What effects do chronic sleepless nights have on us?

Sleep is a vital part of health and well-being. Physically it restores us, and mentally, it enables us to think and concentrate when needed. Emotionally and psychologically, too, the dreams we have during sleep are essential to normal functioning, whether we remember them or not on waking. Lack of light can disrupt our natural sleep rhythms

When we’re asleep, both body and mind are involved in intense activity. The brain is processing information and the relaxation of muscles and bodily organs allows for cell repair. Sleep also protects the immune system, and supports our ability to combat infection. During sleep, there are peaks in the production of growth hormones, and during times of rapid growth – such as in childhood and adolescence – we fall asleep for longer, to allow for this. That’s why babies and toddlers need more sleep than older children, and why the teenage years are well-known for long lie-ins.

Sleep can be light or deep, and normal sleep goes through several cycles of each every night. In adults, light or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when dreaming takes place, happens about once every hour and a half.

In the short term, a few nights of poor sleep won’t cause you any serious harm, though it could affect your concentration or energy levels the day after in a fairly minor way. Lack of sleep which goes on for longer than this is more of a problem. There’s no good evidence that it affects physical health in any serious way, but it is certainly contributes to daytime fatigue, low mood, irritation and poor work performance. Some studies indicate that it’s a significant factor in poor mental health. The good news is that these symptoms go, once sleep patterns are normalised.

Sufficient sleep puts our bodies in balance – lack of sleep builds up a ‘sleep debt’ and we pay off the debt every 24 hours, by falling asleep according to the body’s drive to do so. This is controlled by a fine balance between activity in the lateral hypothalamus in the brain, which promotes wakefulness, and the preoptic area, which promotes sleep.

Evidence shows we need access to light for a regular period every 24 hours, to keep our sleep rhythms healthy, plus a routine for everyday living. The Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010 were advised to keep up normal sleeping patterns, by using their miners’ helmets to create a replacement for sunlight, and dividing their living space into working, sleeping and recreation areas.

There’s no formal difference between the terms sleeplessness and insomnia, and strictly speaking they’re interchangeable. Insomnia tends to refer to longer-term, chronic sleeplessness, unrelated to temporary factors like a different bed, or short-lived circumstances that keep you awake with stress or worry.

Exhaustion in the day and difficulty in concentrating can have other causes, too, of course. Even if you think you’d be helped with a couple of hours more sleep, there may be something else at the root of your symptoms.

Help for insomnia can come with therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT ) has been shown to be more effective and give longer-lasting results than sleeping pills. You can also improve your sleep patterns and the quality of your sleep by restricting or stopping your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs. Keep evening meals light and easily digested. Don’t work or use the computer in bed; watching TV can stimulate the mind, too, and make dropping off to sleep more difficult. Simple ‘sleep hygiene’ changes like this can make a real difference.

The House Partnership, 24th June 2011