Why 95 per cent of us can't wind down our brains at night

Irene Falcone is one of the 95 per cent who struggle to sleep soundly at night.

At its worst, two years ago, the entrepreneur and mum-of-four was so exhausted she couldn't remember where her children were nor did she feel safe to drive.

"Did I drop them off to school, I can't remember?," she would ask herself.

"I remember driving and just thinking about that ad on TV [about micro sleeps] – how am I going to stay awake – and that was just trying to drive 20 minutes home from work."

But, trying to grow her fledgling business, Nourished Life, and keep up with the demands of family life, she kept running herself ragged. Thinking the later she worked the more she could accomplish, she drank "a lot" of coffee to sharpen her attention. Not that it was working.

"I find that winding my brain down at night, I find that incredibly difficult," admits Falcone, who was averaging about three hours sleep a night.

"It's this really interesting state of tiredness but an inability to go to sleep. In my brain I was running through my invoice data entry job that I had been doing that day, finishing it off in my brain. But I was too tired to get out of bed to go to the computer to actually do it."

Tired at work? Photo: iStock

Tired at work? Photo: iStock

Sleep epidemic

According to the results of a new survey by an independent research company (commissioned by Nourished Life), 65 per cent of respondents suffer from sleep deprivation or disturbed sleep. 

Of the 1003 Australian adults surveyed, 30 per cent said they slept soundly "most of the time" while only 5 per cent said they slept well every night.

Like Falcone, many (35 per cent) said they experienced memory loss as a result of their exhaustion, one in three (33 per cent) reported that they were too tired to have sex and one in five said there were times they felt too unsafe to drive.

Dr Moira Junge, a psychologist and board member of the Sleep Health Foundation, said these findings are "a lot higher" than what has been reported previously.

Research released by the Sleep Health Foundation in February found 33 to 45 per cent of adults sleep poorly or not long enough most nights.

"That was of 1100 people across Australia. Those were our most recent findings and that was alarming because it was way up on our previous findings," Junge says.

"People were saying that it was a bit overstated – 'do you really think it's an epidemic?' Well, it is really. It's 10 years since the iPhone, it's six years since the iPad. We haven't understood that it's going to catch up with us at some point. You can't think that you can be in your bedroom on your devices and it not have an effect on your sleep."

What's the problem?

Technology is not the only reason.

While Junge says they haven't yet "pinpointed" exactly why so many people are struggling, she does notice themes.

"What I've noticed in the people I see [who have a diagnosed sleep problem such as insomnia] is that their stress levels are disproportionate," Junge says. "They haven't got the personal or financial resources to cope with the stress in their life and the demands of the fast-paced life."

It's not always technology's fault. Photo: iStock

It's not always technology's fault. Photo: iStock

Longer hours in the office, in unnatural light, affects our circadian rhythm and for many, there is an expectation that we respond to texts and emails after hours and even over the weekend. In addition, more than 50 per cent of those in the Sleep Health Foundation study were on their phones right up until sleep and first thing when they woke up. This leaves us overstimulated ("What we all get today in terms of information each day is what we would have got in one month, before we had all this technology at our finger tips," Junge says) and overexposed to the blue light spectrum of our devices, which suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin.

"And we're not necessarily getting the time for our personal wellbeing – for fitness and just sitting around," Junge adds.

A chronic lack of sleep doesn't just make us feel foggy and lethargic, it weakens the immune system, affects our memory and has been linked to a plethora of mental and physical problems from depression to diabetes, obesity, cancer and mood disorders.

For Sleep Awareness Week (July 3-7), the Sleep Health Foundation has released other worrying statistics.

Poor alertness is responsible for almost 10,000 serious workplace injuries and more than 25,000 serious road crash injuries each year, costing the economy over $5 billion a year in lost productivity and healthcare costs, it has revealed.

For its scarcity, sleep has become the new status symbol and companies are cashing in on our sleepless nights with sleep gadgets, drugs and products galore, but Junge says they are futile unless we address the bigger picture.

"You have to take bigger steps around your general approach to your health, your general approach to your work-life balance, your nutrition, your physical fitness, your ability to manage stress, your ability to manage relationships and to turn your devices off and have boundaries around your technology," she says. "That is what is going to help, not the special product. No amount of sleep tea or drug – even Stilnox, for instance, has had a whole stack of clinical trials and it's a valid thing – that still doesn't cut the mustard long-term if you don't manage these other things." 

But Junge is cautious about being alarmist and reminds that poor sleep and its effects are reversible.

"We need to be aware and make some changes," she says. "Help is out there."

Need to slow down? Photo: iStock

Need to slow down? Photo: iStock

Breaking point

Following a "huge fight" with her husband after she told him she didn't have time to sleep, Falcone sought the advice of a naturopath. 

She was prescribed a sleep supplement, began taking nightly magnesium baths and "I made sleep a priority", she says.

"I needed to stop trying to do everything," Falcone admits. "Just the simple act of closing the door and my husband keeping the children away from me for 20 minutes so I could have a warm bath without my phone ... it wasn't so much the magnesium as it was being able to lock my brain away and relax."

She slowly started sleeping better and feeling "really clear", she delegated work and hired a bookkeeper.

"The old Irene would have just stayed up all night punching in invoices myself," she says, chuckling. "Just being able to think clearly and be refreshed and not think, 'am I going to crash my car? Where are my children?, allowed me to focus."

She has cut back on coffee, switches off electronics two hours before she goes to sleep and has a bath each night before hopping into bed at 9 to read.

"The crazy thing I learned since then is that if you actually go to sleep and wake up fresh, not only are all your problems easy to deal with or not such big problems, you're able to clearly either give the job to someone else or do it yourself clearly," Falcone says.

"I'm not yelling at my kids anymore so that's really really good and I'm not yelling at my husband any more either. And the business, we're going to hit $20 million this year.

"What is life-changing is that you can accomplish more when you're awake less."

The theme for this year's Sleep Awareness week is safer, smarter workplaces. For tips and to find out more, click here.