Staying Awake

It’s about this time every four years that Australian sports fanatics begin to feel more than a little sleep deprived. And when the Olympic Games are held in a far away time zone the effect is felt to an even greater degree. Of course for the tennis and cycling fans among us, the recent Wimbledon competition and the Tour de France have probably already contributed to significant sleep deprivation.

According to researchers Derk-Jan Dijk and Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer from the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, writing in the New Scientist magazine earlier this year, the way we sleep has changed enormously over the past century. It’s not just international sporting events that have all altered our traditional sleeping habits, it’s also computers, televisions, shift work and even light bulbs – with huge implications for our health.

Sleep deprivation can have serious adverse health effects – both physical and mental. Feeling fatigued, irritable, anxious or depressed can all result from too little sleep. The brain works harder but operates less effectively. The ability to undertake usual tasks requiring concentration (such as driving) is greatly impaired.

The question is what to do about it? So-called hypnotics and sedatives certainly have a place in treating insomnia – where insomnia is defined as more than very occasional sleep disturbance. Nevertheless, these medicines are best taken for the short term only. It seems likely a habit forming tolerance will develop when continued use exceeds a few weeks.

If you have chronic, (that is long term), sleep problems, there may be some simple ways you can get into a regular sleep pattern more easily. The newly revised Fact Card entitled Sleeping Problems gives some valuable tips. This card is

It’s most important to establish a routine. Try to get out of bed at the same time every day; and once you’re up, stay up. It helps your body maintain that natural waking and sleeping rhythm that makes sleep easier.

Avoid caffeine-containing drinks (tea, coffee, cola, chocolate) in the evening. As well as being a mild stimulant, caffeine also causes us to pass water more often; so our sleep can be disturbed by the need to visit the bathroom during the night. If you can’t go without your tea or coffee at night, try the ‘decaf’ varieties.

Exercise is important too, but late evening sport and strenuous work-outs can stimulate the system and make sleep difficult. Afternoon exercise, probably after work and before dinner, seems to be best.

If you are determined to watch late night TV, don’t watch a thriller, a horror story or an exciting sporting event – it’s even worse if your team loses. Dreams are important, but nightmares don’t make for a good sleep.

We should be aware that night caps are for keeping the head warm. The alcoholic varieties really don’t do anything for normalising our sleep pattern. Alcohol can actually disturb the balance between the various stages of sleep and we tend to wake up still a little hung over. And just like coffee, alcohol can also encourage those extra trips to the bathroom.

As well, some prescription and over-the-counter medicines can disturb your sleep. Ask your pharmacist for advice about the possibility of this occurring. If you need a cold and flu remedy the so-called day-time/night-time formulas are worth considering.

Remember that persistent sleep disorders, especially those involving pain or breathing difficulties need to be investigated by your doctor.

Published by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and written by John Bell

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