The benefits of a good night’s sleep are well documented, but getting enough rest is still a challenge for many. Amy Birchall reports
If you hit the snooze button more often than you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day, you’re not alone.
Respiratory and sleep physician at the Institute for Breathing and Sleep Dr Fergal O’Donoghue says most Australian adults aren’t getting enough sleep – and it’s because they fail to make it a priority.
“People are constantly pushing boundaries and skimping on sleep. It often isn’t considered as valuable as other activities,” he says. “If you take people out of their ordinary lives and put them in a controlled test environment where they can sleep as much as they like, they tend to sleep for much longer – at least 30 to 45 minutes more than usual.”
While business leaders Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi may claim to need fewer than four hours’ sleep a night, Dr O’Donoghue says this is an unrealistic target for most people.
“The amount of sleep needed for general wellbeing varies from person to person, but the majority of people who say they can get away with less than six hours’ sleep a night are kidding themselves. Some appear to manage well, but it’s certainly rare,” he says.
Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation claims adults need an average of eight hours and 15 minutes of sleep a night to function at an optimum level.
However, a 2013 study by America’s National Sleep Foundation has found many people fall far short of this target, averaging just 6.5 hours a night. Dr O’Donoghue says this has not always been the case.
“Look back 50 or 100 years and you’ll find that people got more sleep, and that sleep was likely to be of better quality,” he says.
Dr O’Donoghue cites shift work, noise pollution, working on bright screens late at night and expanding waistlines as factors particularly detrimental to sleep quality.
“Sleep apnoea, which can disrupt sleep, is directly related to weight,” Dr O’Donoghue says. “And because people are getting heavier, diagnoses of sleep apnoea are on the rise.”
He also says working out exactly how much sleep an individual needs is difficult because of the interaction between basal sleep need and sleep debt. Basal sleep need is the amount of sleep a person needs on a regular basis for optimal performance, while sleep debt is the amount of accumulated sleep lost to poor sleep habits, sickness or other factors.
“If you’re sleep-deprived because you’ve stayed up late for three nights in a row, you’re building up a sleep debt that needs to be repaid,” Dr O’Donoghue says. “Sleep debts don’t need to be paid back minute for minute, but people often don’t realise a good sleep on the fourth night won’t get them back to normal.
“If you’ve built up a total sleep debt of six hours over three days, you’ll probably need to get an extra two hours of sleep on top of what you usually need to feel at your best.”
Dr O’Donoghue says sleep debts generally increase as the working week goes on, leaving workers exhausted by Friday afternoon.
“A weekend sleep-in goes some way towards remedying a sleep debt, but in many cases it isn’t enough to restore the balance,” he says. “Aim to sleep more during the week too.”