World Sleep Day / Sleep: why it is important to sleep well

Sleep disorders, in fact, can have a strong impact on the daily life of those who suffer from them

They lead to chronic fatigue, declines in attention and increased irritability and depressive emotional states, which in the long term can lead to more serious health problems.

Statistically, about 1 in 4 adults suffers from chronic or transient insomnia.

Women are particularly affected, about 60% of the total.

These figures have risen sharply in these years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a guideline, an adult should sleep between 7 and 8 hours, although some people need 9-10 full hours of sleep and others only need 5-6.

Sleep: why it is important to get a good night’s sleep

The hours of rest at night allow us to “recharge” our organism by switching between two states, which occur several times during the night: REM sleep and non-REM sleep.

The so-called REM phases see a general relaxation of the muscles and rapid eye movements and are characterised by the presence of intense, vivid, exciting dreams, more connected with reality and such that physical movements are perceived.

In contrast, in the non-REM phase, dreams are more like thoughts and are shorter.

Thanks to the transition between these two states, resting at night helps us to consolidate memories and strengthen our cognitive capacities.

A good night’s sleep cleanses the brain of toxins produced by neurons during the day and of useless memories.

In fact, during sleep the spaces between brain cells dilate by 60% and this allows toxic substances to be drained from the brain, including the beta amyloid protein which accumulates with age and is linked to Alzheimer’s dementia.

Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, has tangible consequences on the body’s psycho-physical well-being

These range from symptoms such as asthenia, ie constant tiredness during the day, to difficulties in maintaining concentration, memory deficit, increased depression and irritability.

In addition to these problems, some individuals may suffer from more serious ones, such as hypertension or cardiovascular problems, but also diabetes, because the lack of sleep affects the metabolism and insulin levels.

Lack of sleep: what are the symptoms of insomnia?

Insomnia, if occasional, is a common phenomenon and affects, at least once in a lifetime, about 50% of the population.

However, in the presence of certain diseases or anxious moods, it can become chronic, compromising the quality of life of those who suffer with the problems we have just outlined.

But how can insomnia be recognised? First of all, insomnia can be of three different types: initial, central and terminal.

It can manifest itself as soon as you go to bed, making it difficult to fall asleep (initial), or with continuous and frequent awakenings during the night (central), or even in an abrupt awakening at dawn with an inability to fall asleep again (terminal).

The main risk factor for insomnia is stress: our mind, overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, cannot relax and this strongly influences the quality of sleep.

Environmental factors such as light, noise or too high or too low a temperature can also cause episodes of insomnia, as can drinking a lot of coffee in the latter part of the day, abusing alcohol and nicotine, eating heavy food at dinner and exercising in the hours before bedtime.

In this case it is ‘acute’ insomnia, which occurs sporadically, or perhaps for a few weeks and then resolves when the stimulus that causes it ceases.

Insomnia, however, as we have said, can also be chronic: a condition that depends mainly on certain diseases, such as depression, obstructive sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, which severely affects the quality of sleep and may require the use of pharmacological or instrumental remedies to finally fall asleep.

What to do about insomnia? Remedies

When the disturbances are episodic, we can implement a few small measures on our own to prepare our bodies for rest and to help us sleep.

The main advice, therefore, is to get used to maintaining a constant sleep-wake rhythm: always waking up at the same time and always going to sleep at the same time accustoms the body to the natural stimulus of sleep.

It is also important to try to sleep in an environment with the right temperature between 18° and 22°C, which is dark and protected from noise, as well as avoiding spending too much time in front of screens in the evenings, whether they be Smartphones, computers or televisions.

An active life, with regular physical activity during the day and exposure to sunlight rather than artificial light, also helps the circadian rhythm.

Another ally for sleep are the nutrients we eat, which can promote the production of substances that promote rest, such as melatonin, magnesium, potassium or vitamin B6.

These include complex carbohydrates such as pasta, bread and rice, fish, white meat, milk and milk products, lettuce and certain fruits such as nuts, bananas and apricots.

Warm herbal teas in the hours leading up to sleep, many of which are composed of herbs and plants with relaxing properties, also help relaxation.

Other activities that can help reduce physical and mental tension are reading a book, listening to relaxing music or taking a hot bath.

Sleep disorders: when to see a doctor

If problems are prolonged over time and insomnia affects your quality of life, such as frequent headaches upon waking, difficulty concentrating at work or high irritability, you should seek medical advice.

One of the most common diagnostic tools when sleep disorders are particularly severe is polysomnography, an examination that records various parameters, from electroencephalographic activity to respiratory and cardiac activity, to assess quality.

The specialist may then prescribe different treatments depending on the problem at the root of the insomnia, from milder ones with melatonin to benzodiazepines or hypnoinducers if the problem is more severe, and even antidepressants.

Whichever treatment is most appropriate, it is important to remember that it should only be evaluated and prescribed by a specialist and that DIY treatments should be avoided.

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