in 1959, Peter Tripp, a popular New York radio presenter, embarked upon a charity Wakeathon challenge, during which he stayed awake for 8 consecutive days. Tripp had a team of doctors and psychologists on board who monitored and assisted him during the challenge. After only two nights without sleep the team noticed significant changes in Tripp's behaviour. His usually cheerful personality became more aggressive and angry. His condition deteriorated day after day and by the fifth day, and for the remained of the Wakeathon, Tripp was suffering with full on hallucinations. While this study obviously demonstrates a very extreme case of sleep deprivation, it also shows that a relatively brief period (about two days) without sleep can have a significant effect on us.
On the other hand, when one has a healthy and regular sleep pattern, sleep can be the best medicine known to man. A good nights sleep not only helps us to feel rested and alert the following day, it is doing much more incredible work besides. Sleep is the time when the body heals, repairs and regenerates. The body is quite literally restored during sleep. Sleep has a beneficial effect on brain function, improving attention span, memory and general mental alertness. It facilitates higher functions like creativity and athletic ability. Sleep has a strengtening effect on the body's immune system, helping us to fight off infection. It can even help stave off depression and other mental illness by increasing resilience.
What can we do to improve sleep?
Get plenty of exercise: Besides the obvious health benefits of exercise, it also helps to regulate body functions that impact on sleep. However exercise should not be done too late in the evening as this can lead to over-stimulation before bed.
Engage in 'wind down' activities: It is best not to engage in strenuous or mentally taxing tasks before bed time. Chatting with family, light reading, meditation or a bath are some good wind down activities.
Turn off devices!: The energy and glare from phones, laptops and tvs can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality. Using devices before bed has been shown to have an adverse affect on melatonin production (essential for quality sleep) and can lead to insomnia in some cases. It is best to avoid devices for at least one hour before sleep.
Avoid Stimulants: foods and drinks with a stimulating effect can have an impact on sleep quality. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar and cigarettes should be avoided, in general perhaps, but particularly before sleep.
Stick to a regular sleep routine: As a general rule it is a good idea to have an established sleep routine i.e. go to bed at roughly the same time each night, get up at the same time each morning, engage in a wind-down routine before sleep that is familiar. Over time, the body becomes used to your routine and sees it as a signal that it is time to sleep.
If you really can't sleep:
Avoid checking the clock, this can create anxiety.
Avoid looking at devices, they will lead to over-stimulation.
Try to do some deep breathing or some muscle relaxation.
Try a meditation or minfulness practice.
If all else fails get out of bed and try some light reading.
This article is not meant to be judgmental of those who are having a hard time sleeping. Other factors can keep us awake at night; the baby crying, sick children, a physical condition, stressful times etc. However, while there are certain things we cannot control when it comes to sleep, there is plenty that we can. The above tips and suggestions may help you to re-evaluate how you approach sleep and to engage in healthier habits around your sleep time.
Bartlett, Thomas (2010) The Stay Awake Man. The New York Times [online]
How Electronic Devices Affect Sleep (2017), The Brain Flux [online]
Chang, A.M.et al.(2015), "Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness", PNAS,Vol. 112, No.4.
Sparacino, Alyssa (2013) 11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep, www.health.com [online]
Trinder, J. and Curtis, N. (2004) "Sick and tired: does sleep have a vital role in the immune system?". Nat Rev Immunol, Vo. 4, Issue 6