Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
1:00 AM 30th March 2024

I’m A Doctor – This Is How Insomnia Affects Your Health

Experts say that one in three people in the UK experiences poor sleep from insomnia, but how much does sleep affect your health?

Photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash
Photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash
From better sleep hygiene to having a consistent routine, there are steps that you can take to get a better night’s sleep. Dr Natasha Fernando, Medical Director at home blood test provider Medichecks, investigates the different stages of sleep, the effects of sleep quality on your health, and explains how you can improve your sleep.

What is sleep?

Sleep is a complicated process that affects how you function in ways scientists are only now beginning to understand. However, we do know that during sleep, you progress through sleep cycles, each lasting, on average, roughly 90 to 110 minutes.

During these cycles, you progress through five different phases – stage one, two, three, four, and rapid eye movement (REM).”

The different stages of sleep:

Stage one
– Light sleep is where you drift in and out of sleep. If you are in light sleep, you can wake up with ease and may be able to remember some images from dreams or experience feelings like falling and waking up with a sudden jump.

Stage two – Your brain waves start to slow down, and your eyes stop moving.

Stages three and four – When deep sleep happens, your brain waves slow down and exclusively emit delta waves. Delta brain waves directly link to deep sleep and can be measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG). It is harder to wake someone in stages three and four of sleep. If you wake up in these stages, you may feel disorientated and grumpy.

REM – REM sleep usually starts around 70 to 90 minutes after you fall asleep. As the night progresses, REM sleep periods increase in length as deep sleep decreases. When you switch to REM sleep, your breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, your eyes jerk rapidly, and your limb muscles become temporarily paralysed. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. If you wake up during REM sleep, you may be able to recall strange dreams.

What controls sleep?

Your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis regulate when you are awake and sleep. These are two internal biological mechanisms - also referred to as clocks.

1. Circadian rythmn

Your circadian rhythm controls your timings of sleep. It synchronises with environmental cues, such as light and temperature. It makes you feel sleepy at night and wakes you up in the morning without an alarm.

Your genetic makeup can play a part in our circadian rhythm. In 2017, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young received a Nobel prize for their circadian rhythms research. By studying fruit flies, they isolated a gene that produces a protein that builds up cells overnight and then breaks down during the day. This process affects when you sleep, your brain functions, and more.

2. Sleep-wake homeostasis

Your sleep-wake homeostasis reminds the body to sleep and regulates sleep intensity. The sleep drive gets stronger the longer you are awake and therefore causes you to sleep for longer and more deeply after a period of sleep deprivation.

Why do we need to sleep?

Sleep affects almost every tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance.

Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night. However, one in three of us suffers from poor sleep. Poor sleep can lead to sleep deficiency, which can be dangerous long-term.

What causes a bad night's sleep?

Not having a routine or having caffeine too late in the day can lead to trouble sleeping. Let’s look at three common causes of poor sleep:

1. Mental Health

Your mental health and quality of sleep are closely linked. Poor mental health may affect your ability to get to sleep, and poor sleep can affect how you feel the next day.

If you find it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up earlier than you would like to, then you may be experiencing insomnia. Panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, or psychosis can disturb you when you are asleep, and low mood or low self-esteem may mean it is hard for you to wake up or get out of bed.

Poor sleep could also be down to stress. Our Stress Cortisol Saliva Tests can help you to understand your stress levels over the day and help to see if your cortisol could be affecting your wellbeing, or sleep pattern.

2. Shift work

Night workers make up 12% of the UK workforce. If you work shifts, your sleeping pattern and circadian timing can become affected. Long-term, 10-30% of shift workers are diagnosed with shift work sleep disorder, where they have experienced chronic sleep and circadian disruptions.

Sleep and circadian timing are both essential biological processes that affect many aspects of physical and mental health. Working shifts can heighten your risk of sleep problems, occupational and driving accidents, and health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. People who work shifts tend to have shorter and poorer quality sleep during the day.

If you work shifts, take extra care to make sure you are getting enough quality sleep.

3. Environment

Using electronic devices in the hours before bed can lead to disrupted sleep. Other environmental factors that may influence sleep include:

Temperature – We sleep best when our environment is colder than usual at night. If your room is too warm, then it may be affecting your sleep.
Noise – Limit noise around you. If this is not an option, try listening to music that has binaural beats at a delta frequency of 3hz – the same wavelengths that your body emits during deep sleep
Too much light – If it is too bright, your body may resist falling asleep. A black-out blind or sleep mask can help. Limiting blue light an hour before bedtime can also help with getting better sleep.
Safety – Sleeping can make you feel very vulnerable. Make sure you know that your doors are locked, and your house is safe before falling to sleep.
Eating or drinking too close to bed – avoid alcohol or eating a large meal close to bed. Alcohol is likely to cause disruptions to your sleep cycle by blocking REM sleep, interrupting your natural sleep-wake rhythm, its diuretic effect (multiple trips to the bathroom), and poor temperature control.

How can sleep affect your health?

Here are six ways that sleep can positively boost your health, and my six top tips for getting high quality sleep…

1. Boost immunity – a prolonged lack of sleep can disrupt your immune system, meaning you are less able to fight off common colds and viruses.

2. Help you lose weight – people who sleep less than seven hours a day tend to gain more weight than those who get more than seven hours. This could be due to the reduced levels of leptin (the chemical that makes you feel full) and increased levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormones) when sleep-deprived.

3. Benefit your mental health – chronic lack of sleep may lead to long-term mood disorders like depression or anxiety.

4. Prevent diabetes – people who sleep less than five hours a night have an increased risk of developing diabetes. Missing out on deep sleep changes the way the body processes glucose, leading to type 2 diabetes.

5. Ward off heart disease – sleep deprivation is linked with increased heart rate and blood pressure and higher levels of chemicals linked with inflammation, which may put extra strain on the heart.

6. Support fertility – regular sleep disruptions can cause infertility by reducing the secretion of reproductive hormones.

Six tips for better sleep

1. Exercise during the day - 20-30 minutes of exercise a day can help you feel tired later on but do not exercise too close to your bedtime.

2. Avoid bright lights and loud sounds before bed – avoid watching TV and using your phone in your bedroom as the blue light can affect your circadian rhythm, keeping you awake.

3. Do not lie in bed wake – if you're tossing and turning, try relaxation techniques, reading a book or listening to a podcast until you feel tired.

4. Take time to wind down – take a warm bath, write a list to organise your thoughts, or listen to relaxing music can help you wind down and decompress after a busy day.

5. Avoid caffeine – switch to de-caff drinks from about midday onwards and avoid caffeine in the evening before going to bed.

6. Have a consistent sleep schedule – Going to bed and waking at the same time every day can help sync your circadian rhythm and help you get a better quality of sleep. Even if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, make sure you still get up at the same time. That includes weekends, too.

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