Friday, 18 March 2022, is World Sleep Day®, a day where the importance of sleep is recognised around the globe to help lessen the burden of sleep problems on society. Sleep is a fundamental biological requirement and when we do not get enough of it, it wreaks havoc on our health—both physically and mentally.
There are three key elements of good quality sleep:
Sleep should be long enough that the sleeper wakes up feeling rested and alert in the morning. While exact sleep needs to vary from person to person, biologically adults need more than 7 hours each night for optimum health.
Sleep should not be fragmented or punctuated by periods of awake time. If it is, sleep quality is compromised.
Sleep should be deep enough to be restorative. We cycle through periods of REM sleep (sleep state associated with dreaming) and deep sleep through the night. While both are restorative, it is the deep sleep that is the most restful. And this is the type of sleep that can be the most elusive.
When we don’t get adequate restorative sleep, it will begin to take a toll on how we look and feel each day. Sleep and anxiety counsellor, Martine Barclay, says 67% of all health complaints in Australia can be tracked back to a lack of adequate quality sleep. From the small niggling symptoms like headaches, mental fog and low mood through to more compromising health crises.
“Skimping on quality sleep puts you at risk of developing a serious medical condition over time, including obesity, heart disease, neurological diseases and some cancers,” says Barclay. “Sleep quality and quantity are both important for improving overall health.”
In other words, it is not just how long you sleep for, it is also how restorative that sleep is.
When sleep is restorative, you wake up feeling refreshed and revitalised in the morning. Good quality sleep will usually look like putting your head on the pillow, falling asleep within a few minutes and not waking up until the next morning. If you do wake up – perhaps to use the bathroom or to adjust the room temperature – you have no trouble going straight back to sleep.
For many people, however, this kind of sleep is a pipedream.
Some find it difficult to drift off to sleep. They toss and turn attempting to find a comfortable position or trying to switch off a busy mind that won’t stop racing through the events of the day. Others may drift off quite quickly but find themselves waking up through the night and having immense trouble getting back to sleep.
“Sleep connects physical, mental and spiritual health,” says Barclay, “When sleep is a struggle, one of the three areas of health are out of alignment.” Which means that if you are having trouble with your sleep, you may want to look at those three areas to assess what might be causing it.
One of the most challenging aspects of any kind of sleep struggle and the health consequences it creates is that often the one thing that would help is good quality sleep. And yet, this is the one thing that is not available.
“Struggling to sleep can lead to adverse changes to your mental health and it can worsen existing mental health conditions,” says Barclay. In other words, the sleep challenges associated with mental health conditions can perpetuate those conditions, and vice versa. The same is true for any kind of health challenge you may experience. Which just goes to show how truly essential sleep is for health.
If sleep challenges plague your existence, see this as a sign to start working on them. Chat to a medical professional or sleep counsellor like Martine Barclay to help you get clarity on how best to approach them. Your future self will thank you for it.
Martine Barclay is a Masters trained Psychotherapist in Sydney. Martine specialises in supporting adults to get a better night’s sleep with talking therapies. Martine is an accredited practitioner in CBT for insomnia (CBT-i), Buteyko Breathing and mindfulness which she combines for clients, so they can regain their sleep confidence.