Why a good night’s sleep is so important

Clare Flintoff says a good night's sleep is important for young people yet there are too many distra

Clare Flintoff says a good night's sleep is important for young people yet there are too many distractions. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Do you get enough sleep? If you are lucky enough to get a good eight hours a night, it is likely you wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead.

If you don't, there is now very reliable scientific evidence that, without adequate sleep, we are doing ourselves gradual harm - increasing the risk of developing serious illness, impairing our immune system and basically shortening our life span.

Promoted in pre-Christmas bookshop displays, Matthew Walker's book, "Why we Sleep" provides a fascinating insight into what neuroscience now knows about the importance of sleep and the relationship between insufficient sleep and both physical and mental health disorders - it is a scary and enlightening read!

Now is the time of year many of us feel compelled to make positive changes to our lives.

Often these new year resolutions require us to fit more into our day, increase our anticipated level of activity and generally add to our overall stress. Taking heed of the convincing research evidence about sleep could provide us with some New Year goals that are remarkably easy to see through, completely free and have life-long health benefits for us all.

Matthew Walker says many of us are 'beyond tired' but we simply don't recognise or believe we are.

The societal view that people who sleep more are lazy in some way and that busy or important people don't have time to sleep, proliferates.

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Perhaps in the past this has been due to the lack of information about the benefits of sleep and our lack of understanding about what sleep actually does for us.

Contrary to what we know about the benefits of exercise and eating healthily, we spend a third of our lives asleep and we are only recently beginning to understand why.

The book reveals sleep brings a multitude of benefits servicing both our brains and our bodies and provides a daily prescription of life-enhancing benefits that we are all free to take up at any time.

During the course of a night we go through various stages of sleep in approximately 90 minute cycles through light, deep and 'dream' sleep where our brain activity mirrors our awake brain.

Each stage has health promoting benefits; organising, sorting and filing our memories, clearing our 'storage' and embedding our learning.

At different stages of our lives our sleep patterns and requirements change.

Sleep deficiency in children has been a concern to those of us working in education for some time.

We see on a daily basis the impact it has in the classroom - resulting in an inability to maintain focus and attention, and effects on learning, behaviour and mental health.

It is now thought to be highly likely that some children diagnosed with ADHD are actually sleep deprived, and yet some of these children are being prescribed amphetamine-based drugs designed to 'wake up' the brain to improve attention.

Chronic sleep deprivation in children could be caused by a variety of factors, including sleep disorders caused by overly large adenoids and tonsils, associated with heavy snoring, which should always be investigated before drugs are considered.

However, for many of our young people, having a nightly calming routine prior to bedtime, an absence of 'blue light' from mobile phones, tablets or computers and an early enough bedtime to allow them 10 hours of sleep could make a world of difference to their physical and mental health over the coming year.

For millennia human beings have experienced darkness from sunset to sunrise but the invention of the light bulb and the exposure to night-time light that we all experience in our modern world has disrupted our circadian rhythms in a way that is seriously impacting our health.

Let's take back control where we can and resolve to find out what we can do to improve the quality of our family's sleep - the health and education benefits will be worth it.