I started university when I was 19 years old. This also meant living on my own for the first time in my life. To me, this indicated that I had reached a certain maturity. High time to change my sleeping habit from 8 to 9 hours per night to 6 or 7. It was the mature thing to do, or so I thought.
The first week, I managed quite fine. I was so excited about my new life that I was on a constant high of adrenaline I guess. But after a week, life rapidly became a burden. And by the end of two weeks, I was a total wreck. I couldn’t concentrate, I was moody heading towards depression, and I felt like I was coming down with the flue. Recognising the signs, I gave in and admitted that I really need 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night, even though it seemed like a total waste of time.
Fast forward over 30 years to today. I still need the same amount of sleep, but I no longer consider it a waste of time. On the contrary, I now consider it a vital part of my over all health and wellbeing. Reading “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker has got a lot to do with that.
Sleep deprivation leads to illness and death
Modern Western society has, over the last century, developed into a culture that looks upon sleep as a waste of time. It is generally recognised that we cannot do without, but the less time lost in sleep, the better it is deemed. We all know of highly successful people who sleep only 4 or 5 hours per night. If they can do it, so can we, right?
There has been done a lot of scientific research into sleep, and from that, it has become crystal clear that sleeping less than 6 hours per night is bad for your health. Furthermore, being chronically sleep deprived, even if it is just one hour per night, has a devastating effect on us, both physically and mentally.
Effects of a lack of sleep on your health
- weakens your immune system;
- increases your risk of developing certain forms of cancer;
- increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease;
- profoundly disrupts blood sugar levels;
- contributes to all mayor psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety and suicidality;
- will make you eat more.
Chronic sleep deficiency will shorten your life span. And that is apart from the risk of dying in an accident due to fatigue. In the USA, every hour of the day, a person dies in traffic due to a fatigue related error. In fact, drowsy driving is more dangerous than drunk driving.
There are two reasons for drowsy-driving accidents. The first is someone falling asleep behind the wheel. This usually only happens when someone has skipped an entire night. Fortunately, this does not happen very often
The second is, unfortunately, much more common: microsleep. A microsleep lasts only a few seconds. In those seconds, the eyelids will partially or fully close. Furthermore, the brain becomes completely oblivious to the outside world.
As if that isn’t bad enough, your decisive control of motor action will momentarily cease. In other words: you just cannot be bothered to move, i.e. changing direction or hitting the brake pedal.
A drunk driver is just slow to react. But a tired driver experiencing a microsleep doesn’t react at all, making him/her far more dangerous.
Microsleeps are suffered mostly by chronically sleep deprived people, whereby the definition of that is: people who get less than 7 hours of sleep per night on a routinely basis.
Industrial accidents caused by sleep deprivation
It is unknown how many industrial accidents are caused by sleep deprivation. However, there are two very severe ones that are well known. Those are the reactor melt down at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, and the running aground of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef, Alaska on March 24, 1989.
The radiation that escaped in Chernobyl and the oil spill in the Alaskan sea created death and suffering on a giant scale. Both accidents probably would not have happened, had the people involved had a decent amount of sleep.
Sleep from birth to old age
Newborn babies sleep a lot. Over the years, children gradually need less sleep. Until adolescence (and adulthood) when we need an average of 8 hours per night. It’s a myth that old people need less sleep. They often have more difficulty sleeping, due to repeated bathroom visits as the bladder becomes weaker with age. But they still need the same average of 8 hours per night.
Interestingly, the hours at which we sleep change throughout our lives. During puberty, we become sleepy much later. This is not a choice, it’s a biological fact. And since teenagers still need 8 hours, there’s a problem. Due to their inborn biological clock, many cannot sleep before midnight. So they ought to sleep until 8 o’clock at least, to get the proper amount of sleep. However, they have to go to school, so are woken (long) before they have had enough sleep.
The consequences of this are dire. Considering that adolescence is the most susceptible phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicidality, we are setting our young generations up for ill health. Instead of rigidly adhering to an old custom, why not change the school hours to reflect the scientific biological facts? I know this would require a considerable transformation of the educational system, but surely, we can find a way if we really want to.
Even if you do get 8 hours in bed every night, if your sleep is interrupted multiple times per night, or if for some reason you cannot get into a state of deep sleep, then you may well end up suffering the same risks as those who are sleep deprived (= less than 7 hours of sleep per night).
A lack of sleep quality can be due to internal or external factors. Anxiety is an internal factor. You’re in bed and your thoughts go into overdrive. You worry about something that has happened during the day, or maybe about something that might happen in the future. And those thoughts keep you awake. Or you wake up with a full bladder and have to go to the bathroom. That too is an internal factor.
External factors are for example light, sound and temperature. It’s a proven fact that most people sleep better in a dark room without any artificial light.
We cannot close our ears while we sleep, so sound plays a mayor role in our sleep quality. A sudden (loud) sound can wake us up, but a continuous level of background noise can subtly deteriorate our sleep quality.
The optimum ambient temperature for sleep is 18 degrees Celsius. Most bedrooms are warmer than that, and that may negatively influence your sleep quality.
How you can improve your sleep
1. More than a third of adults in most developed countries fail to obtain the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep. They are chronically sleep deprived, with all the risks that entails for themselves and society. So first of all, make sure you get enough hours of sleep. Because even if you eat right and workout on a regular basis, being chronically sleep deprived will rob you of both your mental and your physical health.
2. Go to bed and get out of bed every day at approximately the same hour.
3. Do not exercise just before going to bed. Make sure there are at least 2 to 3 hours between finishing excising and going to bed.
4. Avoid caffeine and nicotine. These are stimulants that take up to 8 hours to wear off fully.
5. Avoid alcoholic drinks before going to bed. Alcohol is a sedative, which means that it doesn’t help you to sleep, it knocks you out. It’s more like a coma than sleep, and heavy alcohol use robs you of REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep.
6. Do not eat or drink large amounts before going to bed. A full stomach makes it harder to fall asleep and it can cause indigestion.
7. If at all possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt sleep. If you are taking medicines and have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or astma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds or allergies can disrupt sleep patterns.
8. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
9. Relax before bed. Read a book, listen to some tranquil music.
10. Take a hot bath before bed.
11. Make sure your bedroom is dark and cool, and ban all electronics (TV, tablet, mobile phone, etc) and artificial lights.
12. Get at least 30 minutes of daylight exposure every day. In other words: get out during the day.
The information contained in this article is mainly derived from the book “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker. I encourage you to read it to learn more, because this article is merely scratching the surface.