Sleep - are you getting enough?

Sleep is a normal and necessary part of good health. It is a time for which the body has the opportunity to reduce its interaction with the environment, and is a behavioural state in which the body renews and restores itself. It benefits the body both psychologically and physically. It renews energy stores and organises the store of memories and thoughts we have had that day. If you become deprived of sleep through your hectic lifestyle, the body's ability to function becomes less effective. Even your immune system will suffer, making you more susceptible to minor infections.

There are two stages of sleep, deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement). If your body is deprived of either of these two sleep stages your body will suffer the next day. Use of some medications such as sleeping tablets, along with drinking alcohol, and smoking marijuana will deprive you of REM sleep. It is during REM that we do most of our dreaming, which is vital for normal mental functioning. If you do not get the body's requirement of REM you will find yourself suffering from REM rebound. REM rebound will mean you will dream much more, the dreams are often vivid and are often "anxiety type" dreams. This is your body compensating for the previous loss of REM and is a normal part of sleep.

Sleep disorders

There are 88 sleep disorders. However only insomnia will be discussed. This is the most common sleeping disorder.

Symptoms include: difficulty in falling asleep, waking regularly during the night, or waking earlier than you want. You can suffer from only one to all of these symptoms. It will affect your stages of deep sleep and REM. It can become a real problem, as you may feel unrefreshed and sluggish when you wake and it will affect your ability to function during the day.

Aids to a better nights sleep:

Try to keep regular hours in going to bed and waking in the morning, this will give your body a pattern in which it will sub-consciously help the brain's "sleep clock" to stay in rhythm.

Keep up regular exercise, without activity your sleep will suffer.

Eat lightly at night, as a heavy meal is likely to give you night sweats, indigestion, and possibly nightmares.

Have your last meal before 9pm, so that your food will have a chance to digest before sleep. Digesting food in your sleep will make your stomach more active, when it should be resting overnight.

Avoid caffeine after 5pm, as it is a stimulant and will prevent you falling asleep easily (try chamomile as it has a soothing affect on the body, or the old age trick - a warm glass of milk, as it has ingredients that promote sleep).

Try to avoid spicy meals or large meals, as they are able to increase or decrease your body temperature, which may cause restlessness.

Make sure you don't skip dinner, as you will find yourself waking up hungry during the night.

Try Valerian tablets - these can be purchased over the counter at pharmacies and at some supermarkets. Valium (a muscle relaxant) is a derivative of valerian root; valerian is a nature and non-addictive herb that can be sedating without being addictive.

Other agents that can aid in a good night's sleep are calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B6; these can have a tranquilizing affect on the brain.

Try relaxation techniques before bed. It will help to reduce worries and relax your mind and body. This will help prepare you for when you get into bed and relieve "those thoughts that fly around in your head."

If you have trouble falling asleep, don't lie in bed and think. Get out of bed and do something like watch TV or read a book (just don't do either of these in bed), even go for a short slow walk. Only get back into bed when you feel tired.

There are many other techniques for a good night's sleep. One may work for you; others may be of no benefit. If it is affecting your life to the point that you cannot function during the day without feeling extreme fatigue, irritability, and an inability to concentrate, you need to seek professional help (e.g. your GP). Sleeping tablets do not cure the problem; they only are of short-term benefit and are usually addictive. You may need to take a close look at your lifestyle, as there may be an obvious problem you are overlooking that can be solved in order for you to get a better night's sleep.

- Louise Ganey