Illawarra sleep expert Dr Sarah Loughran encourages good 'sleep hygiene'

Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute sleep expert Dr Sarah Loughran. Picture: Paul Jones
Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute sleep expert Dr Sarah Loughran. Picture: Paul Jones

In a 24/7 world – where you can do your grocery shopping, grab a bite to eat or even enjoy a session at the gym at any hour – sleep is often the loser.

However, on World Sleep Day today, an Illawarra expert is urging residents to maintain their “sleep hygiene” just as they would pay attention to other aspects of their health.

Dr Sarah Loughran, a researcher at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, said it was important not to disturb our circadian rhythms – our sleep-wake cycle.

Shift work, travelling across time zones and exposure to bright light in the evening were some of the factors that could disrupt that daily rhythm.

“Sleep hygiene – which refers to habits and behaviours that promote better quality sleep – is one way in which we can reduce the negative impact of light and other factors on our sleep,” Dr Loughran said.

Going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day; keeping the bedroom for sleep and sex only and avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evening were examples of good sleep hygiene.

Getting outside in the daylight, and avoiding brightly lit environments at night will also improve your night’s sleep. While exercising during the day (but not too close to bedtime) can also help.

Dr Loughran said lack of sleep led to a range of issues, including anxiety, moodiness and weight gain in the short term, and more serious consequences longer term.

“The brain does not just shut down while we are asleep,” she said. “It is thought that the brain uses this time to process information, consolidate memories, and something called synaptic homeostasis (a process by which the brain strengthens important connections and eliminates unimportant ones).”

Dr Loughran’s research focuses on the effects of technology, such as mobile phones, on sleep.

She said excessive use of screen devices led to delayed bedtimes; while the blue light could disrupt those important circadian rhythms.

“Engaging the brain with exciting or provocative information before bed may trigger emotional and hormonal responses (like the release of adrenalin), which is not conducive to sleep and therefore can reduce the ability to fall asleep and to stay asleep.”

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