Massey University health researchers are backing the message that a good night’s sleep is vital for health and well-being, in support of World Sleep Day on Friday, March 18.

This year’s theme is “Good sleep is a reachable dream.” Yet sleep problems are common among New Zealanders and include not getting enough sleep, as well as suffering from sleep disorders such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.

A quarter of New Zealanders report suffering from a sleep problem that has lasted at least 6 months. A recent survey of 5,000 New Zealanders showed approximately one quarter do not get the recommended amount of sleep of 7 to 9 hours per night.

Karyn O’Keeffe, PhD, from Massey’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre, says short sleep is more pronounced on weekdays and we tend to try to catch up on sleep at the weekends. However, studies show that it may take more than two full nights of sleep to recover from substantial sleep loss.

“Sleep problems are not restricted to short sleep. A survey of 4,000 New Zealanders showed that approximately half of us never, or rarely, wake feeling refreshed in the morning and have difficulty getting back to sleep when we wake in the middle of the night. A third of us have difficulty falling asleep at night,” she says in a release.

O’Keeffe says some people suffer from a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea. “This occurs when the upper airway is partially or fully blocked during sleep, leading to episodes of reduced airflow. These episodes occur many times overnight and lead to frequent awakenings from sleep, resulting in problems with daytime alertness and functioning, and health problems. It is estimated 13% of New Zealand men and 3% of New Zealand women suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.”

She says although this paints a bleak picture, it is important to remember the majority do get enough sleep. “There is evidence that New Zealanders who report getting enough sleep have better quality of life and overall well-being.”

O’Keeffe says there are a number of things you can do to get enough good quality sleep:

  • Make sleep a priority. In the short term, missing out on sleep can lead to being less productive, less creative, and less flexible in your thinking. You can have slower reaction times, make poorer decisions, have trouble getting on with others, and have poorer concentration and motivation. In the long-term, poor sleep may lead to health problems like high blood pressure, increased weight, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Create an ideal sleep environment. You get the best sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room. Try to remove any distractions from the bedroom, including TVs, computers, and mobile phones.
  • Keep a regular sleep routine. One way to promote a healthy routine is to keep a regular wake up time. Try to get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercising in the late afternoon/early evening can help promote a regular sleep routine. Exercise at any time of the day can lead to improvements in the quality of your sleep.
  • Avoid bright lights in the evening as this can affect your internal body clock and make it difficult to fall asleep and get up in the morning. Try dimming computer, TV, and cellphone screens in the evening, and if possible avoid using devices with bright screens two hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. They change the structure of your sleep so you miss out on vital sleep stages. Avoid caffeine in the 5 to 8 hours and alcohol in the two to three hours before bed.
  • If you suffer from sleep problems on a regular basis, talk to your doctor. Many sleep difficulties and disorders can be treated. An overnight sleep study or consultation with a sleep professional could be recommended.