Getting a good night’s sleep is about more than beauty

Sleep deprivation can damage mind and body. Here are a few simple steps to improve your nightly rest

Disordered sleep is a key feature of many forms of dementia and depression. It is wise to avoid anything that keeps you awake at night. Photograph: Getty Images

Disordered sleep is a key feature of many forms of dementia and depression. It is wise to avoid anything that keeps you awake at night. Photograph: Getty Images


Good sleep is essential for health and wellbeing. Modern life, however, appears to be almost designed to disrupt sleep. Sleep disorders are becoming increasingly common and severe.

Many people who responded to our recent sleep survey reported poor quality sleep and reduced sleep time. A reduction in sleep duration is a leading cause of chronic sleep deprivation, fatigue, increased appetite and low productivity.

In our recent survey more than half of respondents reported getting less than seven hours of sleep. Almost a third of respondents reported suffering the consequences of poor sleep: difficulty staying awake during the day.

Many Irish people are frustrated by poor sleep quality and daytime fatigue. During The Sleep Challenge, each of our “sleep champions” described a variety of lifestyle factors that reduced sleep time and sleep quality.

We found that the pressure of modern lifestyle and work erodes into sleep times. Sleep deprivation is something our sleep champions themselves have noticed – supported by the fact that they drink coffee and take naps during the day in order to remain alert – albeit in a fog.

The opportunity for peaceful sleep is also commonly disrupted by technology such as smartphones and tablets. Electronic devices tend to promote wakefulness rather than sleep.

Our subjects reported that work and social events caused irregular sleep times, and this irregularity greatly disturbs normal sleep.

The sleep leaders also reported going to bed late and “binge sleeping” on the weekend to catch up – although it appears that one or two nights of long sleep are not enough to catch up on a week of sleep deprivation. Interestingly, even though many of our sleep leaders became increasingly aware of their poor sleep habits, they found it exceedingly difficult to break these habits. A routine that ensures that sleep times regularly coincide with day/night cycles is thought to improve sleep quality.

Although the idea of getting to bed earlier seems unproductive, the early sleep time allows a long sleep period before the arousal hours of between 8am and 10am.

What you can

do to improve your sleep:
1. Sleep comes first: Sleep should come

before socialising and social media. Avoid lifestyle and social habits that interfere with sleep. Record a TV programme rather than stay up late to watch it.

2. No technology: Leave your smartphone or tablet in the living area. Do not bring devices into the bedroom. Many of our sleep respondents report that a brief episode of insomnia (which is common) can lead to hours of web surfing and social media – most of which is neither entertaining nor productive.

3. Early to bed and early to rise: You know the old adage. Most Irish people go to bed between 11pm and 1am. Thirty years ago the average bedtime was 9:30pm. While a pattern of bedtime at 11pm might be “normal” for teenagers (whose body clock is well suited to late bedtimes), a pattern of late bedtimes (even with sufficient sleep duration) inevitably leads to daytime fatigue.

The first problem with late bedtime is that the body clock (an internal circadian clock) must adjust in order to allow for late bedtime and late awakening. Second, a late bedtime inevitably leads to short sleep duration because the commitment to beating traffic and getting to work early makes it practically impossible to sleep in longer in the morning. Prioritise sleep.

Most people believe they can safely avoid sleep by staying up late. Alternatively, many people believe that they can safely reduce their sleep duration for many days without suffering sleep deprivation.

The reality is that many people (almost a third of respondents in our survey) are excessively sleepy and have difficulty staying awake during the day – in part because of poor sleep habits.
4. Evaluate your sleep
: While modern technology can disrupt your sleep, there are also modern advances in sleep monitoring that can help people evaluate the duration and, to some extent, the quality of sleep. These monitors are most useful when they allow you to plan your sleep hours and to maintain a regular sleep schedule. A simple sleep diary may help you to evaluate just how regular or irregular your sleep routine has become.

5. Protect yourself from factors that limit your sleep: Be aware that sleep disorders and sleep deprivation can seriously damage your mind and body. Sleep disorders are serious and life-threatening conditions.

In addition to car crashes and accidents that cause injury and death as a direct consequence of impaired consciousness due to sleep deprivation, some sleep disorders are strongly associated with serious medical and neurologic conditions. Common examples include Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome, which causes hypertension, diabetes and cardiac disease.

Disordered sleep is a key feature of many forms of dementia and depression. It is wise to avoid anything that keeps you awake at night. Exercise late in the evening or in the night is more stimulating than hypnotic. Most people report that they are wound up after a late meal and find it harder to get to sleep after coffee.

Dr John Faul is a respiratory physician and sleep specialist at the Hermitage Medical Clinic.

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