Why you need more sleep (and how to get it)

There really is nothing like a good night’s sleep. But what if that shut-eye you so desperately need eludes you, night after night, and nothing – from counting sheep to warm milk to meditation – helps?

The (perhaps) comforting news is, you’re not the only one tossing and turning. According to figures released by the Sleep Health Foundation earlier this year, 33-45 per cent of Aussies suffer sleep issues that lead to fatigue and irritability. Worse, sleep problems in Australians are 5-10 per cent higher since the study was last released in 2010.

And, while sleep deprivation and chronic sleep issues can definitely have an impact on your health, we can become too obsessed by numbers, says Dr Brendon Yee, sleep and respiratory physician at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

“There’s so much variability in how much sleep we need as individuals,” he explains. “In your 50s, the range of sleep you need is somewhere between six or seven hours and nine hours per night and some of us don’t require as much as others.”

What’s to blame for your lack of shut-eye?
One of the most common sleep issues as we age is insomnia, with studies indicating 42 per cent of people aged 55-64 find it more difficult to get off to sleep or remain asleep, says Dr Yee. “This has strong associations with anxiety and depression. Medications can sometimes induce [insomnia symptoms] as well.”

Sleep apnea statistics are no better – a whopping 92 per cent of overweight men over the age of 45 who snore suffer from the condition, according to the Independent Sleep Physician Cohort (ISPC). “Due to an increase in obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, we see an increased prevalence of sleep apnea in people in their 40s, 50s and 60s – and it can affect your quality of life quite significantly,” says Dr Yee.

“Having sleep apnea can increase your risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and cause congnitive issues.”

There’s also a very real, increased risk of falling asleep during the day, with all the dangers that go along with that – from car accidents to workplace injuries.

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Try to power down your devices at least 30 minutes before sleeping

How to tell if you’re getting enough sleep
The usual markers – irritability, fatigue, not functioning as well as you’d like – are all signs you’re ‘sleep restricting’ yourself, but it’s about using your instincts about how you feel, says Dr Yee.

“If you’re a person who sleeps in on weekends to catch up, that would suggest you’re chronically restricting your sleep during the weekdays. It’s not uncommon in people who’ve got busy lifestyles, or who work longer hours, or who are using technology in the evenings more.”

Studies have shown that people who are chronically sleep deprived have higher blood pressure, suffer greater levels of stress, higher blood glucose levels and perform worse on cognitive tests – so if all this sounds familiar, it makes sense to do something about it.

How can you get more sleep?
It’s the simple things, including not restricting your sleep or thinking you can get by on less, says Dr Yee. “Make sure your bedroom is a nice environment to go to sleep. Avoid technology before bed – no TV, iPads, devices; you want to have a period before sleeping where you relax and wind down. Avoid heavy meals, strenuous exercise or hot showers before bed, and try to have a regular wake-up time.”

Exercising more, losing weight if you need to, drinking less alcohol and smoking less can also improve sleep, he adds. “Look at the rates of obesity – it’s ridiculous. We need to spend more time looking after ourselves. And, the benefits to being healthier and having more refreshing sleep on a regular basis are numerous: better quality of life, less stress, the ability to cope better with your day. There are also some chronic pain studies which suggest if you have better sleep you can also cope better with pain than people who have sleep restriction or fragmented sleep.”

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