The importance of sleep and health

Always tired? Here’s why sleep should be a priority.
Published 6 June 2016

The link between sleep and good health


Sleep. It’s that precious necessity we all need, yet so few of us are getting enough of it. We go to bed too late, wake up too early, or our sleep is broken and poor quality. Yes, we can survive on bad sleep, but are we living life to our full potential when we’re always tired, always lagging?

According to Dr Gary Foster, the Chief Scientific Officer at WW International, we don’t prioritise sleep as much as we should. “Sleep is fundamental to our existence and our quality of life. We don’t ask ourselves ‘How am I going to fit in going to the bathroom today?’ and that’s a fundamental bodily need – as is sleep. We want people to believe they have the right to a good night’s sleep.

It’s time to start thinking about sleep as an essential and giving it the attention it deserves,” says Dr Foster.


What's so bad about bad sleep?

A bad night’s sleep opens the door to a whole host of issues the next day. “Poor sleep affects a lot, starting with your temperament,” says Dr Foster. A tired parent might snap more easily at their children. A tired driver puts themself (and others) at risk on the road. And being sleep-deprived at work means you’ll have difficulty focusing on tasks that need to be done.

“When you’re tired, you’re not on top of your game, you’re not performing at your best and your judgement is impaired,” says Dr Foster. When it comes to making smart decisions for your health, being tired makes that harder, too. “Sleep is so important for our ability to focus and make wise choices. When we’re tired we lean towards the easy default, which often means choosing quick, unhealthy foods or deciding not to exercise.” That’s not ideal when you’re trying to be healthy or lose weight.


Does being tired make you hungry?

So many of us reach for food when we’re tired. But is there any science behind it? “The hormone ghrelin – the appetite hormone – tends to go up a little when you’re tired and that’s associated with being hungry,” says Dr Foster. Yet the more likely reason people eat when they’re tired is because we humans aren't so clever at recognising the signals our body is sending us.

“People mistake a lot of bodily states – thirst, tiredness, boredom - for hunger,” says Dr Foster. Eventually, even our body gets confused about what it needs. “If you’re tired and you eat something because you think it will help, and you repeat that behaviour five to 10 times, after a while the presence of fatigue will prompt you to eat,” says Dr Foster. Talk about mixed messages! so how do you get a great night’s sleep?

Fortunately, all this run-off associated with tiredness can be cleared up – you just need to prioritise sleep. “It’s about taking care of yourself. We want you to believe that you’re valuable enough to deserve a good night’s sleep,” says Dr Foster. Dr Foster suggests setting small goals. If you’re only getting six hours of sleep each night and you want between seven and eight, it’s unrealistic to put yourself to bed one or two hours earlier. “Start with a small goal so you’re less likely to fail,” he says. Climbing into bed 15 minutes earlier is a good first step.

“Set some guidelines to make it happen.” That means you have to commit to scheduling your evening around your new, earlier bedtime. Perhaps you’ll need to eat dinner earlier, turn the TV off earlier, and start brushing your teeth earlier. Going to bed earlier doesn't happen on its own – you have to set a plan in place to make it a reality.


How can I get a good night of sleep?

For good sleep you need a comfy bed and room. Try these tips if you’re having trouble sleeping.

Keep it dark: Cover any light escaping from electronic equipment or clock radios. Blockout blinds can be a good investment or a cheaper option is to try an eyemask.

Keep it cool: A cool room is easier to sleep in than a hot one. Between 15-18°C is optimal.

Keep it calm: There’s no need to check your phone if you wake up in the night, so don’t keep it on your bedside table. If you need the time, buy a clock so you’re not tempted to pick up your phone.

Keep it clean: A neat and tidy room is more conducive to a good night’s sleep. Change your sheets regularly, pick stuff up off the floor and close cupboard doors. Keep it comfy: If something is bothering you in your room – if your pillow is too flat or your sheet isn't tucked in properly – change it!


What is sleep apnoea?

This condition occurs when the walls of the throat collapse and block off the airway. Breathing stops for up to a minute until the brain registers the lack of oxygen and sends a little wake-up call to the sleeper, who may gasp or snort and fall back to sleep without realising. At its worst, sleep apnoea can result in up to 30 episodes each night.

The exact cause is unknown, however obesity is the biggest modifiable risk factor. “Think about your upper airway from your jawbone to the top of your torso – the more fat in that area, the “wobblier” it becomes and that’s what creates the collapse,” says Dr Foster.

Losing even a little bit of weight can make a difference. Or, see your doctor about other solutions, such as wearing a sleep mask to help with oxygen flow.