During my career at NASA we allocated a lot of resources to ensure that our astronauts would be able to perform their duties safely and effectively. The quality and amount of their sleep was a crucial factor, and likewise it is for you and me. Today, 40% of Americans say they do not get enough sleep. On average, Americans get 6.9 hours of sleep each night, slightly less than the 7 to 9 hours recommended by experts. If you’re Japanese you likely get much less, but more if you are from France. So, what does it matter if we don’t get enough sleep?
• Without enough, quality sleep we cannot fully enjoy our waking hours.
• Getting enough sleep comes with substantial benefits, crucial to our physical well-being, such as increased energy, fitness and improved immunity.
• Without adequate, quality sleep our mental and emotional health deteriorates often evidenced by fatigue, depression, anxiety, and reduced effectiveness.
• Seventy million Americans have what is considered a “sleep problem”, including insomnia or sleep apnea. In addition to the challenges suffered by the individuals, the diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems is said to translate to a direct cost of more than $15 billion per year. The additional indirect costs, like accidents, lost productivity and hospitalization, amount to more than $50 billion. Sadly, more than 100,000 automobile-related accidents per year are sleep related.
In a 24-hour day roughly one-third (8 hours) is spent sleeping while the remaining 16 hours we are awake. We do a great deal of planning and structuring of our waking hours to work, socialize, be active and so on. Often viewed as “the opposite of being awake”, we perceive sleep as an unconscious or semiconscious passive state that just happens and does not require our attention. Somehow, we believe sleep will take care of itself to provide us with much needed respite from the day’s activities. We carefully plan our day using watches, calendars and lists to organize each day. How many of us pay similar attention in planning and structuring our sleep?
Two significant events of the 20th century led to greater appreciation of the costs and benefits of sleep.
First, the invention of the electric light bulb enabled the practice of work during what had for all time been normal sleeping hours. This led to the discovery that all living organisms on Earth have an internal, circadian 24-hour biological clock that is fine-tuned by daylight and night-darkness. Disturbing or reversing these rhythms comes with consequences.
Secondly, methods were developed of continuously recording the electrical activity of the brain and of imaging (MRI) its changes day and night. This has led to awareness that the brain is extremely active during sleep and that disrupting its normal pattern of activity can have disastrous consequences on emotional and physical health. Even so, much remains to be learned.
This is the first of a series of blogs on sleep where I’ll delve further into the nature of sleep and how your approach to it can help you live healthier, fuller lives. For now, here are five non-medicinal solutions to improving your sleep:
1. Avoid stimulants for several hours before bed time. Consume no caffeine, and this includes caffeine from foods like chocolate, after 3 pm.
2. Plan for sleep by powering down. Ever notice how going from the computer or smart phone to the pillow doesn’t encourage nodding off? Avoid exertive physical activity after dinner.
3. Make your bedroom for two things only: sleeping and making love. TV’s and even reading should happen elsewhere. And your beloved cell phone? Don’t even think about it.
4. Set and keep a consistent bed-time. There’s a reason we did it for our kids.
5. Respect your sleep time. You spend one third of your life doing it.