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How much does a bad night's sleep really affect your life?

What are some of the long-term dangers of regular bad sleep? We found out for you

Written by
Kate Iselin
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
October 16, 2023
min read
How much does a bad night's sleep really affect your life?
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Let's be real: we've all pulled an all-nighter for some reason. Whether it's study, work, or just the allure of a big night out, it's not so unusual for sleep to come in second every now and again.

But for some of us—more than half of us, in fact—missing out on sleep, or having inadequate sleep, is a regular thing.

Nearly 60 per cent of Australians have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or wake up too early and can't get back to sleep once they're up.

Combine that with the huge amount of us who are night shift workers, new parents, or uni students poring over the books until the early hours of the morning, and it's a wonder any of us report getting any sleep at all.

We wanted to find out exactly what poor sleep was doing to our health, and what—if anything—we can do to mitigate those effects and help ourselves get a better night's sleep.

Word of advice from a sleep science coach

Jane Wrigglesworth knows a lot about insomnia. She used to suffer from it herself: so much so that at one point it led to stomach bleeding. These days, she coaches people on sleep and fatigue management through her clinic How to Sleep Well, and has studied neurobiology and sleep at Michigan University.

“Sleep deprivation can have severe consequences, both short-term and long-term,” she told us.

“Studies have shown over and over that poor sleep can lead to a whole host of problems, including high-blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, low immunity, weight gain, and even cancer.”

And while Jane wants to point out that these are long-term conditions—you won't suddenly wake up with diabetes the morning after you skip a few hours of sleep—even the short-term effects of losing sleep aren't great.

“If you have to give a presentation the following day,” Jane says, “You definitely won't be at your best. And lack of sleep not only affects productivity at work, but personal wellbeing and safety.

"The reaction times of a person who has had six hours or less of sleep is equivalent to a person who has a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent, which is effectively like drink driving.”

So not only will you feel crummy for most of the day, but you could be putting yourself at risk if you're getting behind the wheel of a car or operating machinery at work.

Anyone who loses sleep on a regular basis knows that it doesn't feel great, and knows that it negatively impacts your productivity—not to mention your mood.

So if counting sheep isn't working, what exactly can we do to help ourselves drift off at night?

Stick to a routine

To begin with, says Jane, “You need to stick to a routine. Get up at the same time each morning, and go to bed at the same time each night.

A consistent routine like dinner, shower, read, and then bedtime serves as a cue to your body that it's nearly time to go to bed, and decreases your body's arousal level.”

We can also help ourselves out by laying off sugary snacks before bed, and choosing foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, specifically tryptophan.

Jane tells us that these support serotonin production, which in turn supports melatonin—and melatonin is the hormone that tells your body when it's time to sleep.

Tryptophan-rich foods include turkey, chicken, eggs, some fish, peanuts, and tofu, meaning even non-meat eaters can put something on their dinner plate that will help them sleep.

Eliminate your phone

Jane also suggests avoiding your phone for an hour or two before bed, if possible: “The body's internal circadian clock gets its cues from light and dark,” she says.

“It uses light and dark to predict what to do next, to prepare us for being alert and active, and to prepare us for sleep. It's most sensitive to light from about two hours before our normal bedtime, and through the night, until about one hour before our normal wake-up time.

"Exposure to light during this time is likely to affect our sleep.”

Basically, by picking up our phone or staring at a computer screen, we're almost tricking our body in to thinking that it's not time for sleep yet, so when our heads hit the pillow our brains are still wide awake.

If using a computer or phone is unavoidable for you—say, if you know you'll be working late, or if you're doing a night shift, Jane suggests using blue light blocking glasses when in front of a screen.

Exercise also plays a huge role in how well we sleep. You don't need to be smashing out a HIIT session every day, but going for a run, doing some yoga, or even just taking a walk can be really beneficial, especially in the morning.

“Bright natural light in the morning goes a long way to setting you up for a good night’s sleep,” Jane says.

It's probably unrealistic to expect that we'll have fantastic sleep every night for the rest of our lives, but if you find that you're regularly experiencing poor sleep by waking up too early, being unable to fall asleep, or waking up a lot through the night, it's worth speaking to a doctor.

The quality of our sleep has a huge impact on our lives, and getting a few bad nights' sleep can quickly turn in to a vicious cycle of trying to play 'catch up' with our rest.

Eating well, exercising, and trying to stay away from the phone before bed are things we could all improve on doing.

After a hard day's work, it's exactly what our bodies deserve.

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