark and quiet. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows. Minimise electronic devices and screen time before bedtime, as the blue light can disrupt your sleep.
  • Limit stimulants and alcohol – Reduce or eliminate caffeine and nicotine, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. While alcohol may make you feel drowsy initially, it can disrupt your sleep later in the night.
  • Regular exercise – Engage in regular physical activity, but try to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it can be stimulating. Exercise during the day can promote better sleep.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-I) – CBT-I is a structured programme that targets behaviours and thoughts affecting sleep. It helps identify and replace negative thoughts and behaviours with positive ones to improve sleep.
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques – Practices like mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery can calm the mind and body, making it easier to fall asleep.
  • Limit daytime naps – If you must nap during the day, keep it short (20 to 30 minutes) and avoid late-afternoon naps, as they can interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Seek professional help – In some cases, a doctor may prescribe short-term medication such as a sedative-hypnotic. Hypnotics with a modified-release formulation allows the active ingredient to be released at two different rates or time periods, and works by slowing activity in the brain to help patients fall asleep and stay asleep. However, these medications should be used under medical supervision.

Kenny says it’s important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another when it comes to treating a sleeping disorder like insomnia. “Consistency and patience are crucial, as changes in sleep habits and improvements may take time. Consulting with a GP or sleep specialist can provide personalised guidance and treatment options suited to your specific needs.”

Image credit: DC Studio/Freepik

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