Staying awake? Here's a step-by-step guide to better sleep

More and more people are finding it difficult to fall asleep, so we try and identify the causes and figure out what can be done to restore us to a state of somnolence


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 13 Oct 2022, 9:03 PM

Last updated: Thu 13 Oct 2022, 11:12 PM

As a kid, while going to school by public bus, we would pass a train station, and there used to be this lady who would get on the same bus (we shared the route I guess) from the station (she probably came in to the city from the burbs every morning), and she would usually get a place to sit because there used to be ‘ladies’ seats’ earkmarked on all public buses. The moment she’d settle in, she would nod off, and then soundly sleep through the noise and the chaos. For me, for the longest time, that visual of the somnolent lady on the bus used to be a sort of benchmark for what sleep stood for.

Easy to tune into. Easy to snuggle into.

Those were times when life was simpler. Tranquil. And sleep was a given. 8pm was ‘off to bed’ time for us, and we would fall asleep in a flash, there was no need to count sheep or do breathing exercises or practise sleep hygiene. Daytimes were infused with siestas and catnaps.

Sure, I heard of stories of so-and-so having trouble sleeping and seeking medical intervention, but somehow those motions, or notions, never applied to People Like Us.

Today, almost every second person I know has trouble with sleep. Despite pre-sleep rituals. There are teas and herbal drinks that help calm the mind. There’s music therapy. There’s yoga and meditation. Then, there are beds and mattresses designed for us to be more soporific. And there are sleep experts who are ready to help us with step-by-step guidance towards a better state of dormancy.

Yet it proves elusive.

What’s going on?

Julie Mallon

Sleep expert and founder of Nurture 2 Sleep, a UAE-based sleep consultancy

“Sleep is one of the three main pillars of wellbeing — alongside diet and fitness — and, as such, needs to be treated with care and attention. The science of sleep is comparatively new with real insights gained over the past two decades and it is only recently that we have truly started understanding the importance of getting sufficient sleep. We also know that getting five hours sleep, or less, is not meeting our biological sleep need, and will result in sleep deprivation, which comes with both immediate and long-term side effects.

Covid has changed much about our lives in the last few months — from our work patterns to our eating patterns… and our sleep patterns. Even prior to the pandemic, it had been well documented that our sleep quality and quantity had been compromised. But now, post pandemic, according to research, this has been exacerbated and almost a third of adults are not getting sufficient sleep.

The increase in stress levels caused by the pandemic has contributed to a feeling of being continuously engaged — with our brain being always ‘on’ — and this has led to changes in sleep behaviour, which, in turn, disrupts our circadian rhythm [our biological clock], contributing to poor sleep overall.

Another contributing factor is the change in many work practices where we have gone from working in an office or a structured environment to working from home… the body thrives on structure and routine for good sleep.

Sleep restriction over one night, or multiple nights consecutively, preserves slow-wave sleep (stage 3) while reducing stage 1, stage 2, and REM sleep. Since REM is needed for vital functions like memory and critical thinking, shortening this sleep stage will likely lead to a cognitive decline. When we don’t get enough sleep, we become tired, irritable, and it can have a big impact on our mood — and our mental health. Failing to achieve sufficient sleep in duration is also associated to a number of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and a weakened immune system.

Biological, social, and environmental time-keepers control sleep. These include the light we are exposed to, the time of the day when we eat our meals, exercise, interact with others, and many more. When we stay indoors for a long period of time, we lose many of these cues. Therefore, adopting healthier daytime habits can have beneficial effects on our sleep: this can be as simple as not having caffeine too late in the day, adopting a daily routine of going to sleep at the same time or not exposing ourselves to blue-light technology one hour before bedtime.

Another good practice is to set your alarm to dim your lights approximately one or two hours before you retire for the night, as the pineal gland in your brain starts producing melatonin about two hours before your biological bedtime. Keep your room cool and dark, as this will promote the production of melatonin — the very powerful hormone that tells a body when to sleep.

There’s no one sleep or wake-up time that suits everyone, but by figuring out your sleep need and circadian rhythm, you can find the perfect time for yourself — even though we know this isn’t always possible.

As adults, we are either 7- or 9-hour sleepers depending on our circadian clock and this is very personal to our sleep needs. But research suggests that 1 hour of sleep debt takes a total of 4 days to recover to your optimal level.

Trust your body’s sleep system. When you lose that trust and become overly concerned about sleep, you are making it harder for your sleep system to do its job.”

Dr Mohammed Harriss

Pulmonology specialist, Medcare Hospital, Sharjah

“Sleep is as important as food, water, or oxygen but for some reason we don’t take the amount or quality of sleep we get as seriously. One of the biggest drivers of sleep disturbance is modernisation. It was the invention of the light bulb — which enabled us to stay up longer — that led to human sleep patterns getting fundamentally changed. The secretion of the melatonin hormone, which is secreted in the body towards the end of the day, is delayed because we’re always in light. That, in a nutshell, is how human sleep patterns have evolved.

Since time immemorial, human sleep is tied to their profession. Take, for example, agriculture.

At night, a farmer rests and then works all through the day. This pattern was changed due to the industrial revolution, and it changed our priorities. On top of this, today, with the introduction of gadgets like smartphones and computers, there are now many distractions available that lead to delayed sleeping hours.

And finally, the pandemic did have an impact on our sleep patterns. We have noticed some patients sleep for too long and others sleep less than usual. Many patients developed irregular sleep patterns. The lockdowns forced people to lead more sedentary lives which lead to a lot of them gaining weight. Being overweight can lead to conditions such as hyperventilation and sleep apnea which has contributed to sleep disturbance, post-pandemic.

Many leaders and professionals often brag about how little they sleep in a day because they claim they’re being more ‘productive’ — but I would not say that people who sleep fewer hours than recommended are ‘hard workers’… they have it backwards. Most times, neglecting sleep is counterproductive because a good night’s sleep is paramount to being able to function at 100 per cent the following day.

There is some debate among researchers about the minimum amount of sleep necessary to function at a cognitive level… However, for the majority of human adults, an average sleep time of seven hours a night is necessary. For children, that number will be higher depending on their age. Infants, for example, will sleep for 19 to 20 hours a day. Slightly older children will need to sleep 10 to 11 hours, and a school-going child will need to sleep at least 8 to 9 hours.

So, if the goal is to maximise productivity, that is the sleeping pattern one must follow.

How to get better sleep? There is no simple answer to that question. The main thing I will stress is that people need to maintain a consistent time when they go to sleep every night. I will not dictate what time one should go to sleep, which will vary depending on the individual, but a regular pattern must be developed and maintained.

These are some basic steps that anyone can follow to make sure they get enough sleep. Staying hydrated is especially important. Eating habits are also related to sleep — and vice-versa: if you eat very late or eat a very heavy dinner, that will interfere with sleep. Drinking coffee after 6pm should be discouraged.

An average adult should sleep around seven hours every night — between six to eight hours. Sleep has five stages, including non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Your body cycles through these five stages during sleep over and over again. It is important to give yourself enough time to be able to completely run these cycles a few times at least to obtain proper sleep.

On a different note, people with obesity or sleep apnea, despite getting the recommended hours of sleep, will still feel sleepy in the morning. Such people require intervention, like using a CPAP machine to be able to get a good night’s sleep.

‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ is often offered as advice like a truism because it makes sense in theory, but it’s often not practical because there are some people who are the morning type and others that are the evening type. This is the circadian rhythm variation in sleep, and it needs to be taken into consideration when determining the best time for one to go to bed. There are a lot of shift phase syndromes. Within these circadian rhythm variations, some people prefer morning hours and others prefer evening hours. Additionally, there are various practical considerations that need to be taken into account, such as the time of one’s shift at work, time zone changes while travelling and so on. It does not make sense to always tell people, ‘You need to go to bed at this time and you need to wake up at this time.’ It is simply not practical.”

Adriana Kostic

Head of marketing, Pan Emirates

“W e began to understand just how important the role of sleep is from consumer analyses... we spend one-third of our lives sleeping and hence our moods, mental and physical wellbeing are all tied to a good night’s rest.

We understand that each person has different requirements when it comes to sleep, so we created a range that’s customisable to provide sleep solutions that meet each individual’s needs.

For example, something as simple as a comfortable pillow can play an important role in improving sleep quality. We assess how a person sleeps: either on the side, back or on their stomach and recommend a pillow suitable for that position. We also provide a wide range of memory foam pillows to help with spine alignment... this range also contains scented pillows, such as lavender and chamomile, to help with relaxation. Within the sleep range, we offer customisable mattress solutions, not only in terms of size but also in terms of comfort level. Our selection of mattress protectors ensures that the surface is hygienically maintained and regularly cleaned. Additionally, some of our mattresses provide a protective barrier from dust mites and mould, which is an important aspect of healthy and restorative sleep.

While most people don’t necessarily correlate psychological distress with their choice of a product like, say, a mattress, a good sleep infrastructure plays a vital role in providing quality of sleep. The right mattress can provide deep, restorative sleep and set you up for the next day. On the other hand, sleeping on the wrong mattress can cause extreme discomfort, breathing issues and even pain, resulting in fragmented sleep or back problems. If experienced often enough, interrupted sleep can have a negative impact on your psychological wellbeing as the body never gets a chance to restore itself. So, the right mattress support that provides restorative sleep is essential in order to feel energised and alert throughout the day.”

Improve your sleep dictionary

  • Rapid Eye Movement (REM): REM sleep, also known as dream sleep, is characterised by rapid eye movements, and more irregular breathing compared to NREM sleep, the other basic state of sleep
  • Sleep Debt: Result of recurrent sleep deprivation which occurs over time when an individual does not experience a sufficient amount of the restorative daily sleep that is required
  • Sleep Hygiene: Practices, habits, and environmental factors (ambience) that are important for getting sound sleep
  • Circadian Rhythms: Biological rhythms that include the internal clock which influences when, how much, and how well we sleep
  • Bedtime: Clock time when one attempts to fall asleep, as differentiated from clock time when one gets into bed
  • Unintended Sleep Episode: Sleep episode that is not planned and may happen during an activity in which such an episode is hazardous, such as when driving a car or working with machinery

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