The personal costs of poor sleep – and what you can do about it
Sleep problems such as difficulties falling or staying asleep are common in modern society. Up to 30%1 say they acutely struggle with sleep, and a further 10%1 do so on a long-term basis (chronic insomnia). Women and people typically above 65 years are those who are most likely to experience sleep disturbances. But there is also a large part of us who forgo their sleep, often feeling the need to do more with their waking hours.
What insufficient sleep means for body and mind
Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep take a toll on your body and mind. For example, research has shown that short sleep is associated with obesity, as well has an increased risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.2 When sleeping only four hours a night, the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, and over time this increases the likelihood of diabetes.
Sleeping too long also carries health risks.3 For example, too much sleep (typically >9 hours), like too little sleep, is associated with a higher mortality and stroke risk. The mechanism(s) for this aren’t understood yet but it seems that other factors such as physical health and medical conditions, socio-economic status and little physical activity play an important role. It could be that these conditions cause the sleep problem. An example is that obesity or being overweight can cause sleep apnoea (difficulty breathing during your sleep) and disrupt sleep. Therefore, you feel more tired in the day and try to sleep more at night.
Poor sleep can influence how you feel during the day and affects mental and emotional wellbeing. Insomnia (the most common sleep disorder) increases the risk for anxiety and depression, and vice versa. It’s a slow and at times insidious process where a few, occasional poor nights give rise to chronic sleep anxiety and thus less sleep. Feeling sleepy makes you less willing to engage with others, potentially leading to social isolation and loneliness. What’s more, not getting enough sleep makes us feel more irritable and impulsive the next day. This then also impacts on how we interact with others and how we show up in the world. Over time lack of sleep and its health outcomes can put a strain on your relationships at work and (more importantly perhaps) at home. Considering this, I wonder if sleep’s relationship with our emotions might be its most important one.
If you want your sleep to support your emotional wellbeing, try to adopt a sleep-friendly lifestyle and incorporate some of the below suggestions.
How to adopt a sleep-friendly lifestyle
Make time for sleep on a nightly basis. Find out what your personal sleep window is and then stick to these sleep times; regularity is key for a healthy sleep, whether it’s during the week or on the weekend.
Spend time outside. Whether it is raining or sunny, being in natural daylight helps to reset your body clock, letting it know that it is daytime. In the evening, do the opposite and dim the light levels so your body clock understands that night-time is on its way. This will help to get your body ready for sleep.
Take time to breath during the day. Sure, this is done automatically, but when we stop and pay attention to the act of breathing, the mind gets a moment to slow down too. This in turn helps to wind down in the evening because the mind learns that periods of high intensity are followed by periods of stillness.
Use the evening as an opportunity to engage in acts of self-care. Do something that gives a sense of joy and relaxation. This might be going for a walk, watching an episode of your favourite show, or create a gentle self-care ritual. Soothing gestures such as placing your hand on your heart or belly may help to regulate emotions. Or drop some scented oil into the palms of your hands and gently massage your face to alleviate stress.
Poor sleep is part of normal sleep. Even with the sleep-friendliest lifestyle and bedroom environment, you can still struggle with sleep at times. It’s a bit like trying to avoid getting a cold. You eat healthily, take vitamins, exercise – and still, one day you wake up with a cough and blocked nose. You can strengthen your immune system, but you can’t control it. The same can happen with sleep. Healthy sleep habits will minimise the likelihood of poor sleep but not prevent it entirely. That cold we just spoke about can also affect your sleep – irrespective of sleep-friendly lifestyle or not. You can’t control your sleep, no matter how much you try. So don’t beat yourself up if you have a poor night, accept it as part of normal life, and tomorrow get back to looking after your sleep.
- 1: Morin CM, Drake CL, Harvey AG, Krystal AD, Manber R, Riemann D, Spiegelhalder K. Insomnia disorder. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2015 Sep 3;1:15026. doi: 10.1038/nrdp.2015.26. PMID: 27189779.
- 2: Itani, O., Jike, M., Watanabe, N., & Kaneita, Y. (2017). Short sleep duration and health outcomes: a systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression. Sleep Medicine, 32, 246–256. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2016.08.00
- 3: Buxton OM, Marcelli E. Short and long sleep are positively associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease among adults in the United States. Soc Sci Med. 2010 Sep;71(5):1027-36. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.05.041. Epub 2010 Jun 16. PMID: 20621406.