Maverick Life


Sleep has a profound effect on mental and physical health

Sleep has a profound effect on mental and physical health
Cris Saur for Unsplash

‘A good night’s sleep is the best health insurance policy anyone can invest in’, says Professor Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and author of the 2017 bestseller, Why We Sleep.

This story was first published in November 2020 and has been edited slightly.

Regular, quality sleep is crucial for good mental and physical health and this is especially relevant today, as anxiety and insomnia caused by our tumultuous socio-economic conditions are rampant.

Anxiety causes a continuous release of adrenaline in the body, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, preventing or disrupting sleep. In fact, in April 2020, an online survey by the SA Depression and Anxiety Group showed that 55% of respondents (predominantly women), suffer from anxiety, which can cause chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia.

Quality sleep has a profound effect on health: Professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Matthew Walker says those who have a good night’s sleep are 40% better at absorbing, interpreting and retaining new information than those who were kept awake. Sleep also has a profound effect on physical well-being. Walker says, for example, men who regularly sleep fewer than five hours a night have the testosterone levels of men ten years older.

Walker’s findings are confirmed by other researchers. Dr Kevin Rosman, a neurologist with a special interest in sleeping disorders and director at the Morningside Sleep Clinic in Johannesburg, explains that sleep enhances memory, makes you more creative, helps control weight, protects against dementia, and clears the body of toxins which helps to prevent cancer; and indeed, your mind is three times more likely to solve a problem if you have slept on it.

Dr Alison Bentley, who has been involved in sleep research for more than thirty years and works at Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, says sleep increases our immunity to infection, referring to Canadian researchers who have reported that regularly sleeping fewer than six hours per night is linked to an increased risk of catching a cold, and sleeping fewer than five hours a night doubles one’s chances of getting pneumonia.

Researchers at the University of Milan, in a study published in 2014 titled, “Effects of acute and chronic sleep deprivation on cardiovascular regulation”, found a good night’s sleep stabilises the body’s cardio-vascular control, metabolism and blood sugar, hormones and emotions.

For those suffering from insomnia, Rosman recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-I), which was proven to be effective in a 2018 study. The therapy often runs over eight weeks and is aimed at helping identify and address patterns of thinking and behaviour that cause sleep problems. It also helps the body and mind to relearn how to fall asleep naturally and to stay asleep.

Key to learning good sleeping habits is to follow a consistent bedtime ritual and good sleep hygiene, which means avoiding strenuous exercise, drinking alcohol or caffeine, and unplugging technology at least two hours before bedtime.

If possible, your bedroom must be dark, quiet and cool; the bed should not be used for reading or watching TV as this will help the brain to recognise the bed as a place to sleep. If you cannot fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing elsewhere until you feel tired enough to return to bed. Improving healthy lifestyle habits is important and while a night cap might help you fall asleep more easily, it also causes fragmented sleep and prevents dream sleep.

Those in behavioural therapy are encouraged to keep a sleep diary in order to monitor progress; taught how to relax through meditation or yoga; and to keep a worry journal in which to note concerns and reasons for gratitude. All of these help to quiet the mind and allow the body to relax.

Bentley says that you should only consider taking a low dose of sleeping pills if you have tried CBT and still battle to sleep, while Rosman adds that sleeping pills should best be a temporary solution as they might induce lower quality sleep, may affect memory in the long-term and cause falls.

Melatonin, which is known to help regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle over a 24-hour period, can be taken in supplement form but may only work if the body has a shortage of it. The hormone is said to promote the onset of sleepiness when it gets dark and wakefulness when it becomes day. Other popular alternatives such as magnesium and cannabis could have some effect, but their efficacy to treat insomnia have not been scientifically proven. DM/ ML


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