‘People feel like they’re losing their mind.’

A third of Australians say they only get one good night’s sleep a week – and concern over poor sleep can exacerbate it, new data warns

New research by LiveLighter shows that restricted and poor-quality sleep is now associated with an increased risk of obesity.

“A lack of sleep can get in the way of efforts to stay healthy,” says LiveLighter campaign manager and dietitian Alison McAleese.

“Being tired may make us more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks after a bad night’s sleep. Many quick snack choices are often high in added sugar and saturated fat and don’t tend to fill us up. Eating too many of these foods over time can lead to unhealthy weight gain.

“Staying up late may also make us feel less motivated to get up and moving the next day. As being active is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, ensuring we get a good night’s sleep so we can stay physically active is really important,” Ms McAleese said.

Health psychologist at the Sleep Health Foundation, Dr Moira Junge, told the AJP that the consequences of poor sleep go well beyond this, however – and that pharmacists are well placed to help.

“Often, people feel like they’re losing their mind,” she said. “I’ve seen, in clinical settings, people who have had insomnia for weeks, months or years, and they’re very concerned that they have early onset dementia.”

These people don’t perform any worse than the rest of the population in screening for early dementia, however – but the effects are real, Dr Junge said.

“There’s no structural damage [to the brain] but it’s like a fog that sets in.”

The result can be similar to jet lag, or the kind of sleep deprivation experienced by new parents, she warned.

“I remember driving, and thinking, ‘I should not be driving’. When you’ve been awake for 19 hours, on driving simulation tests you’re the same as being 0.05 [blood alcohol limit] and at 24 hours, you’re at 0.08.

“And it’s very easy to be awake for 19 hours.”

She says that while many Australians turn to pharmaceutical options for help – such as prescription sleeping tablets, or antihistamines – pharmacists are perfectly placed to help them discuss better options, including looking into the role of anxiety.

“Anxiety is very much linked,” Dr Junge says. “If I’m worried about something I can’t sleep, but it can be the other way around, too: poor sleep can lead to anxiety, so if you’re worried about not being able to sleep well and it perpetuates, you start dreading the night coming, and thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope I sleep well tonight’.

“People find themselves in a vicious cycle of being overtired but unable to sleep, in the same way as very young children.

“Pharmacists can talk about strategies such as bed restriction, for example. If someone is only getting four, five or six hours’ sleep a night, get them to match the time in bed with the amount of sleep they get. Don’t go to bed at 10 and stay there awake until six.

“People can accept that they’re not getting much sleep and not try too hard.”

She says another key message is for patients to turn off laptops, mobile phones and Netflix earlier in the evening – as the role of blue light from devices in disrupting sleep has strong evidence to support it.

“People just hear snippets about sleep,” Dr Junge said. “We read ‘Seven top tips for sleep’ but that doesn’t necessarily address the issue.

“With blue light, for example, there’s lots of validity but it varies greatly among individuals as to how you’ll be affected, what dose, how far away.”

She says pharmacists can help encourage patients not to expect a quick fix, but to understand that many of the ways to address insomnia can take time to work.

“You can get something that’ll knock you out that night, but people need more education – hence the pharmacist can say, ‘Did you know about these other strategies?’”

In the meantime, pharmacists can “keep up the good work,” she said.

“They have such a well recognised role in the sleep field,” she said.

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