A good night’s sleep is something we all value. Scientists tell us, and we know from experience, that it refreshes us, helps us
perform better, and contributes significantly to health and happiness, especially in children. And yet, there are millions of us
suffering from ongoing shortage of sleep.
According to the World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM), sleep problems add up to a global epidemic that affects 45% of
the world’s population.
“Insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless legs syndrome (RLS), and sleep deprivation significantly impact physical,
mental and emotional health, in addition to affecting work performance and personal relationships,” they said, on the fourth
annual World Sleep Day on Friday 18th March 2011, when health professionals from WASM and other organizations worldwide
came together to deliver the message that sleep is a “human privilege that is often compromised by the habits of modern life”.
The 24/7 Technological Society
When we think about it, these figures are hardly surprising. Over the last two or three decades, the choice of round the
clock activity available to the average Westerner today has become overwhelming. We can shop at 2 am, either at the
supermarket or online, we can do our banking online 24/7, we can watch any number of films and TV channels or catch up on
programs around the clock, we can download games, books and software and start enjoying them without having to wait until the
And then there’s the communications technology through which we make ourselves accessible to others, via mobile or cell phones,
internet chats and and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Over less than a generation our social “interfaces” have multiplied enormously,
leading to an ever increasing volume of transactions with a growing number of people.
And all this impacts not only our daytime activity, but damages our sleep environment: it’s much harder to wind down and
prepare for sleep when the bedroom is more like a NASA control center than a haven of peace and tranquility.
This is especially evident in the younger generation. Research suggests that as a group, teenagers are experiencing sleep
deprivation on an unprecedented scale. A contributing factor is the tide of technology flooding into the bedroom of the average
Home insurance surveys show that most British children have a games console, a TV, a CD player and a DVD player in their
bedroom, which one in five parents now ranks as containing more expensive items than the kitchen or living room. The bedroom
is also the room teenagers spend most of their time in, and where they tend to hang out with their friends when they call
Calling and texting on cell phones is an especially big stealer of sleep time among teenagers. Doctors in the US are becoming
very concerned about the effect this has on their health and development.
Dr R Michael Seyffert of the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute at JFK Medical Center in Edison, sees two or three teenagers a
month with severe night-time cell phone problems, which he defines as spending two or more hours of texting and phoning each
night. He says he has seen more of this in the last five years than ever before, and predicts it is only going to get worse.
Few would disagree with him: as we drift on this tide of technology toward a total 24/7, globally connected society, with an
increasing number of gadgets to inform, stimulate and entertain us, the traditional boundaries between activity and sleep are being
eroded, and we are likely to see a rise in the number of people experiencing health problems from lack of sleep.
Here are some tips that might help:
Tip 1: Keep a Sleep Journal
A good place to start if you think you are not getting enough hours or quality of sleep at night, is to keep a sleep journal noting
things like hours of sleep, ease or difficulty of falling asleep, when you exercise, when you drink alcohol and caffeine, how
refreshed you feel, and then look for patterns between quality and length of sleep and what you do during the day and when you
go to bed. This is often the first thing that a clinician will ask you to do.
For instance, after two weeks, you might find a pattern between exercise and sleep quality, or between caffeinated drink
consumption late at night and the number of times you get up to go to the bathroom or difficulty falling asleep.
Tip 2: Stick to a Routine
Try to go to bed and get up at around the same time every day. Even at the weekend.
Keeping to a routine reinforces the body’s sleep-wake cycle and helps you fall asleep more easily at night, say experts at the
Mayo Clinic in the US.
If you need an alarm clock to wake you up on time, you should consider going to bed earlier.
Tip 3: Control Napping and Drowsiness
A cat-nap during the day can be a great refresher, especially for older people. But be careful about sleeping during the day: a
refreshing nap may be useful occasionally for paying off your sleep debt, and is better than sleeping late because this disrupts
your sleep-wake rhythm, but if you have insomnia and nap regularly, consider eliminating the daytime nap.
If you must have a nap, restrict it to 20 minutes and do it early afternoon and not later.
Drowsiness often happens after big meals. Avoid the temptation to let this drift into sleep. Get off the couch and get active: do
the dishes, go for a walk, do some chores, or call a friend. The killer is the TV dinner: eat, fall asleep on the couch, wake up hours
later, and then you can’t get to sleep when you go to bed properly. We’ve all been there.
Tip 4: Avoid Lots of Drink and Food Before Bedtime
Keep in mind the saying: “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper”. Eating or drinking large amounts
before bedtime can result in indigestion, and night-time toilet visits to empty a bursting bladder. Try to eat a light meal at least two
hours before bedtime, and if fatty or spicy foods give you heartburn, try to avoid them in your evening meal.
Be careful with coffee and tea, and other caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a well-known stimulant that lingers in the body and if
you drink it in the evening, it will not help you sleep. Try replacing that after-dinner coffee with chamomile tea, a traditional
sleep inducing remedy that soothes.
Tip 5: Avoid Alcohol in the Evening
Although it is often thought of as a sedative, alcohol actually disrupts sleep. Even in small doses, it can impair quality of sleep,
especially in the second half of the night.
Alcohol disrupts chemical messengers in the brain and the balance between REM sleep and non-REM sleep. The right balance
in sleep patterns and brain waves, what scientists call “sleep architecture”, helps us feel refreshed in the morning, as Jessica
Alexander, of the UK’s Sleep Council told the Times newspaper in an interview:
“Alcohol can mean that sleep is no longer refreshing, because the brain can’t perform the normal restorative job it does during the
Tip 6: Make Your Bedroom Sleep-Friendly
Keep your bedroom dark, cool, quiet and comfortable. This is the ideal environment for sleeping. Consider carefully each item
in your bedroom, especially gadgets. If you have to keep them there, then be strict about switching them off, or even put them
away in a cupboard. Switch off the cell phone or turn it to silent mode.
Many people watch TV in bed and claim it helps them get to sleep. Try doing without it for two weeks, and see what effect it has
on your quality of sleep. It could be that the light from the screen disturbs the natural sleep-wake rhythm, and stimulating
content like violence, advertisements, sudden loudness, raises your adrenaline and has the opposite effect from that which eases
your body into sleep.
If you can’t lessen disturbing noises such as dogs barking, sirens, birds singing in the morning, then consider masking the sound
with a fan or white noise generator, or wearing earplugs.
An eye mask that blocks out the light can also help if you wake up easily when a light goes on, or the early sun comes through the
Tip 7: Exercise in the Morning
Exercise is a great way to help us relax and consolidate sleep. However, when we exercise can affect our quality of
Researchers say that morning exercise is best, and that exercising too close to bedtime delays the time the body starts to unwind
because it increases chemicals that are associated with wakefulness.
In a study published earlier this year, Dr Scott Collier, assistant professor at Appalachian State University, found that aerobic
exercise at 7 am was linked to higher improvements in sleep quality than exercising at 1 pm and 7 pm.
Make sure children get enough sleep by setting an age-appropriate bedtime and waketime: and stick to this at weekends
Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
Make sure children wear comfortable night-time clothes, and infants have strong absorbing diapers or nappies.
Limit electronic gadgets in the bedroom and their use before bedtime.
Ensure children get plenty of outdoor exercise during the day.
Avoid bright light at bedtime and during the night, and increase light brightness in the morning.
Encourage your children to fall asleep independently.
Stick to a consistent mealtime schedule, and don’t give them caffeinated drinks.
This article covers some of the causes of sleep problems and gives some suggestions for overcoming them. If you find these don’t
help, or suspect your problems may be more serious than those covered here, then you should seek the advice of a medical professional who can
give you expert help.
Sources : “Sleep Well, Grow Healthy: World Sleep Day Promotes Healthy Sleep for Infants, Children, and All Ages on
March 18, 2011”, PR Newswire 15 March 2011; Dec 2009 survey for esure.com, and Dec 2007 survey for Lloyds TSB Insurance
(gadgets in children’s bedrooms); “Night-texting taking its toll on N.J. teens”, nj.com Sep 2009; National Academy of Sleep
Medicine (US); Mayo Clinic; MNT Archives; Helpguide.org; “Alcohol How It Affects Your Sleep” Feb 2010 Times Online;
NationalSleep Foundation (US); CDC; NINDS (NIH).
Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD