SEATTLE: The serious consequences of sleep deprivation perennially capture society’s attention.
As a clinician and sleep researcher who treats people with sleep problems, I think there is little reason to suspect that our collective sleep needs have dramatically changed in the recent past, rooted as they are in immutable physiological processes.
We should, however, be paying attention to our sleep needs, and that isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Adequate sleep is and always has been restorative to the body. Giving sleep respect, and preserving it to the benefit of health, has not been so permanent.
The advent of, and inexpensive access to, artificial light no doubt marked a significant shift in this history. Scientific understanding of sleep remains incomplete.
But it does seem that people are sleeping less now than they have in the past several decades. Recent self-reported polling among American adults consistently suggests that Americans are not getting adequate sleep.
This begs the question: How much sleep do people really need?
SLEEP NEEDS CHANGE OVER ONE’S LIFESPAN
Sleep needs change over one’s lifetime. Toddlers may require 11 to 14 hours of sleep to feel rested and typically take naps.
Through adolescence, the need for sleep diminishes until it approaches the adult average. A typical adult requires from seven to nine hours of sleep nightly to avoid the effects of sleep deprivation. Adults older than 65 years may require just seven to eight hours of sleep.
Surveys suggest that 35 to 40 per cent of the adult population sleeps less than seven to eight hours on weekdays. This self-reported sleep data may overestimate the objectively measured sleep obtained by up to one hour, due to time spent falling or getting back to sleep.
We are in trouble. If someone eats too many calories, or too few, the effects on the body become apparent.
Unfortunately, there is no “sleep scale” to step onto to gauge the physical tolls of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation, either from not allotting enough time to get sufficient sleep or due to sleep disorders like insomnia, may have important consequences.
BAD FOR THE BRAIN
Beyond sleepiness, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the brain, affecting mood and worsening depression, exacerbating pain and undermining executive functions that affect judgment, planning, organisation, concentration, memory and performance.
Hormones influencing weight and growth become imbalanced. Immune dysfunction, leading to an increased susceptibility to illness, and a pro-inflammatory state develop.
Sleep deprivation can become deadly, too. The increased risk of fatal traffic accidents associated with lost sleep parallels that linked to alcohol consumption.
Those who sleep fewer than five hours per night have two to three times the risk of a heart attack. Chronic sleep loss may slowly undermine the central pillars of health.
How can we avoid the perils of inadequate sleep?
First, prioritise sleep and ensure that you are obtaining sufficient hours to feel rested. Ensure an easy transition to sleep by maintaining an hour to unwind with relaxing activities before going to bed.
Reserve the bedroom as a space for sleep. Leave electronic devices elsewhere.
Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, and fix your waking time, including on weekends. Get 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight upon awakening, or at sunrise.
Always go to bed feeling sleepy, even if that means delaying bedtime a little. As needed, consider reducing the time in bed if more than 30 minutes is consistently spent awake.
Be physically active. Moderate the use of alcohol and caffeine. When sleep problems persist, get help.
Sleep should come naturally. It should never become an additional source of stress. Simple adjustments can yield benefits quickly.
The first step to better sleep is recognising its importance – an objective that has hopefully been achieved. Now, consider making a few changes and, as necessary, access further resources to yield the long-term benefits to health and well-being that only sleep may provide.
Brandon Peters-Matthews is a sleep physician who currently practises at Virginia Mason Medical Centre in Seattle. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here.