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World Sleep Day with Dr Moira Junge

14th March 2024 • 6 min read

Let’s make sleep better for all.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s our need for quality sleep. While getting adequate rest remains a challenge worldwide, it's a vital component of our wellbeing.

This World Sleep Day, we had the pleasure of speaking with esteemed sleep expert Dr. Moira Junge – a Doctor of Health Psychology and the CEO of Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation – to explore the universal importance of sleep as a cornerstone of global health.

Sleep: the secret to good health and wellbeing

We all know what’s good for us: eating vegetables, drinking water, being physically active… but it turns out sleep is just as important. “Sleep is essential for all aspects of our physical and mental wellbeing,” says Dr Junge.

Mentally, it helps with mood regulation, alertness, concentration, memory, learning and productivity, she says. And it doesn’t take much to notice the side effects of poor sleep – even a restless night or two can affect how you feel.

“We see this easily in children,” Dr Junge explains. “If they haven’t had their sleep, they lose it more easily. Adults are better able to mask the effects, but we can still be hypersensitive in the workplace and take things too personally.”

Sleep is also essential for maintaining good physical health throughout our lives. “During sleep, babies and children secrete hormones that help them grow,” says Dr Junge. “And good amounts of quality sleep reduce the risk of chronic conditions like dementia, some cancers and heart disease.”

Modern lifestyles can make it harder to drift off

Given sleep is such a powerful force, why do up to 40 per cent of Australians have trouble clocking up enough hours? According to Dr Junge, our modern lifestyles bear some of the blame.

She notes that a lot of people now work outside ‘standard’ hours, which impacts their sleep routine. “This might be working from home, flexible work, parents trying to juggle everything and doing their work at midnight,” she explains.

Winding down at the end of the day can be a problem too, with many people facing increased stress, pressure, and anxiety. In a recent survey, over 50 per cent of Australians said stress had affected their sleep since the COVID-19 pandemic, with one in three respondents attributing their poor sleep to financial stress.

Technology is another major contributing factor, and not just because screen use near bedtime can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. Often, people are on their electronic devices for so long, they simply have less time for sleep, Dr Junge says.

World Sleep Day: Sleep equity for global health

As this year’s World Sleep Day theme (‘sleep equity for global health’) highlights, some people are especially vulnerable to experiencing sleep issues. For example, research shows people living in low socioeconomic areas are more likely to have their sleep disrupted by environmental factors like noise, light, temperature and air quality. They are also more prone to social issues that can affect sleep, such as hunger, financial pressure and the need to work irregular hours. 

While this is a global issue, we can see sleep inequities right here in Australia, Dr Junge says. 

A recent review found that “First Nations Australians are significantly more likely to report worse sleep health than non-indigenous Australians''. This includes issues such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), short sleep duration and poor sleep quality. 

People doing shift-based work – such as Uber driving, nursing or aged-care work – are also at a disadvantage. Not only do they work non-standard hours, they are often also poorly paid, which can lead to socioeconomic disadvantage.

Age is another factor. “You're less likely to sleep well the older you get,” Dr Junge says, whereas 18-35-year-olds are “much more likely to lose sleep from worrying about what’s happening in the world.”

Doing more to promote good sleep

So, what can be done to promote sleep equity? In January, the Sleep Health Foundation contributed to a policy framework that was presented to the federal government, outlining six recommendations to support sleep health for all Australians. The first recommendation is a 10-year national sleep health strategy, similar to the one we have for preventing obesity. 

The Sleep Health Foundation would also like treatment for sleep problems to be more affordable and accessible, Dr Junge says.

She believes education is key to improving our slumber. Sleep is complex, she points out, and it can be hard for people to know which advice to follow. “It's important to have access to good quality, evidence-based information,” she says.

The Sleep Health Foundation has speakers who visit schools to talk about sleep and they would like to see this program expanded. “Sleep is a really important issue like smoking and alcohol,” Dr Junge says. “If we can get kids to understand that, they're much less likely to have problems as they get older.”

Dr Junge’s top 5 tips for getting better sleep

As for what you can do on a day-to-day level to improve your sleep, Dr Junge stresses it’s not as simple as downing a chamomile tea and getting to bed by 10. Rather, there are five basic principles anyone can apply:

  1. Value your sleep – focus on how important it is for mental and physical wellbeing.

  2. Prioritise sleep – make room for it in your life, wherever it fits.

  3. Personalise it to you – your sleep needs will depend on your age, gender, job, family situation, and personal preferences, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “I get cross when I hear people say, ‘go to bed early’,” Dr Junge says. “That's crazy if you're a night owl – it will just increase your frustration. You’ve got to think of your specific circumstances.”

  4. Understand the importance of your circadian rhythm – Dr Junge explains that if you spend all your time in bright light (whether it’s natural or artificial) your brain doesn’t get the message to produce melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy). She recommends getting some light in the morning and dimming the lights before bedtime.

  5. Trust your body – “A lot of people who develop sleep problems get anxious and they can try too hard,” Dr Junge says. She suggests trying to get the above factors right, then trusting that your sleep will get sorted.

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