All you need is sleep

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Words by Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The LightHouse Arabia

No one would be surprised to hear that we are currently in a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic,” a statement made by sleep researcher Matthew Walker, long before COVID-19 came on the scene. The fact of the matter is that the Center for Disease Control in USA declared insufficient sleep a ‘public health concern’ many years ago and neuroscientist and psychologists alike have made sleep a subject of study over the last decade as they saw the links between poor quality sleep and many of the major physical and mental illnesses prevalent today. And even though so much research has been published and talked about in the last decade all stating that “sleep is the single most effective thing that you can do for your brain and body”, people are still proudly wearing the badge of ‘burning the midnight oil’ or self-assuredly expressing, “I will sleep when I am dead.” 

The idea that sleep is ‘rest’ needs to be put to rest. Sleep is in fact when our brain and body move into healing themselves and restoring health and balance. It is critical for homeostatic restoration, thermoregulation, tissue repair and growth hormone production, as well as for a healthy immune system, retaining learning, memory processing, creative problems solving and emotional regulation.  

Here are a few things to know about sleep:

  1. Good sleep is done at night but made in the day. What you do, when you do it, what and when you eat/drink in the day—all will determine the quality of your sleep at night. You cannot unconsciously move about your day and then come to your bed at 11 pm and expect to fall into a deep sleep. 
  1. Sleep de-risks every major mental and physical health disease. Whether its heart disease, depression, dementia, or cancer—deep, restorative sleep is a preventative measure a person can take for all diseases of the mind and body. 
  1. Anything less than 7 hours of sleep is considered insufficient sleep. Many people say that they only need 5 hours of sleep. The truth is that two major heads of states, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher both used to proudly speak about their need for little sleep, and both of them were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Now we know what we didn’t know then, which is that one of the biggest risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease is poor quality or insufficient sleep. 
  1. Quality and quantity are both important. You can be sleeping for 10 hours a night but if you are waking up tired and unrefreshed, likely, you are not getting the deep, restorative sleep that you need. 
  1. Caffeine is the foe of good sleep. Most people drink caffeine mid-afternoon or early evening, not realizing that caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours and a quarter-life of 12 hours. That means if you drink a double espresso at noon, you will have half of that espresso’s caffeine in your system 6 hours later and a quarter of it at midnight. There is no way a person can get deep restorative sleep when they have caffeine still within their system that late in the night.  
  1. Blue light is confusing our circadian rhythms and messing with our melatonin. Before the advent of electricity, man rose and set with the sun. Electricity made it possible for us to stay awake and work or do what we needed to do even when the sun had set. Our brain’s release of melatonin was no longer determined by the setting of the sun, but by when the person decided to close their eyes which sent a signal to the brain that it was finally dark. Most people think of melatonin as the sleep hormone but, in reality, it is the darkness hormone. The darker it is, the more the melatonin is released into the body and the more likely you will get the deep restorative sleep that you need to feel rested. Now with the advent of HD screens and blue light screens on all of our devices, we have exposure to very bright screens which are disrupting the melatonin release, making it even more difficult for people to get quality sleep for the body to recuperate and regenerate. 
  1. The best quality of sleep is between 9 pm and 6 am. A person moves through more slow waves (think deep restorative sleep) in the first part of the night and has more REM (think dreams) in the later part of the night. People who go to bed at 8 pm and wake up at 4 am might be missing out on good quality REM sleep. It is better to sleep around 9:30/10 pm and wake up around 5/6 am. 

The lack of sleep disrupts our body and our mind. It impacts our cognitive functions, learning and memory as well as our mental health and physical immunity. It is therefore essential to truly understand the benefits of getting optimal sleep to improve your overall well being, mental and physical health, mood and safety. 

As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families. Dr Afridi has worked with prominent companies and ministries such as The Executive Council, The National Program for Happiness and Well-being from the Happiness Ministry, many professional service firms and fortune 100 companies in her bid to dissolve mental health stigma and be at the forefront of the mental health movement within the UAE and the region. Dr Afridi’s vision is to make mental health practices more accessible through licensing and insurance reforms, changes within the education system to teach about mental health and emotional and mental wellbeing from a young age, taking a preventative approach to mental health rather than treatment-based approach. Seeing the need for increased mental health literacy, she took the initiative to bring the internationally acclaimed Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) to the UAE  in 2017, with The LightHouse Arabia becoming the only licensed provider for the evidence-based course which enables adults and teens to become accredited mental health first aiders. Dr Afridi is committed to leading and being at the centre of the continued positive mental health changes to be seen in the region.