Sunny Side Up: Not getting enough sleep really messes you up

Not getting enough sleep -and usually it's our addiction to our phones that the reason-causes a cascade of serious systemic illnesses.

When it comes to maintaining our mental health there are three crucial areas we should pay attention to: sleep, exercise and diet.

Which of these would you say gets the least attention?

We all know the importance of eating well, and most of us wouldn’t dream of going without food if we can help it. I’ve lived in Malaysia for six years now and I cringe at the thought.

The encouragement to exercise is everywhere and we do our best to fit some form of physical activity into our day – but when we think of sleep, it can be seen as less important than diet and exercise.

And yet, the implications of not getting enough sleep are potentially greater than if we don’t exercise as much as we should or have less than healthy diets.

Taken to the extreme, the human body can survive several weeks without food (assuming we’re still drinking water). Should we forego physical exercise, it’s likely to increase our risk of health problems further down the line, but generally, we can carry on well enough without the recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week. With sleep, though, it’s a completely different story.

Sleep-deprived students who pull all-nighters in last-ditch efforts to submit that assignment or cram for the next day’s exams will be familiar with the effects.

At 24 hours without sleep, our memory, perception, reaction times and decision-making become impaired. Our brain begins to work in the same way as someone with a blood alcohol content high enough to be convicted of driving under the influence in most US states.

If we reach 36 hours without sleep, our physical health becomes impaired, with our cardiovascular system, blood pressure and hormones all being affected. We’re also likely to experience memory lapses by this point.

As you can imagine, the effects become much more worrying if we consider just three days or more without sleep. Compare this with hunger strikes – some of the longest recorded strikes include people going over 50 and 100 days without food.

We all know that sleep is important but many of us struggle to maintain good sleep health through a regular routine. According to a 2016 survey by Curofy – India’s largest community of verified doctors – an estimated 20% of people worldwide are sleep deprived.

A study conducted last year by a sleep app found that the happiest countries in the world (according to the World Happiness Report) were also the best rested. Finland topped the list alongside its Nordic neighbours, with their people clocking an impressive average of seven hours and five minutes worth of sleep. At the other end of the scale, the Japanese and Singaporeans averaged around six hours and 20 minutes worth of sleep. While this might not seem like much of a difference, a 2019 study on sleep (Lee et al) found that losing just 16 minutes of sleep outside the recommended seven to nine hours a night can lead to a dip in focus and productivity the next day.

More worrying is the fact that the effects of poor sleep compound over time, meaning that an unhealthy sleeping pattern can cause increasing problems the longer it continues.

Interestingly, the issue with sleep problems isn’t so much to do with how early we get up but rather the quality of our bedtime routine before falling asleep.

Unhelpful nighttime habits such as drinking coffee, using smartphones, or forcing a tired body and mind to stay up and watch one more episode of our favourite show affect the quality of our sleep, and our ability to function the next day.

Getting a good night’s sleep begins with a routine that includes ditching the electronics at least one hour before bedtime. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a (physical) book, doing some light stretching or breathing exercises, and enjoying a warm, drink are some ways to help us slow down and unwind.

Being intentional in slowing down, we get the mind and body ready for a good night’s rest, which will set us up well for taking on whatever the next day brings.

If you’re someone who believes that having less sleep leaves less time for getting the important stuff done, it might be worth knowing that billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Mark Zucker-berg prioritise their sleep, getting at least seven hours whenever they can. As for Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook turns her phone off before bedtime to ensure her sleep is uninterrupted.

In a 2012 interview, the Dalai Lama remarked that “sleep is the best meditation”, revealing that he makes sure to get eight or nine hours of sleep so he can feel completely refreshed the next day.

These are just a handful of high achievers and successful people who prioritise a good night’s sleep.

Having enough sleep is crucial for our well-being. It also serves a reminder that good health is the key to giving our best to everything and everyone we value.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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mental health , sleep , obesity


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