By Flavia Nassaka
Scientists agree that everyone’s individual sleep needs vary. Generally, however, healthy adults should have 16 hours of wakefulness and need an average of eight hours of sleep every night. That means one needs to be in bed by 10pm if they aim to be up by 6am.
However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness after as little as six hours of sleep. Others cannot perform at their peak unless they have slept ten hours.
Because of its importance to healthy living and productivity, scientists have for long been researching into what influences how long an individual sleeps and how individuals experiencing sleep disorders can be helped.
For example, a recent study published on Dec.2 in the peer-reviewed international UK-based journal, Molecular psychiatry, suggests that how much sleep you get each night may depend to some extent on your genes. The researchers found that several aspects of sleep; including when and how long people sleep are, to some extent, inherited. Researchers led by Dr. Daniel Gottllieb, a sleep researcher and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School said the long-term goal of this study is improved understanding of sleep disorders, including early identification of those at risk for sleep disorders in order to prevent their occurrence.
In Uganda, according to Dr Moses Seggane, a psychiatrist at Makerere School of Public Health, millions of people suffer from lack of sleep and many more do not get enough sleep. Many, however, do not regard it as a disorder and do not seek proper medical attention.
“They never realise that they have sleeping disorders. Such people resort to seeking over the counter medicines such as valium (sleeping pill) even when it’s not necessary,” says. In the study mentioned earlier, researchers at the Harvard Medical School examined the genes and sleep habits of 47,180 people of European descent and those of 4,771 African-Americans. They identified two genetic variations tied to sleep duration, one of which was linked to about three minutes of extra sleep per night.
The researchers focused on an area of DNA that influences how long an individual sleeps. Those with one of the gene variations not only slept slightly longer but also had lower levels of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a sleep disorder and lower blood sugar levels, the study found.
While reacting to the study Dr Seggane said though there is a genetic connection to individual sleeping patterns, the effect must be small. He said, instead, sleep duration could be largely connected to many non-genetic conditions such as depression, diabetes and stress.
Dr. Christine Maria Adongo, a General Medicine Practitioner at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala agrees. She says diabetes and sleep problems often go hand in hand since diabetes can cause sleep loss, and yet there is evidence that not sleeping well can increase your risk of developing diabetes.
“Any time your blood sugar is really high, your kidneys try to get rid of it by urinating,” says Dr Adongo, “So you are probably getting up and going to bathroom all night long, a thing that affects your sleep patterns.”
Another connection is that the body’s reaction to sleep loss can resemble insulin resistance, a symptom of diabetes. Insulin’s job is to help the body use glucose for energy. In insulin resistance, cells fail to use the hormone efficiently, resulting in high blood sugar.
Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells do not properly use the insulin. When insulin is not doing its job, high blood sugar levels build in the body to the point where they can harm the eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart leading to sleep problems.
Dr Seggane says Ugandans should take sleep disorders seriously and seek medical attention. Common sleep disorders include failure to fall asleep or insomnia, chronic sleep deficit, loss of breath during sleep or apnea, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which describes hyperactivity and lack of attention.
Dr Seggane says instead of taking sleeping pills, they should seek cognitive behaviour therapy which is more effective and has a longer lasting impact. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people how to recognise and change patterns of thought and behavior to solve their problems.
He says while occasional insomnia is normal and can be reversed by behaviour changes, one should seek medical attention when they experience the disorder on a regular basis. He however warns that sleep apnea is a more severe sleep disorder. It makes a person stop breathing for 10 seconds to 30 seconds at a time while they are sleeping. If you have sleep apnea, periods of not breathing can disturb your sleep though they may not fully wake you up.
He points to overweight men and people above 40 years to be more prone to the disorder though it could strike at any age.
Dr Seggane says some sleep apnea sufferers may not know it.
“Chances are things will improve once you have done a check-up and embarked on treatment”, he says.