Its effects seem superficial: bags under the eyes, fatigue and occasional lapses in concentration. But, in time, poor sleep can exact a much heavier toll.

That’s the prognosis of one sleep expert, who ranks sleep above exercise and nutrition as a foundation of health.

When sleep is not right, many things within the body system will go wrong, says Dr Chit Shu Chan, medical director of the Sleep and Chest Disorders Centre in Sydney.

Irregular heart rhythm, increased cholesterol and strokes can all be related to poor sleep, Chan says.

This is because sleep disorders often result in a reduction in oxygen intake, triggering a release of stress hormones from the brain.

Among such disorders are obstructive sleep apnoea, which involves interrupted breathing when the muscles that control the tongue and soft palate relax, and sleep fragmentation -“ sleeping and waking.

When there is this big release of stress hormones from the brain, many things begin to happen, Chan says. Firstly, it will affect the cardiovascular system: the heart rate will speed up, blood pressure goes up.

There is also good evidence that excess stress hormones can lead to arteries that clog more easily, Chan says.

That’s why we now know that 65 percent of acute heart attacks and acute strokes are directly related to sleep apnoea.

But what constitutes good sleep? Between seven and eight hours per night, taken at regular times.

It certainly is very important to have a regular sleep time and a regular wake-up time, more so as we grow older, Chan says.

He gives no credence to the idea that each hour of sleep taken before midnight is worth two after, but that’s not to say endless partying has no effect.

Lifestyle is very important, Chan says. Smoking promotes wakefulness, and nightcaps are a no-no.

People always say, -˜If I have a bit of alcohol at night I seem to sleep a lot better.’

Actually it’s the contrary because if you drink just prior to sleep you’re more likely to relax your throat muscles and your tongue -¦ so that you’re more likely to snore and obstruct your sleep during the night.

Sleeping tablets, however, are fine in times
of crisis, but only in moderation and only for a month or so, after which time they lose their effect.

If sleep still fails to come easily, it might be time to consider a sleep study, which analyses the way you sleep and costs around $300 at the Sleep and Chest Disorders Centre.

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