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We spend a third of our lives asleep, yet insomnia and sleeplessness is a national affliction. Alena Walker spoke with Professor Philippa Gander, the director of The Sleep/Wake Research Centre.

Based on a national survey in 2008, 13% of New Zealanders have insomnia. A staggering 26% of those surveyed, aged 20–59, report having sleep problems that have lasted at least six months; and 37% of NZ adults, aged 30–60, report never or rarely getting enough sleep. The Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University, directed by Professor Philippa Gander, has established some surprising facts on the state of New Zealand’s sleeping habits.

Vital physical and emotional processes happen in our sleep as recovery from the demands of our waking lives. ‘There are two completely different brain states when you’re asleep,’ she explains. ‘The actively dreaming,  rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep (non-REM).’

‘You need both types of sleep,’ she explains. ‘We know that memory consolidation happens, so learning happens, during sleep. We also need it for growth and if your brain can’t go into deep slow-wave sleep, you can’t produce growth hormones. Your immune system gets recharged, so if you haven’t had enough sleep for a few days you’re more likely to get an infection or a cold.’

When Gander entered the industry in the 1970s, little was known about the circadian clock – a pacemaker, as she describes it, that ‘keeps everything working in sync’ – and the brain cells that control it. She was awarded a Fullbright Fellowship at Harvard University, studying neuroanatomy, before joining NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Programme.

‘Sleep hasn’t entered mainstream medical thinking,’ she says, ‘which is very focused on waking symptoms and waking health, and you can’t separate that from sleep.’ Over long periods of time, lacking the recommended 7–9 hours per night can seriously impact your health. In the short term, sleeplessness sufferers are more likely to report difficulty concentrating, a lack of  productivity and  their safety being compromised.

Professor Philippa Gander. Photograph by Anna Briggs.

Startling links are being drawn between our body clock and rates of cancer, diabetes, and most recently, obesity. Gander says there is strong evidence that the obesity epidemic is partly due to people not getting enough sleep. ‘Lack of sleep alters the hormones that regulate the appetite; the one that makes you hungry increases and the one that makes you feel full decreases. So you end up, after a couple of nights’ restricted sleep, feeling a lot hungrier.’

According to research by the Sleep/Wake Research Centre, one in ten of us are often affected by at least one symptom of insomnia. Defined as disrupted sleep or difficulty maintaining restorative sleep, it’s the most common sleep disorder, alongside sleep apnoea, diagnosed in New Zealand.

Currently, however, there is no funding in public healthcare for cognitive behavioural therapy, the internationally recognised treatment for insomnia. In 2008, a health economic analysis estimated that successful insomnia treatment would save the economy $21.8 million a year. The paradigm shift towards healthier sleep, by and large, has to begin within ourselves.

Because sleep is important for our wellbeing, Gander says we have to give ourselves regular opportunities for sleep at night. But she recognises that on shift work you can’t necessarily do this. Around 20% of New Zealand workers are involved in rotating shift work, with or without a night shift. In high-risk occupations, like nursing and aviation, where fatigue can be fatal, awareness of how to make the best of opportunities for shut-eye is paramount.

She points out there are ways to improve your sleep, regardless of your work pattern. Look at caffeine, alcohol, smart phones, laptops, TVs in bedrooms, demanding commutes, long work schedules, 24-hour gyms and artificial lighting, says Gander. 

The simplest of acts can have a positive effect, from spending more time actually trying to sleep, to eliminating artificial disturbance from the bedroom. Emptying our sleep spaces of digital distraction can aid a better night’s kip. ‘The circadian body clock is sensitive to light – even through closed eyelids, the LED flash from a device is enough to disrupt it, making it hard to wake in the morning.’ Creating a pre-sleep routine that makes our beds a space dedicated to sleep can help our body clocks to run more smoothly.

‘Always focus on getting the best sleep you can and train yourself to pay attention to your own circadian cycle’ says Gander. Reach for a pillow instead of another cup of coffee, listen to your body’s sleepiness as a sign you need sleep; turn off the technology and allow yourself to switch off. The perfect night’s sleep might not so be unattainable after all.

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