Eight hours of snoozing. If only we could master it, we’d be healthier, happier, calmer, sharper and generally all-round better versions of our usual groggy, yawning, puffy-eyed selves.
Roughly 35 to 40 per cent of UAE residents have suffered from a sleep disorder at some point in their life, according to Arab Health Online, and sleep problems constitute a global epidemic affecting up to 45 per cent of the world’s population according to the World Association of Sleep Medicine. Research suggests that long-term bad sleep can damage health, while in the short-term, our immune systems suffer and it leaves us zapped, irritable and unable to concentrate.
“Poor sleep among people living in the UAE is often caused by obesity and accompanying obstructive sleep apnea, stress, shift work and jet lag,” says Dr Suresh Menon, medical director and a specialist in internal medicine, Lifeline Hospital, Jebel Ali, who says he sees two to three patients per week with sleeping disorders.
During particularly stressful phases like exams or relationship breakdowns, or after trauma, grief, physical illness or pain, it’s normal for sleep to suffer and insomnia can become a chronic problem for some.
If insomnia does become chronic, speaking to your GP is important. Aside from pills, therapies like counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective.
But if poor sleep is simply a niggling problem you could really do without, here are some simple steps you can take to help.
1. Put stress on snooze
Bad sleepers are often trapped in a worry cycle. “The anxiety of thinking you’ll not be able to sleep is one of the things that feeds the problem,” says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Tired But Wired: How To Overcome Sleep Problems, The Essential Sleep Toolkit.
Also, lying in bed worrying about the day’s events or things that might happen in the future is not going to help, but it’s a habit you can address.
Dr Ramlakhan recommends a 12-step toolkit, which includes adapting your activities throughout the day, like exercising to reduce stress and writing a to-do list for the next day at bedtime.
Well-being coach and hypnotherapist Kam Birdee (www.kambirdee.com) agrees. “Keep a notebook by your bed and write things you’re worrying about. They’ll be out of your head and can be dealt with in the morning.”
2. Create a slumber-enhancing haven
Your surroundings have a big impact on your mind, so it makes sense that the place you sleep in should be a peaceful retreat. “If there’s clutter around you, it can be cluttering your mind,” says Birdee.
Dr Ramlakhan recommends clearing your bedroom of all technology in order for a good night’s sleep, which means no computers or TV. If that’s not possible, at least find a way to hide work-related stuff. “If you lack space, make boundaries in other ways, for example a white sheet over your desk area,” she says.
3. Are you lying comfortably?
We’re sensitive creatures, and even the smallest physiological factors can have our brain and body chemistry churning away – which is why physical comfort is vital for sleep.
Decent mattresses can be pricey, but we spend almost half of our lives in bed, so it’s definitely worth investing in one that offers you the right support and prevents back and neck pain. “People often forget that they’re in bed for hopefully eight hours a night. Multiply that by 365 days, that’s almost 3,000 hours a year,” says Birdee.
4. Let there be less light – and noise
There’s a reason we switch lights off at bedtime. Sleeping in darkness is crucial for the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which plays a vital part in the sleep-wake cycle. “Adjusting little things can make a big difference,” says Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre managing and medical director Dr Maria Ridao Alonso. “If curtains don’t have proper blackouts people tend to wake up earlier due to the light. Also if the AC is noisy, it can affect your sleep and of course a room that is too hot or too cold due to improper adjustment of the AC can disturb sleep.”
Consider investing in blackout blinds if light is a problem, especially if you’re a shift worker who sleeps during daytime. Eye masks can help block out ambient light and have been shown to increase melatonin levels.
Similarly, too much noise is one of the biggest factors guaranteed to ruin sleep. Often it’s impossible to eliminate all noise, and some people are more sensitive to sound than others, but earplugs could make the world of difference if noise is keeping you awake.
5. Turn off your gadgets
Laptops and smartphones do us no favours when it comes to sleep – because many of us don’t know when to switch off.
A recent survey by sleeping pill brand Nytol found that 53 per cent of the people questioned admitted to going online in bed, with a quarter thinking they’re addicted to checking emails and social media in bed.
“It’s essential to turn off all technology; many people with sleep problems have an unhealthy relationship with technology,” says Dr Ramlakhan.
“Every time you see that red flashing light, the brain produces a small dollop of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. This wakes us up, makes us feel good, albeit momentarily, and is partly what feeds the compulsion to keep picking up your phone.”
6. Don’t panic if you wake up
We’ve all been there; suddenly wide awake at 3am, only to spend the next few hours panicking about how we’ll get through the next day.
“If you wake up, try to avoid looking at your phone or clock and registering the time, as you’re more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you’ll get,” advises Dr Ramlakhan. “Instead, lie on your back and try consciously to relax each part of your body, starting from your toes and working up to your head and face. Breathe deeply and tell yourself it doesn’t matter if you don’t fall asleep and you’ll just use the time to rest and relax.”
If you find lying in bed impossible to handle, try going to another room to read a book to distract your thoughts, then return to bed when you’re calmer.
7. Watch what you eat and drink
What and when we eat and drink can affect sleep. Eliminate stimulants like caffeine and sugar before bedtime, advises Dr Menon, who also recommends drinking a glass of warm milk or a cup of chamomile tea with honey at bedtime to induce sleep.
Birdee advises eating your evening meal a little earlier, and perhaps going for a stroll afterwards. “A heavy meal before bedtime is going to be uncomfortable and can cause restlessness, as your body works overtime to ensure it’s digested,” she says.