Did you know that our physical and mental health is greatly impacted by our ability to get good quality sleep? Dr James Alexander, psychologist and sleep expert, gave us the low down on what it takes to get a good night’s slumber – and why we need it. “Getting less sleep, or poor-quality sleep, will result in a reduced ability to cope with most of life’s challenges. Conversely, getting a sound night’s sleep can bolster our ability to cope,” says Dr Alexander.

So, why does getting enough sleep matter so much?

It boosts immune function and wards off disease

“One of the functions of sleep is to ‘recharge’ our immune system, making us less prone to a broad range of illnesses,” Dr Alexander tells us, “studies have shown that people with routinely poor sleep are also more prone to developing chronic pain following an injury, as well as more proneness to cancer, heart disease and infections.”

It keeps us safe

“Sleep deprivation induces a greater likelihood of road crashes, with the level of risk at times being worse than drunk-driving,” says Dr Alexander. This is because both mental and fine motor skills can be radically reduced, slowing down our reaction time and the ability to quickly make sense of risky situations.

Being overly tired also reduces the normal sense of danger, and can result in actions which would not ordinarily be taken. A tired brain has to work harder to make sense of experience as it is not working in an efficient manner. “When overly tired, we tend to lose the ability to focus on one item amongst a whole field of stimuli, which can create problems with everything from driving to concentrating at work,” Dr Alexander says.

It helps us remember

Interestingly, both our short term and long-term memories are compromised without enough sleep. “Dream, or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, plays a large role in committing experiences from our short-term to long-term memory – a process referred to as memory consolidation,” Dr Alexander tells us. “Sleep deprivation makes it difficult to plan activities, knowing when to start or stop particular actions. As a result, we tend to fall back on habitual ways of responding to situations, which is fine as long as the habits are constructive ones, but not so great if they aren’t.” Sustained sleep deprivation is even associated with damage to brain cells.

The good news is, that all of these potential problems can be reversed with adequate sleep.

But how much sleep is enough sleep?

“While the amount of sleep needed to feel energized and refreshed will vary, there is evidence to suggest that for most adults, getting around six and half hours of sleep is a healthy amount,” Dr Alexander says. Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California and long-time sleep researcher, found from research with over one million adults that those who obtained between six and seven hours of sleep a night had lower death rates than those who got either less than four hours or eight or more hours. “It is worth keeping this finding in mind if you are worried about getting less than eight hours (the traditionally prescribed amount), and find yourself tossing and turning in frustration because you are only getting six to seven hours per night,” Dr Alexander tells us.

Now we know why sleep matters and how much sleep is enough sleep – but how do we get that elusive, deeply restful, soul nourishing kind of sleep?! Dr Alexander gives us the deets.

Do’s and don’ts for better sleep

  • Avoid alcohol prior to sleep – a ‘rebound effect’ (when the brain tries to overcome the sedation by exciting itself) will often wake people up in the early hours. Sedating substances, like alcohol, will also inhibit REM (dreaming) sleep, which is necessary to waking up feeling refreshed.
  • Sleeping tablets will usually induce sleep, but rob you of REM sleep – so you’ll wake not feeling refreshed.
  • Avoid excitement via screens prior to going to bed. In addition to trying to sleep when over-aroused, the blue light emitted from screens can interfere with the normal biological cycles related to sleepiness.
  • Moderate your intake of stimulants, like caffeine and sugar.
  • Keep your bed for just sleep – not a place of working on your laptop, engaging in your social life via your phone, or watching movies.
  • Do exercise during the day so you’re physically exhausted prior to going to bed. Exercise will also dissipate the build-up of stress hormones which accumulate during the day.
  • Recognise that sleepiness comes to us in waves – if you feel a wave of sleepiness near your bed time, go with it rather than push through (which will see you being alert for another hour and a half until the next wave comes your way).
  • Turn your screens off 1-2 hours before bedtime.
  • Slow your mind down by engaging in some quiet time prior to bed, by either reading, meditation, prayer or listening to calming music.
  • Digestion is a busy and active process, so make sure to eat your dinner well before bedtime.
  • If bedtime becomes an opportunity for unscheduled worry-time, then consciously choose to deal with your problems during the day. Engage in some constructive problem solving, speak with a friend, or seek counselling.
  • Many people find listening to guided imagery recordings, white noise to cover the sound of traffic, or calming nature sounds conducive to sleep.

Want to learn more about how to get better sleep? Check out Dr Alexander’s book, “Getting the Z’s you want: sleep-sense in the 21st century” available in hard copy or in e-version here.