As a university professor I hopefully keep my students awake and avoid the definition proffered by WH Auden that: ‘A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.’ Jokes aside, it is increasingly recognised that sleep is a major issue in today’s 24/7 society where it is estimated that up to half of the population does not regularly get a good night’s sleep.
The month of March celebrated World Sleep Day, an event that is now recognised in almost 70 countries. The theme this year is: ‘Good sleep is a reachable dream.” In Chongqing over 200 people formed the Chinese Character for “sleep” on the ground with their bodies to celebrate World Sleep Day. World Sleep Day celebrates the importance of sleep in our individual lives, its role in medicine and in society. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-03/20/content_23971798.htm
The three elements of good quality sleep are:
a. Duration/quantity- The amount and duration of sleep should be sufficient for the sleeper to be rested and alert afterwards.
b. Continuity- Sleep cycles ideally should be natural and uninterrupted.
c. Depth- Sleep should be deep enough or sufficiently sound to be restorative and refreshing.
Our bodies need to rest in order to be ‘restored’ and repair damage. Restful sleep should be a vital component of our health regime, along with healthy: eating, exercise and stress management. Together these elements make up a healthy lifestyle. As Thomas Dekker concluded: ‘Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.’
Psychologically, sleep is important for our ability to focus. It also can serve as a wonderful aid to problem solving. Many of us would agree with novelist John Steinbeck, that: ‘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
A shortage of sleep can be very bad for one’s health. Sleep deprivation is linked to many negative health effects. Heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity and a poor functioning immune system are just a few. For men, insufficient sleep can reduce testosterone levels and lower sperm count. Stated positively, getting sufficient sleep is related to living longer, healthier lives. How much sleep a person needs can vary among individuals with 8 hours being the norm, though younger people often require more.
Sleep is also a major workplace issue both in terms of safety and productivity. It stands to reason that if people are sleep deprived they are far less productive than they would normally be. This is an important safety issue for everyone. For example, truck drivers who fall asleep, people on a factory floor who make a mistake on the product line, food industry workers who put in the wrong or inappropriate level of ingredients, sleep deprived nurses and other health care professionals who are not focused when administering medications, software programmers who make a mistake in coding, judges who fall asleep during a trial, etc. In the US, staffing firm Accountemps, reports that 74% of U.S. workers say they work while tired, with nearly one-third (31%) indicating this was often the case.
Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
- Testing for Sleep Deprivation. If you snore a lot or do not feel you are getting a good night’s sleep, see your doctor and get tested, for example for sleep apnoea. I did this a decade ago and now thanks to my CPAP machine, I have benefitted greatly from a good night’s sleep ever since. Indeed, on the rare occasion when I do not use my machine, I really notice the difference and wonder how I could have gone for so many years feeling and functioning so poorly as a result of my sleep deprivation. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that in jobs where alertness is critical, that candidates be tested for sleep disorders as part of the hiring process. This includes truck drivers and even judges where one is required to sit for long periods of time and be focused and alert in order to do their job well and especially where a failure to do so can cause significant harm to others.
- Pay attention to Normal Rhythms. Homer wrote in The Odyssey that “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” Our bodies naturally respond to patterns of light and darkness and the rhythms of nature. Unfortunately, our 24/7 world and abundance of artificial light often mean that we can have trouble getting to sleep. Worse still people often fall asleep in front of the TV or while listening to their iPod. Try also to sleep without obstructing the window so that you can wake up to the natural light of sunlight in the morning.
- Cat-nap. Many studies support the view that cat-naps can be very useful in catching up on sleep. Moreover, that little time out to take a 10-15 min nap can provide a much needed energy boost to reboot, refresh and revive. Quite rightly, many road safety campaigns urge drivers to pull over periodically, have a brief nap if they find themselves getting sleep
- Switch on to Meditation and Switch Off Devices. Meditation can also be very conducive to calmness and a relaxed state making it easy to go to sleep easily and enjoy a restful night’s sleep. On a related point, the many studies and great focus on ‘mindfulness’ suggests that adopting a more attentive, focused and mindful approach to activities can also be helpful to a good night’s sleep
- Avoid stimulants late in the day. For a good night’s sleep it is important to avoid stimulants before bed time, have the room dark and switch off the technology so that you will ready yourself for a good night’s sleep. While it is fine to enjoy that morning cup of coffee, be careful about caffeine drinks after lunch and especially in the evening. The stimulant provided by caffeine can make it difficult to get to sleep.
- Technology fix. Finally, it is true in most things that technology is both part of the problem and the answer. For example, devices are now on the market that monitors eye-lid movements that point to drowsiness and alert a driver when they are getting sleepy.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that: “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” With the benefits of a regular good night’s sleep people will be healthier, more focused, less anxious, calmer and, as a result, happier. We spend about a third of our lives sleeping. If we make that sleep a high quality one, the world will be a better place and dreams more likely to come true.