There’s no easy way of saying this – not getting enough sleep is dangerous. Part of the blame for the 1985 NASA space shuttle disaster was placed on two sleep-starved managers who had been working 23 hour shifts. Insomnia doesn’t just increase your risk of accidents, it also pre-disposes you to a raft of undesirable symptoms
- Weakened Immune System When you don’t get enough sleep your immune system is compromised. It doesn’t release enough protective proteins, meaning you are less able to fight invading viruses and also recover once you’re ill. If you have young children and suspect you are always ill because they are passing virus after virus your way, you are partially right. What you may not have factored into the equation is the negative impact the lack of sleep has on your immune system as well.
- Poor Tissue Repair During the deep state of Non REM sleep the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle. If you’re training hard in the gym or carrying an injury its essential you get enough sleep to allow your body to carry out essential repairs & maintenance.
- Weight Gain This a double whammy. Sleeplessness not only slows down metabolism and makes you feel drowsy the next day (obviously). The increased feeling of sleepiness can predispose you to poor diet choice – preferring the glucose spike of sugary snacks over healthy meal.
- Forgetfulness Poor quality sleep inhibits the brain’s ability to transfer memories from the hippocampus (responsible for storing short term memory) to the prefrontal cortex (responsible for filing these short term memories away as long term memories). That means that poor sleep equates to poor memory.
- Depression Depression can be directly caused from a lack of sleep. Equally a lack of sleep can lead to sleep anxiety. If you can’t sleep take heart that pre-industrial humans used to sleep in a bimodal sleep pattern. This involved waking for a few hours around 1am, doing chores or chatting quietly then going back off to sleep.
Insomnia may be natural, but it’s definitely not useful in modern society. So how best to get a good night’s sleep? Don’t eat too late, or drink too much, limit daytime naps, wake up at a regular time every day and three more of my favourite tips:
Exercise (& Relax)
Take time out of your day to exercise. Moderate exercise can help you fall asleep deeper and faster. Make sure you don’t do it too late though. Post exercise endorphin rushes don’t make sleeping any easier.
Make sure you have time to relax and process your day. If you rush into bed it’s likely you won’t have processed things that have happened through the day. This may make it more difficult to get off to sleep and increase your chances of a dream-disturbed sleep.
A bit extreme this one but try simulating pre-industrial life in your home. I don’t mean bringing your livestock into your house. Rather I mean keep all your lights off, all the time.
By depriving yourself of artificial light there’s a chance you can normalise your circadian rhythm and improve your sleep patterns.
Make Yourself Uncomfortable
If you wake through the night, don’t switch the TV on, don’t read a book or go to the kitchen to make a nice drink or snack. These are all subconscious rewards. Instead, punish yourself. Grab a boring book, get out of bed and find the draughtiest place in the house. Now stand and read your book until you’re bored and feel sleepy, then return back to bed.
And if none of this works why not follow the lead of radio 2 presenter Chris Evans and try acupuncture. He’s an avid fan and promoted its use for insomnia whilst working on Top Gear.