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Get into bed: Poor sleep could affect your health more than you realise

Singapore — Sleep matters. More specifically, getting the requisite amount of sleep each night matters — probably a lot more than you think. Recent studies have sounded alarm bells on the extent of sleep deprivation globally, and in Singapore in particular.

Singapore — Sleep matters. More specifically, getting the requisite amount of sleep each night matters — probably a lot more than you think. Recent studies have sounded alarm bells on the extent of sleep deprivation globally, and in Singapore in particular.

A study published in May this year, led by mathematicians at the University of Michigan, showed that people living in Singapore and Japan sleep the least in the world, getting an average of seven hours and 24 minutes a night. The Dutch sleep the most, clocking an average of eight hours and 12 minutes nightly. The widely recommended amount of sleep for adults ranges from seven to nine hours a night.

Data on the duration of sleep and light exposure was compiled from 6,000 people via a free smartphone app named Entrain, which was then analysed for patterns of behaviour in relation to the body’s natural circadian cycle.

In an increasingly wired and digitally connected society, sacrificing sleep is often seen as a badge of honour, particularly among millenials and in Asian work cultures.

A 2015 study, conducted by the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders Program at Duke-NUS Medical School, on adolescents at top secondary schools here showed a marked deterioration in cognitive activity, positive mood, and alertness after a week of deprived sleep. This study highlights the trend in Asia of students sacrificing sleep in favour of academic work, proving that impaired sleep actually hinders academic performance.

Recent years have seen more sleep evangelists emerging to warn of the dangers of not getting enough sleep. The most high-profile of them is, arguably, Arianna Huffington. The founder of The Huffington Post website was spurred to author a bestselling book on the subject — The Sleep Revolution — after she had fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone. She has also given numerous talks, including a TED Talk that has clocked more than three million views currently on the website, on the power of sleep over productivity and happiness.



The most immediate and obvious effects of sleep deprivation are obvious and familiar: They include physical and mental tiredness, an irritable mood and a decrease in attention span and concentration, said Dr Lim Li Ling, neurologist and sleep physician at the Singapore Neurology and Sleep Centre at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

Few people are aware of the long-term effects of sleep-deprivation. “There isn’t so much public awareness on the long-term consequences of not getting enough sleep. Even if people (who don’t get enough sleep) get irritable or sleepy the next day, they soldier on and they don’t think much about it. A lot of people know about exercise and diet as necessary factors of good health, but not about sleep,” she added.

Long-term sleep deprivation has been linked in wide-ranging studies to a significant rise in the risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and even colon and breast cancer, according to Michael Chee, a professor with the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders Program and director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.

Over the past couple of years, Dr Lim has seen a 20 to 30 per cent increase in patients at her clinic with sleep problems. The two most common problems with the patients that she sees are sleep apnea and insomnia, but she acknowledges that there is an even larger number of people who voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep for non-medical reasons.

“In this digital age, there are a lot of electronic devices and games to distract and entertain, and there are places here where you can shop late at night. There are so many things you can do with the 24 hours you have in a day aside from sleep,” she noted.

Concurred Prof Chee: “(This sleep crisis) is going to cost us billions of dollars (in health and productivity); it’s not a laughing matter. We’ve reached a tipping point where something needs to be done in a big way.”



A slew of new-generation electronic devices and digital apps has sprung up to help their digitally savvy users get better or adequate sleep. Fitness tracking device Fitbit recently unveiled its Sleep Schedule set of tools that are the first in a series of sleep features developed in collaboration with a panel of sleep experts. The new features include setting personalised sleep goals based on your sleep data, bedtime and wakeup targets and reminders, and a sleep schedule chart.

“If you’re constantly changing your sleep routine, it can have the same effect as experiencing jetlag because you are continually changing your circadian rhythm, also known as your internal clock, which can negatively impact your health and wellness,” said Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona and one of the Fitbit expert panellists.

“To improve your physical performance, mental health and cognitive functions, you should aim to get a sufficient amount of sleep each night, and be consistent with the times you go to sleep and wake up each day. Sleep Schedule makes it easier for people to see how much sleep they’re actually getting in order to establish a healthy routine — this has the potential to help millions of people around the world improve their sleep and overall well-being, which is really exciting,” he continued.

Other similar devices such as Jawbone also boast their own sleep tracking apps that measure and chart the quality of your sleep, while popular apps such as Sleep Cycle use motion sensor technology on your smartphone to track sleep patterns.

But whether these work would ultimately depend on the regularity of use and the discipline of their users. Both Dr Lim and Prof Chee agree that the true secret to improving your health and well-being through good sleep is by putting sleep at the top of your priority list — and having the willingness to make lifestyle changes.

Magazine editor Michelle Bong and insurance agent Ngoh Seh Suan, both in their 30s, started tracking their sleep via the older version of Fitbit’s sleep app when they had noticed feelings of listlessness and irritability during the day.

“I didn’t really know how many hours I slept. Now, I try to time my bedtime better as per the (app’s) recommendation. I’m more aware of when I need to start unwinding (for bed) now,” said Bong. Ngoh had changed the lights in his bedroom to a more relaxing warm yellow, and installed the F.lux app in his laptop (which darkens the screen according to the time of the night) to help him prepare for sleep.

“If people knew the detriments of not getting enough sleep and how it affects their work, health and life, I think they will prioritise sleep. Sleep is when consolidation of learning and memory occurs, so even high-performance people are compromising on their peak performance by not getting enough sleep. It’s just a matter of discipline and priorities,” said Dr Lim.

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