Sleep health: why it impacts our mood

Lack of sleep impacts on mood.
Lack of sleep impacts on mood. 

 

Jerry Seinfeld, in Sydney this week, proved to me I was the best sleeper ever.

Desperate to get tickets to his Australian show in 1998, I queued outside the box office on Parramatta Road from 5pm. Took a rubber mattress and an alarm clock with friends and family mocking me that there was no way I'd ever sleep with cars and trucks whizzing past. They were wrong. I can sleep anywhere, even on planes. But for years and decades, I never got enough.

New research this week published for the Sleep Health Foundation by Deloitte Access Economics tells us nearly 40 per cent of Australians are sleep deprived and half that number are so tired they are a risk to themselves and others. Our exhaustion costs the economy billions of dollars a year.

But it's not just that we are expensive. We are also depressed. We are highly emotional. We make mistakes. We can't read the signs around us. Our sleeplessness makes us fat. As sleep researcher Siobhan Banks points out, when we are exhausted, "we want to eat doughnuts, not salads". Or chocolate. If I could do a time and motion study of when we break out the choccy bikkies, I'm guessing 10.45 pm would be peak, when we try to squeeze in one more task before we hit the cot.

I was a sleeplessness addict, which began when our children were babies. When you work full time and parent full time, there's only one variable – and that's the amount of time you spend sleeping. The pattern gets set at that very early stage – but it's not just about managing the physical aspects of all the chores, it's also about managing your emotions and your health. And when you're constantly tired, that's hard to do. I survived on five to six hours sleep a night for maybe 15 years, trying to juggle all the things. When the alarm went off, I'd wake up in an exhausted panic.

Impact underestimated

Sleeplessness might affect the economy but even more importantly for those you love, it affects your mood. Banks, associate professor in the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia, says the impact on mood is underestimated. We think we can get away with no-one noticing but in our hearts we know that everything is more overwhelming, we are more irritable.

Eti Ben Simon is a researcher at one of the most influential sleep labs in the world at the University of California Berkeley. This year alone, her team, led by Professor Matthew Walker, has done a mass of research and the results are conclusive.

"Our emotional wellbeing is dramatically impaired without sleep . . . people who have lost one night of sleep report feeling more anxious, having less positive mood and are more easily stressed," she says.

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Ben Simon is clear about this – the less sleep you have, the more hyper-emotional you are likely to be. "Studies have shown that relationship conflicts tend to be more aggressive the worse sleep we had the previous night."

When you are a highly intense person anyway, sleep deprivation makes it worse. Everything matters more than it really needs to. My beloved introduced me to the concept of sleep hygiene, the idea that our bed chambers have to be cleaned of distractions.

First to go was my phone. Now it's on silent and no vibrations. It's only in our bedroom because we have children and only their numbers can break through the Do Not Disturb sign.

Early bedtime. You need seven or eight really solid hours of sleep. It takes a while to get into the good sleep zone, says Ben Simon. I set a little beep at 9.45 pm to ensure I'm ready to be in bed by 10 pm. That's two or three hours before I used to go to sleep, a mass of wiredness and so alert my brain would be spinning all night.

And a bedroom that's inviting and not just because of the company you're keeping. My beloved company has developed a strategy of playing really gorgeous music which I won't hear if I miss my 10pm deadline. I feel better for sleeping eight hours a night. I really do. Also, and embarrassing, I now wear shaggy minky socks in winter, like soft warm clouds. My cold feet used to wake me up.

Alarm clock

I note that Ben Simon is answering my emails late at night from California and ask her if she's following her own advice.

"I actually do fight to give sleep high priority, without it I'm of no use to anyone," she says.

She tries not to use an alarm clock if she doesn't have early meetings or experiments that day.

"The irony is that being an active sleep researcher does mean losing a lot of sleep . . . in general, the best advice I can give is to go to sleep when we feel tired.

"It sounds simple but there is so much competing with sleep these days that sleeping is constantly pushed down our list of priorities. If you push sleep back up to its rightful place you'll thank yourself in the morning."

So will everyone you ever deal with.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a Fairfax Media columnist.

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