Sleeping isn’t an optional activity, it’s a vital function that’s as important to our health and wellbeing as good nutrition and exercise. Most mammals, birds, reptiles and bugs do it. Rats deprived of sleep apparently die faster than those deprived of food.

A well-functioning person spends around a third of their life in bed. Once we slip into an unconscious state our body gets about executing a range of vital restorative tasks.

Throughout the night the brain goes through five sleep cycle stages and If we miss out on any of them, it can have a significant impact on cognitive function, which means your ability to learn and think clearly.

The term insomnia encompasses a range of sleep disturbances from sleep apnea and snoring, to waking up for a pee during the night. It’s any circumstance where you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or returning to sleep. Whatever the disrupted sleep is, it interrupts the cycle and the body’s restoration process. Around one in three people have some form of sleep disorder in Australia and around 1 in 7 have full-on insomnia.

Effects of poor sleep

Just as there’s a strong correlation between hearing and memory, people who have troubled sleep have an increased risk of developing hearing loss. This is largely due to cardiovascular issues that may be caused by lack of sleep. One side-effect of insomnia is poor blood circulation, which of course includes your ears. The tiny hair cells in your ears depend on sufficient blood flow. Interruption to this can contribute to hearing loss. It can also exacerbate the rowdiness of tinnitus, and those increased whizzing, whirring, buzzing noises can in turn disrupt sleep – vicious cycle 101.

The sleep disorder sleep apnea causes people to actually stop breathing throughout the night, which also wakes the sufferer. Apnea, which affects around 43 percent of people with insomnia, presents all kinds of risks including stroke. Studies show that people with sleep apnea often have larger amounts of plaque in their blood vessels, which may further constrict blood flow to the ear’s hair cells and damage hearing.

Chronic bad sleep also effects hormone production and metabolism, hence it has a similar effect to the aging process.  This can lead to the development of a range of age-related illnesses including loss of memory, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure. Longer-term it can contribute to cognitive decline including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Regular sleep interruptions affect the part of the brain that controls memory, language and even our sense of time. Deep sleep also has a profound effect on our mental state. Research shows that the parts of the brain that control emotions, decision making and social interactions appear to be quiet during the deep sleep stage. This suggests that they are using that time to recover from all the hard work they do during wakefulness.

Another important function of deep sleep is restoration and recovery and there’s evidence that a flushing process occurs during this stage that may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.  Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which helps maintain, build, and repair healthy tissue in the brain and other organs is also secreted during deep sleep.

Memory and sleep are also intimately linked. Lack of sleep affects our ‘working memory’, which we need so we can bring forward information for immediate use.

During each of the five stages of sleep different functions occur that get our thoughts organised, filed and consolidated. General findings of various studies show that poor sleep may impair intellectual performance. The NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep) and REM (rapid eye movement sleep) are important for memory consolidation (where recent learned experiences are turned into long term memories). The brain organises the information for easy recall. It’s believed that NREM sleep is linked with the formation of your declarative memory, that is basic facts and statistics, and REM sleep boosts your procedural memory, which involves remembering sequences.

We know what it is to sleep on a problem and wake up in the morning with an answer that has been evading us. That’s because sleep may also facilitate more complex forms of insight.

Some studies show that sleep deprived people are at risk of forming false memories. They can have a reduced ability to think flexibly and may have poor emotional judgement. Sleep deprivation can also impact our immunity so we become more susceptible to infections and colds and flu, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can be exacerbated.

If you need more of a wakeup call in relation to the dangers inherent in lying awake counting blades of grass, imagine this; being awake for 17 consecutive hours is equivalent to the impairment caused by drinking two glasses of wine.

A bad night’s sleep can cause seriously diminished your ability to concentrate, communicate effectively, handle complex tasks, think logically, make good decisions and be creative. However, don’t panic, the odd night spent tossing and turning will unlikely set you on a downward spiral, although you may have some temporary impairment.

Poor sleep makes us less than effective thinkers and more likely to make mistakes. Operating heavy machinery while sleep deprived is a big no-no. Some industries have been hugely impacted by sleep-deprived workers and disastrous avoidable accidents have occurred. American Airlines Flight 1420 is a case in point. Just before midnight, June 1, 1999, it overshot the runway at Little Rock National Airport killing 10 passengers and the captain with more than a hundred others injured. Investigators found that the pilots probably made the mistake because of tiredness and the stress of trying to land the plane during a thunderstorm.

Then there’s the Challenger shuttle explosion, the Exxon Valdez spill, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the melting of the nuclear reactor core at Three Mile Island. All of these have been attributed to sleep deprivation. At a more relatable level, sleeplessness causes around 25 percent of road accidents, loss of productivity in the work place and even marriage and relationship breakdowns.

Given the risks involved with developing poor sleep habits, it’s a good idea to do something about it before you head steadily and wakefully down the road of emotional, intellectual and physical decline.

Causes of sleep issues

How high is up and how many causes are there of sleeplessness are similar types of questions. It’s relatively common for people to experience insomnia at one time or another such as during stressful periods or illness. However, eventually normal sleep patterns return. It becomes serious when a disrupted sleep pattern sets in on a regular basis.

Insomnia can develop due to ill health, electromagnetic radiation, jet lag, physiological, psychological and hormonal problems, stress, or food allergies.  Women are more likely candidates than men for a variety of reasons.  The elderly and depressed are also more susceptible.

Following are some of the things that are very likely to keep you awake at night:

  • Pharmaceutical medications including anti-hypertensive drugs, weight loss drugs, pseudoephedrine, the oral contraceptive pill, corticosteroids (for inflammatory conditions), Parkinson’s disease medications and antidepressants
  • Recreational drug use
  • Nicotine
  • Caffeine is a stimulant. It’s in black tea, coffee, cocoa, and soft drinks. Best not to drink coffee in the evening
  • Alcohol might get you off to sleep, however it decreases the period of time spent in the REM cycle, in deep sleep and causes sleep disturbance in the second half of the sleep period. It’s best to avoid alcohol within 2-3 hours of bedtime
  • Eating within 2-3 hours of bedtime may also disturb the onset of deep sleep
  • Poor lifestyle habits such as playing video games or working before going to bed and not taking time to wind down and relax

How to establish and maintain good sleep patterns

If you want to function optimally, think clearly, make good decisions, without feeling the need for a nanna nap, you need a regular sleep pattern. You could take sleeping pills and sedatives such as benzodiazepines if you’re suffering from chronic insomnia. These may be helpful in the short term but they can be addictive and you can develop a tolerance so you have to rely on higher doses. Further, sleep medications tend to reduce the proportion of restorative deep sleep in most people.

We live in an exciting time when it comes to technology. Several smartphone app driven devices are available that can assist in monitoring your sleep cycles, and they provide advice. This means you can track not only the quantity, but the quality of sleep you’re getting.

Some sleep tracking options you may consider are Apple watch, Fitbit, Whoop Strap or Oura Ring. In addition, the Muse S brain sensing headband is a mediation aid that has a comprehensive sleep tracking function that tracks brainwave, heart rate, breath and movement to give deep insights into your sleep quality. The best smartphone app only, no additional device required, I can find is called SleepSpace, the basic version is free on the Apple App Store or Android Play Store.

There are also new technologies that help stimulate sleep. NeoRhthym  is a neurostimulation headband that uses pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) technology to help entrain your desired state of mind. For example, delta brain waves are known to be associated with deep or slow-wave sleep. The NeoRhythm headband has a sleep setting that pulses at delta frequencies to help safely influence this state in the brain. Using this 20 mins before bedtime in a specific position on the head readies the brain for sleep. You then place it under your pillow for eight hours. This device has increased my deep sleep time by an average of half an hour each night.

There are other settings on the NeoRhythm for focused attention, alertness, relaxation, meditation and even pain control.

TIPS on how to get a good night’s sleep

  • Bedrooms should be for sleep and loving, intimate relations. They are not an office.
  • Make sure the bedroom is comfortable, warm, pillow and bedding are comfortable, the room is dark
  • Lavender oil on the temples (Not suitable for children)
  • Meditation
  • A relaxing bath before bed with some lovely calming essential oils such as lavender, ylang ylang, sandlewood and orange
  • Herbal and homeopathic concoctions (get advice from a qualified health practitioner). Also, some herbal teas such as chamomile, rosemary and passionflower
  • Listen to beautiful sounds online such as the sea or rain
  • Try not to watch a violent or scary movie before bed. Part of creating a good atmosphere to sleep involves a calm environment and mindset

Eating for sleep

Our digestive system slows down at night in favour of the many vital restorative functions that the body undertakes while we sleep. A late heavy meal will therefore be harder to digest and is likely to keep you awake.

The best after-dinner snack is something containing high protein because protein is made from amino acids such as tryptophan; the precursors for melatonin and serotonin, which help initiate sleep.

Alcohol makes you sleepy but it also impairs sleep. It causes the release of adrenaline and weakens the transport of tryptophan into the brain. The brain is dependent on tryptophan as the source for serotonin (the neurotransmitter that initiates sleep) and alcohol disrupts serotonin levels.

If you do need a late snack, eat food that contains complex carbohydrates and protein to optimise tryptophan levels. A warm glass of milk with a dash of honey could be just the ticket to slumberland. Other foods that aid sleep include walnuts and almonds, which contain amino acids, turkey, tuna, bananas. Calcium also helps release serotonin so milk, sesame and sunflower seeds, broccoli, oats and tahini are helpful.

Definitely avoid bad quality/refined carbohydrates like white bread and biscuits which can raise blood-sugar levels and can cause a burst of energy that makes us more likely to dance than sleep. Soft drinks, spicy food (can cause heartburn and indigestion), alcohol, caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG is a stimulant), and foods containing additives, preservatives and pesticides, are all to be avoided if you want to sleep well. None of these substances are going to do you any good regardless of sleep.