The subject of sleep has been a hot topic in our household in recent months as we invested in a “smart bed”. We needed to replace our old mattress and we went for a modern version which lets my husband and I choose our differing mattress firmness levels and other settings. Linked to our Wi-Fi, every morning an app on my smart phone shows me how well I slept, compares it to previous nights, develops graphs and trends, and the like. I am fascinated by how much personalized data I get on my own biometrics and sleep patterns from a bed. How long did I sleep? How many times did I get up? What was my heartrate and breathing rate? What was my overall “sleep score”? My score is, of course, adversely affected if I sleep too little, or even too much!
All this has made me realize that sleep is big business. The developed world is currently undergoing an epidemic of poor-quality slumber, defined by the World Health Organization in 2017 as a “sleep-loss epidemic”. They say that two third of adults in developed nations do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night. In America, 35% of us don’t even manage seven hours of sleep each night, with the average adult scoring 6.8 hours of sleep in the USA. This compares to a whopping 9 hours a night back about a hundred years ago, admittedly a simpler time with less distractions.
The past decade has revealed a lot about the health implications of getting less sleep than we need, and they are worrying. While a few people have a genetic mutation letting them to get by on less sleep than the rest of us, this is really a very small percentage of the population. Everybody has a slightly different need for sleep, and while some of us are night owls and others morning larks, most of us will suffer serious health consequences if we get less than six or seven hours of quality sleep a night on a regular basis. It is also fascinating to find out how humans differ from animals in our need for sleep and sleeping patterns – but that is a different column!
I came across some interesting, and alarming, recent research that has indicated that:
- Cravings for junk food and ‘empty’ calories increases by 45% if we don’t sleep enough since a lack of sleep swells the hormone for appetite and limits the hormone for satisfaction so we don’t feel full after eating. Ever stayed up late watching TV and snacked too much in the process? Yes, me too.
- Some studies say that routinely pushing yourself without enough sleep can double the risk of cancer.
- In the spring when the clocks change for daylight saving time, there is a significant increase in heart attack rates and traffic accidents, generally attributed to the adjustment of losing an hour’s sleep.
- Cerebrospinal fluids are pushed up during the night to ‘wash out’ toxins created by the brain during the day, and some research indicates that without this process our problem-solving skills and attention to detail abilities can be seriously affected. Longer term, this can lead to an increase in the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease increase. Margaret Thatcher, that great British Prime Minister in the 1980s, always boasted that she only needed four hours sleep a night and, yes, she suffered from dementia before she died.
- Stresses from the day are replayed at night through the REM sleep experienced during dreams, but generally with stress hormones switched off so we can reset ourselves emotionally. I know I am not my best self and harder on my loved ones and co-workers if I don’t sleep enough.
There really seems to be truth to the clichés “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” if we are cranky or “sleeping on it” to help us solve problems or issues we face. Personally, I know that an early night and a good night’s sleep can sometime make the world of difference to my own attitude and productivity.
I was also delighted to find out that our decision not to have a TV in our bedroom, and for me not to read from a screen in bed but from an old-fashioned printed newspaper, magazine or book, are good ones. The blue light from screens can trick our minds into thinking it is still daylight and we should be awake, and information overload in today’s world is also the enemy of relaxation and sleeping well. To learn a lot more about sleep, check out www.sleepfoundation.org.
I say goodbye this week with a quote from 20thCentury American author, John Steinbeck, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
God bless America!
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