Poor sleep: sorting fact from fiction

11 May 2016

One in five Australians report getting less than six hours sleep per night. Feeling bad about the quality and quantity of our sleep is the new zeitgeist, says Professor Ron Grunstein.

Purveyors of sleep-inducing gadgets, therapies and pharmaceuticals have convinced a lot of us that we’re sleep-deprived insomniacs who need help getting a good night’s sleep, according to sleep expert, Ron Grunstein.

“Feeling bad about the quality and quantity of our sleep is the new zeitgeist," says Dr Grunstein, Professor of Sleep Medicine and Head of Sleep and Circadian Research at the University of Sydney’s Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

One in three Australians experience some form of sleeping problem, which is unchanged from 20 years ago, but these days more of us feel dissatisfied with our sleep despite little sign that insomnia is on the rise, or that we’re getting less sleep.

Furthermore, it seems there’s a disturbing mix of fact and fiction that plague our beliefs and habits when it comes to getting some shuteye.

One in five Australians report getting less than six hours sleep per night, which isn’t enough.
Professor Ron Grunstein

“There’s a common belief that everyone needs eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. The truth is there is a lot of variation between individuals, depending on age, genetics and gender,” he says.

“Today, sleep problems like insomnia and insufficient sleep have become what ‘stress’ was to the 1980s – suddenly they’re a big problem in search of a solution.”

A quick check online reveals countless books, potions, pillows and audio recordings promising blissful sleep to the sleep-deprived.

That said, Professor Grunstein is quick to note that serious sleep disorders do cause enormous suffering and represent a major cause of lost productivity and health care costs.

In 2011, for example, Deloitte Access Economics estimated that sleep disorders cost the Australian health care system $818 million – more than asthma and stroke – while sleep problems cost the economy $3.1 billion in lost productivity.

Add to these figures the contribution of fall-asleep and fatigued related motor vehicle accidents ($465 million) and it’s clear that a lack of adequate, good quality sleep is a serious health and economic problem.

Furthermore, these numbers are dwarfed by figures in the US where the National Institutes of Health note that chronic sleep loss affects 70 million Americans.

In 2011 it said $16 billion was being spent annually on health care costs associated with sleeping problems and lost productivity was costing the economy $50 billion a year.

“Insufficient or disordered sleep is now recognised as a major cause of reduced alertness, fall-asleep crashes, errors, and deaths in the workplace,” says Grunstein.

Sleep: why it matters and how to get more of it

“It also raises the risk of poor outcomes and reduced survival from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, metabolic dysfunction and impaired mood and mental health.

“One in five Australians report getting less than six hours sleep per night, which isn’t enough. These people report excessive daytime sleepiness and have higher risks of accidents, making poor decisions and lower productivity.

But it’s a myth that good sleepers don’t wake in the night, he says.

“Waking is a normal part of sleeping. Even healthy sleepers will wake on multiple occasions but usually they don’t remember it.

“Wake periods are only problems when we start to think or worry after we wake, which can make us more alert and prevent a return to sleep.”

Grunstein says the leading causes of poor sleep quality include work pressure, excessive noise and exposure to light, especially light-emitting devices like mobile phones that often sit by bedsides.

“More of us are going to bed later, taking work home, and there’s more interference from devices we use in bed at the end of the day. The light from devices disrupts the release of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep in response to darkness.

“Other factors that prevent or disrupt sleep include alcohol, caffeine, smoking and even exercising too close to bedtime.”

“It’s important to establish regular sleeping hours where you go to bed at say, 10pm to 11pm in the evening and wake up at 6am to 7am in the morning. These are the best times from a body clock perspective of when to sleep.

“Sleep is just as crucial as eating and drinking,” says Grunstein. “We need people to recognise that both in the workplace and at home, sleep is something that needs to be protected and that it’s precious.”


Professor Ron Grunstein is a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Sydney’s Woolcock Institute.

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