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Are you dying for a better night’s sleep?
For an unlucky few that is actually a very real prospect.
Familial Fatal Insomnia is a condition that is as bad as it sounds, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

For years sleep scientists have pondered why we spend around 1/3 of our lives asleep in a blissful state of unconsciousness unaware of our surroundings and potential danger.

Other animals at risk from predators have had to adapt their sleeping patterns to stay safe.
Dolphins manage this with uni-hemispheric sleep, keeping one hemisphere awake in case a shark comes to pay a visit. Giraffes sleep for 2 hours in every 24 taken as a series of short giraffe naps.

If you’re human and not a dolphin or a giraffe chances are you need between 7-9 hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep. How much is unique to you. If you can wake up feeling refreshed and ready for your day, you probably got enough sleep. If you need three alarms and a cup of coffee before you can poke your eyes above the doona coverlet to face daylight, maybe you’re a little sleep deprived.

Don’t worry if that’s you because you’re not alone. It’s estimated that a 1/3 of the world’s population in developing countries is sleep deprived, and the worst thing about this is because we are chronically tired, we’ve forgotten what it feels like not to be.

So what’s the big deal about sleep and thinking?
Quite a lot as it happens and much of what has been learned has come from the study of what happens when we don’t get enough sleep.

It gets harder to concentrate.

If focus is your game, getting enough shut-eye is essential. You may have experienced how your brain feels after a big night out. It’s hard to stay focused; your mind has trouble taking in new information let recalling what you already know.

Your speed of processing slows down.

Unfortunately, while that triple shot of espresso with two sugars may help to keep you alert, it can’t overcome the slowing down effect of mental fatigue. Your mind gets stuck in the matrix where everything becomes slow and laborious and you have to work that much harder to think.

Your ability to make decisions is impaired.

Got something important to decide on? A rested brain will make a much better quality decision. One of the brain’s primary objectives is to conserve energy so when it senses you’ve reached the red zone of tiredness it powers down, reducing access to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain needed for rational, analytical thought.

You make more mistakes.

Inattention works hand-in-hand with fatigue to increase the number of unforced errors your brain makes across the day. You are far more at risk of slips, trips and ‘incidents’.

You’re less creative.

No-one likes to be told they lack imagination, but when you’re tired, your ability to create insight and new ideas goes AWOL while your brain reverts to those patterns of thinking and doing it knows it can rely on because you’ve done them 10,000 times before.

You just don’t get it.

Sleep helps you to make sense of your world. Mental fatigue means you might get the headline but your ability to think more deeply and reflectively is greatly reduced.

You don’t remember.

Sleep is essential to the consolidation of long-term memory. Topping up your memory banks requires you to complete an adequate number of complete sleep cycles each night. Fragmented or broken sleep interferes with this.

Worse still those who get consistently less than 5-5 ½ hours of sleep at night are more at risk of creating false memories. Yikes!

You’re more cranky.

There’s no denying it. When sleep deprived, you’re not your usual sunny self. If others are avoiding you because you’re irritable, snappy, tearful and operating as if you are the centre of your own universe, it’s time to check in and ask, “Am I getting enough sleep?”

In a world that lacks sleep is it any wonder that we’re facing a tsunami of mood disorders including anxiety and depression.

You’re at greater risk of cognitive decline.

Yes, you read that correctly. A disturbed sleep pattern over many years puts you at greater risk of neurodegeneration and cognitive decline.

We need sleep for brainy household repair and maintenance and for giving your brain a quick clean. Your brain is highly metabolically active and accumulates waste products, which like the office floor will benefit from a quick vacuum at night.

Keeping your brain clean and fresh enables you to think better.

Bearing in mind these reasons that show why sleep is so important, what value do you place on getting a good night’s sleep?

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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