PETALING JAYA: A study by the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health Sciences has revealed that nine out of 10 Malaysians face insomnia or other-sleep related issues. In addition, at least 53% of Malaysia’s workforce receives under seven hours of sleep.
Sleep deprivation is becoming the norm in Malaysia, the consequences of which include diminished productivity, an increase in road accidents, and a surge in mental health challenges.
Despite this, many remain unaware of the physiological and psychological repercussions of not getting enough rest. Here are some of the issues behind the silent epidemic of sleep deprivation.
Physical and mental woes
Left unchecked, sleep deprivation can result in physical and mental problems. According to Dr Sathindren Santhirathelagan, consultant neurologist and physician at Gleneagles Hospital in Penang, prolonged wakefulness can cause toxins to accumulate in the brain.
Sleep, therefore, serves as a waste-management system, clearing out these toxins to improve brain function. Without enough of it, brain cells become less efficient, impairing judgement, cognition and memory.
“It’s just like clearing out the cache of your computer,” he explained. “When you do that, your computer can receive more input. But if you have overloaded your hard drive, you’ll notice that none of the web pages are moving.”
Hanna Mariah Mazlan, a clinical psychologist from the KL-based mental health centre Aloe Mind, pointed out that insufficient sleep could lead to issues such as anxiety and depression because of its impact on brain chemistry.
“When you don’t get enough sleep, the part of the brain responsible for your emotions is affected. The balance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is important for mood regulation, is disrupted.
“When this is consistent, it could lead to depressive symptoms such as low mood, hopelessness, and loss of enjoyment,” she said. “If there’s heightened activity in the amygdala, you worry, become more restless, and could even have panic attacks.”
As for individuals who already have depression, sleep deprivation could exacerbate their symptoms, Hanna added.
She emphasised the relationship between mental health and lack of sleep, noting that a decline in one often triggers a decline in the other, leading to a negative feedback loop.
Toxic work culture, urbanisation
Sathindren partly attributes the prevalence of sleep deprivation to today’s work culture. The loss of fixed or traditional working hours, combined with the expectation that workers be constantly reachable, has left many without time for rest and relaxation.
“The term ‘office hours’ is long gone. Your boss is always in contact with you. He gets this epiphany at 11pm and says ‘do this tomorrow morning’. You fret over it, and you contact someone else, and the cycle continues.”
He advocates for an overhaul of the system – such as by limiting business between 10pm and 6am, save for emergency personnel – saying that profit shouldn’t come at the expense of one’s well-being.
He also called out the glamourising of “overwork”, where those who are seen to be well rested are shamed. “Culturally, in this part of the world, sleep is always seen as a luxury, not a necessity. You are guilt-tripped if you sleep for a full night.”
Sathindren further believes that the surge in urbanisation has hindered people’s ability to get a good night’s rest, primarily owing to domestic constraints and noise pollution.
“If you go back 50 years, people would turn their lights off at 9pm and everything would be quiet,” he said. “Nowadays, we sleep in very close quarters with no personal space. Neighbours also make noise. At 11.30pm, 12am, there are still people driving around.”
Hanna supported this claim, stating that congestion in urban regions, coupled with extended commute times, has reduced the hours available for leisure.
Consequently, as people prioritise activity and entertainment over rest, they delay their bedtimes.
“Demanding jobs often require individuals to burn the midnight oil, and when you couple that with long journeys between work and home, precious sleep hours are sacrificed.”
So, what can be done?
Sleep hygiene – that is, habits and practices that are conducive to quality rest – is essential for achieving restorative slumber, the experts said. And, to that end, a consistent bedtime routine is key.
“For example, have dinner at 7pm, shower at 8pm, do your skincare at 9pm, go to bed at 10pm,” Hanna advised. “If you can maintain this every day, you are actually training your body to fall asleep.”
She also recommends a fixed sleep schedule, which means going to bed and getting up at the same time regardless of whether it’s a weekday or weekend.
Hanna added that individuals should treat themselves with the same care as babies, who require optimal conditions such as the right temperature, darkness, and minimal distractions to achieve restful sleep.
Sathindren suggested that sleep hygiene be supplemented by societal changes, such as limiting construction hours to reduce noise pollution. Meanwhile, working from home could be a solution to lengthy commute times.
Finally, he draws inspiration from the Mediterranean, noting that the “siesta” tradition offers numerous advantages, including enhanced productivity and improved cognitive function. So go ahead and have that power nap!