Inside Out – Why You Sleep (and Why You Don’t)

by Jo Epping-Jordan PhD, Coordinator of Mental – Health Programming, Tall Tree Integrated Health Centre – 

As you sleep, your brain is busy sorting through events of the day and restoring itself for the next day. After a good night’s sleep, your attention, brain processing speed, memory and creativity are improved. You also feel happier and less stressed.

With too little sleep, your brain becomes overworked. Even one night of disrupted sleep impairs learning and reaction time. Longer-term, insufficient sleep correlates with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. A recent synthesis of 27 studies estimated that fully 15% of all Alzheimer’s disease may be attributable to sleep problems.

Poor sleep has many other negative health effects: disrupted hormonal and metabolic functioning leading to obesity, cardiovascular problems and diabetes. People who sleep less than six hours per night die younger than those who sleep six to eight hours per night.

Want to improve your sleep? Below are two key questions to ask yourself.

Do you give yourself enough time to sleep? Many people skimp on their sleep. More than half of Canadians say they cut back on sleep when they need time to accomplish more during the day. One third of Canadians sleep less than recommended. (The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults 64 and younger; and seven to eight hours for adults 65 and older.) The irony of this is, when people defy their natural limits by sleeping less, they deprive themselves of exactly what they need to think clearly and perform well. They end up working longer, but not smarter.

For the brain to do its night work properly, you need to sleep enough. To do that, allocate the time you need to sleep within age-appropriate recommendations. There is no way to deny this fact: spending more time sleeping will mean less time for other activities. But, with adequate sleep, you can expect to be more efficient, productive and creative while awake.

Do you have insomnia? Others allocate adequate sleep opportunity but have insomnia, meaning trouble going to or staying asleep. Insomnia has many different causes; one third of adults report insomnia, and 12% to 20% have symptoms that meet criteria for insomnia disorder. Insomnia prevalence increases to 40% for people age 65+.

Treatment of insomnia involves identifying and, if possible, addressing underlying causes, including conditions such as pain, gastroesophageal reflux, perimenopause, sleep-disordered breathing (including sleep apnea), and depression. Certain prescription medications and other substances (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) are sometimes the cause. Often, poor sleep habits – including irregular bedtimes and wakeup times or screen use before bedtime – play a major role and, if addressed, can improve sleep.

Beyond this, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a gold standard treatment, particularly if insomnia persists. CBT for insomnia is a structured program that helps people face fears surrounding inability to sleep and disrupt patterns they develop due to their sleep issues. It is generally recommended over sleep medications as a safe and effective treatment.

Convinced, but don’t know where to start? The website is a great resource, and several local healthcare clinics offer programs to help people improve their sleep.

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