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  • Patrick Wright

The signs of sleep deprivation and how to get better bedtime habits

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Poor sleep affects everything from health to emotional intelligence

When I hear about those people who jump out of bed every morning full of energy, I die a little bit inside.

My experience couldn't be more different. On the rare occasions I do manage to get a solid eight hours of sleep, I still wake up feeling tired.

And just when things are going well, I'll stay up past my bedtime on the weekend — or get distracted by something on my phone on a weeknight — and sabotage my good work.

I'm not alone in feeling tired and under slept. A recent report estimated that nearly 40 per cent of Australians experience some form of inadequate sleep.

If you're one of the "I'll sleep when I'm dead" crowd, consider this:

  • Nearly 400 Australians die each year falling asleep at the wheel of a vehicle or in industrial accidents caused by lack of sleep

  • Poor sleep is associated with a number of health issues, including heart disease and diabetes

  • Bad sleep is estimated to cost the economy $17.9 billion each year in lost productivity.

I wanted to know how to tell if I was under slept, beyond the obvious feeling of tiredness. I spoke to three experts who highlighted four warning signs and some small tweaks that can make your sleep that little bit better.

Before we start it's important to acknowledge that sleep is sometimes out of our control due to family or work commitments. If you are the parent of a newborn or a shift worker, you'll most likely relate to the signs but some of this advice isn't going to be helpful right now.

1. You need an alarm to wake up

If you need an alarm to get up in the morning, you likely aren't getting enough sleep, says Robert Adams, professor of sleep medicine at Flinders University and director at the Sleep Health Foundation.

"If you wake with the alarm, because that's the time you get up normally, that's OK," he says.

"But if the alarm is waking you up from sleep every morning, then you've probably under slept."

If you're already getting seven or eight hours of quality sleep, and still are being woken up by the alarm, it's possible you need even more, says Sarah Blunden, professor in psychology and head of paediatric sleep research at CQUniversity.

What you need is a baseline for healthy sleep, Professor Blunden says. And the best way to find your own personal baseline is to turn off the alarm.

Here's what Professor Blunden suggests:

  1. Wait until you have a week or so where you can sleep safely without your alarm on. It might be the holidays. "A weekend won't do," she says.

  2. Keep a regular bedtime during that week. Turn off the alarm and see what time your body wakes up.

  3. It will take some time for your body to find its own rhythm instead of the "enforced rhythm" we have when we're working, Professor Blunden says.

  4. Once your body has found its rhythm, note how long you sleep for and what time you are waking up in the morning. After a few days, you should have a baseline for how long — and when — you should ideally be sleeping.

"It happens after about a week, I find, when I'm on holidays. That's how I know how eight and a half hours is optimal for me," she says.

"I can function on seven, because I have strategies and I'm used to it — but I prefer eight and a half to be perfectly rested and feeling great."

2. You feel jetlagged

Good sleep is not just about the number of hours you get. It's also sleeping at the right time.

Our bodies have a natural circadian rhythm, and it can be disrupted by work, socialising or family commitments. When our body clock gets out of sync, the symptoms are similar to jetlag, Professor Adams says.

"You don't want to have to sleep in to catch up. Ideally, you set a routine, and you sleep more or less the same time seven days a week," he says.

For some people like shift workers or parents of young children, this is simply not possible. Your best bet, Professor Adams says, is to get as much sleep as you can, whenever you can.

For others, the weekend can cause problems. Whether you're staying up late or sleeping in to "catch up" for lost sleep during the week, changing the routine confuses our body clocks, Professor Adams says.

Professor Adams' research suggests nearly one in three Australians could be regularly experiencing this "social jetlag".

While it's important to prioritise sleep, there's going to be times when our sleep schedule is going to be disrupted.

If you do need a bit more sleep on the weekend or your days off, try to get to bed a little earlier, and wake up a little later, Professor Adams suggests.

"It might be better … than having the really big lie in, especially on Sunday morning. If you've done that, your body clock adjusts a little bit — and then you find you're struggling to get up on Monday morning," he says.

3. You are super emotional

Do you find yourself feeling irritable and stressed by minor things? It's another key sign of sleep deprivation, says Leonie Kirszenblat, a neurologist who studies sleep at The Queensland Brain Institute.

"We know that sleep affects mood: [lack of sleep] affects your ability to interact with other people, it makes you more irritable and short tempered. It makes you more vulnerable to stress and anxiety," Dr Kirszenblat says.

"I think it's one of the first things you notice. Yesterday at work, [when I was sleep deprived] I noticed I was getting quite irritated with people — and that's one of the signs."

Interestingly, lack of sleep also affects our emotional intelligence.

When sleep researchers asked a group of 65 people to do a test that measured how they related to other people, their emotional self-awareness, their confidence and how they were able to cope with stress, they found those who slept six and half hours scored less than those who had more than eight hours.

As someone prone to meltdowns when under slept, I can confirm the research findings.

4. You feel sluggish and can't concentrate

When we don't get enough sleep, it affects our cognitive performance, Dr Kirszenblat says.

Research has shown that sleep deprivation can lead to "cognitive lapses" — when our brain shuts down and doesn't respond properly to a situation, like a car suddenly braking.

"This happens when the neurons, the brain cells in your brain, become less responsive, and that happens when you're sleep deprived," Dr Kirszenblat says

"This is one of the reasons why it's so dangerous to drive when you are sleep deprived because you have much slower reactions times."

Because we're less alert when we're lacking sleep, it can also affect our performance at work, adds Professor Adams.

"We know from lab studies that people who have been up for long period of time perform poorly on tests of alertness," he says.

"The longer you stay up, or the longer you're under slept, the worse you perform on alertness. If you had to operate machinery — or you are performing tasks that require a high degree of alertness — then being under slept, sleeping at the wrong time, or having poor quality of sleep puts you and those around you at risk."

The great thing about sleep is that unlike diet and exercise it's something that most of us can change quite quickly, if we prioritise it.

If you're looking to make a change, check out these ABC articles on sleep myths, sleep hacks, dealing with negative thoughts before bed and surviving shift work.

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