Ask yourself this: Do you fall asleep quickly (in under 20 minutes)? Do you sleep right through without waking in the night? Do you wake up in the morning bright and alert?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you are one of the lucky ones who get the right amount of sleep, says Chris Idzikowski, author of Learn to Sleep Well. Any NOs? Then you may be putting your body at risk to health hazards of sleep deprivation.
Although experts still haven't arrived at any definite conclusions as to why we need sleep, several benefits have been observed. "When a person is asleep, there is an improvement in their immune function. It gives the body a chance to recover and repair itself, and allows muscles to re-deposit its energy stores. Our heart and our breathing also slow down, basically allowing the rest of our organs to rest," says Joseph Roland Espiritu, M.D., a consultant at the Sleep Disorders Clinic at the Makati Medical Center and Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. "There is also evidence that when a person is in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, this is the time their brain organizes the new information gathered from that day and deletes the unimportant data. Here, data is transferred from their short-term memory to long-term."
If you toss and turn every night and just end up munching away while you zone out to late-night infomercials, take a step back to analyze what may be depriving you of restful slumber. "Insomnia is defined as a prolonged inability to sleep, not to be confused with sleeplessness, which is a period of time where a person wishes to sleep but doesn't get it," says Idzikowski. Its most common form is Psychophysiological Insomnia, caused by life events such as sudden stress at work, anxiety caused by not being able to sleep, or perhaps the death of a loved one. "This is usually a short-term sleep problem which is triggered by stress," says Espiritu. "Once the stress is resolved, then the normal sleep pattern returns."
If the Sandman still hasn't made his rounds to your bed, try a few relaxation techniques such as meditating on your happy place or giving yourself a simple DIY massage. Instead of spacing out and worrying about the shut eye you're not getting, light a few sticks from that pile of incense you never use and take slow, deep breaths to clear your mind of unnecessary burdens. "You can also try rearranging your bedroom or even moving your bed to another room in the house," says Idzikowski. "Conditioned insomniacs associate the bed and sometimes the room with sleeplessness, so changing the room in some way can also help relieve another psychological block to sleep."
With more and more young professionals joining the call center or nursing industries, sleep deprivation is becoming more common than catching a cold. Since most customer service agents and nurses are in their 20s to 30s, staying up late seems like a small sacrifice to pay for the excellent benefits and pay they get in return. "The work environment isn't as stiff and the job's fairly easy. Plus, the pay's really good," says Kris, a customer service agent. "And if I'm lucky enough to get a shift that ends around 2 or 3AM, I can still make habol and go on a normal gimik with my friends."
What Kris didn't realize was that although she was getting almost six to eight hours of rest during the day, her waking up and feeling groggy was just the beginning. "I thought that as long as I got enough sleep during the day, I'd be okay. Eventually, I became more irritable and would be in and out of the doctor's clinic for various aches and pains. It took a while before I realized and accepted that it was because of my unusual working hours."
The bottom line? No matter how healthy you are, eventually, working odd hours and having irregular sleep time can catch up with you. "Not getting enough sleep has immunological effects. You develop more respiratory infections and are more prone to the common cold. It also affects your blood sugar level's tolerance," says Espiritu. "Not only is your work affected because you lack energy and your thinking is not as clear, but your mood is affected as well, making you irritable, depressed, and feeling burned out." If that isn't enough to get you thinking, high blood pressure and aggravated asthma are also common ailments among those who choose to burn the midnight oil. "New studies show that people who get less than seven to eight hours of sleep are heavier or more obese than those who get enough sleep. The life spans of those who work nights are also shorter than those who have day jobs."
Women in particular, are also affected. "When a woman doesn't get enough rest, her body becomes stressed and this can affect the regularity of her menstrual cycle," says Espiritu. "Also, I've observed that the social effect of working nights [such as losing contact with family and friends] causes a strain in relationships, especially for women who balance work and family."
Hope For The Sleep-Deprived
Just like writing, cooking, or painting, learning how to sleep well is a skill that can be developed. "Practicing good sleep hygiene habits is the best way to get much needed rest," says Espiritu. Here are a few tips on how to catch the proper Zzz's:
- Avoid sleep thieves such as caffeine. Caffeine can be found in most coffees, teas, carbonated drinks, and even chocolate. Although it's the most common perk-me-upper, once you come down from your caffeine high, you'll actually feel more tired than you were to begin with. Since it remains in your body for several hours and up to five times longer for pregnant women, you should go decaf at least 10 hours before bedtime. If you must have you daily cup of joe, try drinking only one to two cups early in the morning.
- Cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your sleep. Nicotine, a stimulant which we inhale, deceives us by making us feel more relaxed shortly after having a cigarette. "What smokers experience as relaxation is really the satisfaction gained from quenching an addictive craving for nicotine. They may fall asleep, but as soon as the nicotine is metabolized, the brain signals the smoker that they need more," says Idzikowski. There's no best way to kick the habit, but you could help yourself by avoiding situations where you usually smoke or ban smoking in the bedroom, especially before you sleep.
- No more nightcaps. "Although a glass of alcohol can have a calming effect, a larger quantity can cause us to wake up periodically, due to heavy perspiration, palpitations, and generally feeling restless," says Idzikowski. Examine your underlying motive: Are you depressed or bordering on major meltdown mode a la Mariah Carey (who was said to have been sleepless for weeks)? When you feel like reaching for the bottle to escape your problems, why not grab the phone instead? Clearing your mind by venting out your worries to your best gal pal before hitting the hay can work miracles on your sleep life. Or you could always go old school and down a hot milky drink or herbal tea instead.
- Fake nighttime. If you work the night shift, heading home with the sun on full-blast can be a problem. "Wear dark glasses to filter out the sun, but if you're driving, make sure it won't make you fall asleep at the wheel," says Espiritu. Also keep your room as dark and as quiet as possible. "Put opaque curtains or blinds on your windows, turn the radio off, and use earplugs to shut out any noise that suggests it's daytime." By tricking your body into believing that it's nighttime, you achieve a more restful slumber.
- Hit the gym. Exercise in any shape or form is always beneficial. If you're sleep-deprived, exercising four to six hours before bedtime can actually help you doze off faster. "The gradual drop in your body temperature helps you sleep better," says Espiritu. "The ideal would be three to five times a week for about 30 to 45 minutes." So instead of having an all-night marathon of Gossip Girl re-runs or clicking on random profiles on Facebook, get into better sleep shape by setting time aside for jogging, cycling, or lifting weights.
- Indulge yourself. If your job makes you unhappy and is taking up most of your time, try setting aside some quality time--just for you. Develop a new hobby that can serve as an outlet to help you cope better and make your day more productive and fun. Saving time for yourself, whether it's through an activity, a good meal, or something as simple as lighting candles and having a luxurious bath can do miracles for your physical, mental, and emotional state. At the end of the day, give yourself little treats to cheer you up and plan mini-rituals that make you feel special. "Enjoying a happy, fun, and productive life will always guarantee you a restful sleep," says Espiritu.