Experts call for changes to how we tackle sleep

Australia, we have a problem in the bedroom. And before you go and start thinking of something dirty, we’re talking about sleep.

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Millions of Australians struggle to get a good night’s sleep every night and it’s doing more damage to our overall health than many realise.

Weight gain, irritability and poor decision making have all been linked to inadequate sleep, with the lack of shut eye seeping into many other areas of our lives, too.

Dr Carmel Harrington, A.H. Beard’s Sleep Expert and author of The Sleep Diet says Australia is facing a “sleep crisis” and that people need to better understand how poor sleep habits affect our bodies.

“Unless we get some discipline around sleep and start to recognise its basic importance in our health and wellbeing we’re in for a chaotic future,” Dr Harrington says.

“With the rise of technology we’ve lost our discipline when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep and all of a sudden we’re recognising this as a real health issue.”

Just like diet and exercise, sleep plays a vital role in keeping our bodies and minds healthy. Unlike the former two though, sleep is often neglected in the national dialogue about health.

A 2016 study found that 33 to 45 per cent of Australian adults sleep either poorly or not long enough most nights, leading to irritability, fatigue and poor diet choices.

Dr Harrington says that as a nation we’re now sleep deprived. Since the 1960s, working Aussies have reduced their average night’s sleep from 8.5 hours to 6.7 hours. Over that same period, obesity has tripled around the country.

“Unless you’re doing sleep right you will have trouble with exercise and choosing the right foods,” she explains.

“There’s a part of the brain that controls how we eat and its affected by how well we sleep.

“If we don’t get enough sleep we don’t conserve enough energy so the next day the body up regulates your appetite to compensate.

“Not only does the brain decrease your metabolic burn, it increases your appetite and changes your ‘reward pathway’ so you want [food] rewards all the time.

“That’s why when you are really tired you don’t go for the salads, but reach for the chips and chocolate instead.”

One of the best ways to improve your sleep is to break the bad habits making it difficult to drift off and stay asleep throughout the night.

Everything from dinner time, caffeine, exercise and screen time affect how we sleep and making small changes throughout the day can have big benefits at night.

Dr Harrington says the simple act of turning off all your electronic devices an hour before bed can make a huge difference as it gives the brain time to calm down.

Diet choices also play a role. Once we hit our 60s, our bodies don’t process food or caffeine as fast as they used to so it’s important to leave a three-hour gap between your last meal and bedtime.

“Bring your dinner time forward by an hour or have a main meal in the middle of the day and only a light meal at night,” Dr Harrington suggests. “That’s really quite important as we age.”

In a bid to help Aussies get the eight hours shut eye they need every night, Dr Harrington has teamed up with A.H. Beard for the 6 Week Sleep Challenge.

The challenge has been running since 2013 and has so far helped almost 60,000 people improve their sleep. The six-week program is free and offers helpful advice and tips that are easy to implement into busy lives. There’s also an online blog that provides more information about the factors that impact sleep, and forum where participants can ask questions of Dr Harrington and share their experience with others.

Every week consists of a new challenge, such as switching off electronic gadgets at night, reducing caffeine and breaking bad diet habits, with each challenge helping to track and improve your habits.

“Sleep is fundamentally important – as fundamental as exercise and nutrition,” Dr Harrington says.

“People have lost their ability to know how to have a good sleep and to fix that we need to know what habits we need to break.”

You can sign up for the 6 Week Sleep Challenge here.