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Sleep is a basic requirement for human health – it is when the body and mind can rest and recover. However, research suggests that over 20 per cent of people regularly suffer from sleep problems.

How does sleep affect health?

Sleep problems can cause poor concentration and memory, mood changes such as feeling depressed or irritable, and impaired judgement and physical coordination, among other effects.

Long-term lack of sleep can be associated with an increased risk of diabetes and obesity, while specific sleep disorders have been linked to a variety of health problems and chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and atrial fibrillation. In fact, 10 per cent of cardiovascular disease is attributed to obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). Research at HRI is investigating how OSA affects high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease.

How much sleep should you be getting?

While different people have different sleep needs, most adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep a night to feel properly refreshed and function at their best the next day. Adults over 65 years of age may only need between seven to eight hours. Anything less than six hours a night for the average adult and less than five hours for older adults is not recommended by experts.

While lack of sleep can have negative effects, sleeping too much is also not recommended. It’s best for the average adult to not sleep more than one to two hours over the recommended amount.

Children and teenagers need more sleep than adults, and depending on their age, this can range from 10 to 13 hours a day for pre-schoolers, to eight to ten hours for teenagers.

Can sleep problems affect the ability to exercise?

Like regular sleep, regular exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Good sleep quality can increase a person’s metabolic reserves, making them more resilient to stress of any kind. In terms of exercise, having had a good night’s sleep means you can train longer, or more intensely, before you get depleted. A lack of sleep decreases metabolic reserves, which means you may have a reduced capacity to cope with additional stress – in essence, a reduced capacity to train optimally.

If you’re really exhausted, it’s best to listen to your body and modify your workout. A light workout with some basic mobility drills might be all you need to improve your energy levels and lead to better sleep that night.

Managing irregular sleep patterns

If you find it difficult to maintain regular sleeping patterns, such as being a shift worker or new parent, it’s even more important to take steps to enhance recovery. On average, shift workers get two to three hours less sleep than other workers, while new parents lose between 450 and 700 hours of sleep during their child’s first 12 months of life.

In these cases, it’s important to find alternative ways to give your body extra recovery help through your day, such as by taking the time for some light movement, breathing exercises or meditation.

Tips for a better night’s sleep

These tips can help you get a better night’s sleep, but if you still experience sleep problems, speak to your doctor or other healthcare professional.

  • Stick to a regular sleep pattern whenever you can – go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Sleep in a comfortable room that’s cool and dark. On hot nights, aim to get some airflow over your skin by using a fan or opening windows, and wearing loose or sleeveless clothing. Having a cool shower before going to bed can also help.
  • Try to end any stimulating activities (including exercise) at least one to two hours before your bedtime, to give yourself time in which to wind down and relax.
  • Avoid distractions like your phone or watching tv during this wind-down time. Being in a brightly lit place or the blue light from electronic devices can suppress melatonin, the hormone that helps sleep.
  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes during the day and evening.
  • Avoid naps in the evening, as these can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Don’t lie awake watching the clock if you can’t sleep – turn bright alarm clocks around and avoid checking the time. You can also get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel more ready for sleep, while keeping the lights dim.
  • Don’t spend more time in bed than required for your daily sleep needs.
  • Try to spend time in natural daylight during the day. This will help with your body clock and the melatonin levels in the body, and improve sleep at night.
  • Sleep aids like sleeping pills are available, but these are designed for short-term use and shouldn’t be relied on. It’s best to only take these if recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.

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