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We’ve probably all experienced the effect that having a really late night can have on our work and brain performance the following day.

That foggy effect associated with impaired brain performance and  reduced concentration.

And as we get older our capacity to deal with sleep deprivation seems to diminish as well.

We all need sleep, but many of us are chronically sleep deprived and this can be having the effect of reducing our mental performance on a daily basis, decreasing our ability to cope with stress, lowering our resistance to infection because our immune system is impaired and aggravating the risk of developing chronic disease.

The amount of sleep we get each night varies with individuals and their age. We have all heard the anecdotes of people such as Margaret Thatcher and others who manage to get by on as little as four hours sleep per night. Others of us need our eight hours in order to have some chance of functioning normally.

Typically infants need the greatest amount. As we age we get by on less sleep though our sleep patterns may also be disrupted by medication or pain ( eg arthritis)

If we have depression, had had a stroke or have cognitive impairment our sleep may also be disordered.

Studies have shown the effects of chronic sleep deprivation to produce the same effects on performance as drinking alcohol.

We spend roughly 1/3 of our lives asleep and 80% of that sleep is what we call deep sleep, which is associated with slow brain waves.

So why do we need to sleep?

Sleep has been shown to be vital as a time to allow the brain to rest, for neurons to repair and be able to function better when we wake.

It is also a time for the brain to consolidate and retain information. New neural connections are formed so those experiences are then stored as memories.

Many people suffer form disrupted sleep patterns or insomnia.

In one study of middle aged men with sleep disturbance it was found that they had higher levels of cortisol and CRH (corticotrophic hormone). These hormones are associated with the flight or fight response. In other words their brains were in a heightened level of arousal resulting in a poorer quality of sleep

If you are a “brooder” or a worrier who tends to react emotionally to problems, you may be the one at night tossing and turning unable to sleep as your brain keeps replaying the problem loop in your head.

If you can keep the emotions at bay it is possible to sleep on a problem and your deep sleep enables you to problem solve and wake with a solution. Eureka!

REM sleep with dreaming is also important for good brain health. This type of sleep is associated with brain learning the “how to” eg learning a musical instrument and decision making.

So what can you do if you have a poor sleep problem?

If it is really entrenched then seek help.

Medication with sleeping tablets really only offers a short-term benefit and may compound the problem if overused.

Longer-term management requires looking into all factors, which many be hindering getting a good nights sleep. We call this sleep hygiene.

Good sleep habits:

Reducing caffeine:

Many of us know that drinking coffee late at night may well keep us awake. But it may be that we are consuming basically too much caffeine over the day as well. Did you know that the  cup of coffee we have at lunch time may be enough to disturb your sleep that night.

Caffeine is found in tea (black and green) chocolate and cola drinks. The popular “energy” drinks with guarana such as Red Bull and Mother have also got very high caffeine levels.

So the first thing to do is to reduce or even try to eliminate the amount of caffeine you drink and include more non caffeine drinks such as herbal Chamomile, fennel and anise and of course, water.

Avoid alcohol:

Alcohol, which appears to relax us and gets us off to sleep is unfortunately associated with a poorer quality of sleep so you are more likely to wake up in the night.


Going to bed in a relaxed mood will help you to get off to sleep. Have a warm bath and a drink of hot milk (the tryptophan in the warm milk is a natural sleep inducer.) How about a relaxing massage?

Turn off the TV:

Take it out of the bedroom altogether preferably. You want to avoid overstimulating the brain, so switch it off.


Twenty to thirty minutes of exercise each day as a minimum help us to sleep better at night, but don’t do it too late in the evening, otherwise it will have the opposite effect.

Have a regular bedtime:

Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day encourages good sleep patterns.

Can’t sleep? Get up.

If you really can’t sleep it’s better to actually physically get up, maybe have a cup of warm milk or read a book until you feel naturally sleepy again and then go back to bed.

Sweet dreams!   zzzzzzzzzz………

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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