Let’s consider something little discussed, yet we spend a third of our lives at it: sleep. Not exactly a compelling subject at first glance, bringing to mind the words of William Hazlitt – “When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.” But in fact, there’s more controversy than ever about sleep, quite deserving of our attention. New science is giving us a real wake-up call about sleep.
First, there’s how we let down our school-age kids by today’s permissive parenting, as widespread as ever. Setting limitations on children — saying “no” — is going out of style. In its place, parents strive to be their children’s buddies and friends. Unless this is coupled with mentoring, it’s parenting of the worst kind, so much easier in the short term, but a legacy of sadness in the long term.
This brings us to children’s sleep, and their use of cell phones, computers and the endless devices found in the world of communications technology. Children’s endless playing of video games, texting, TV, surfing the web – all expose them to the blue light emitted from these devices’ screens. According to an article by the American Sleep Foundation, posted at sleep.org, this blue light actually restrains the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that controls our wake/sleep rhythm. Reduced melatonin makes it harder for kids to fall and stay asleep. A 2011 “Sleep in America” poll found pervasive use of communications technology in the hour before sleep is directly related to not getting good sleep.
Instilling in children a sense of priority in sleep habits will prove critical. Early onset diabetes among children, reaching epidemic levels in America, is but one of many of the dramatically negative effects of poor or insufficient sleep among young people.
So let’s wise up to some sensible rule-making for kids 6 to 17 years old: bring an end to how technology tricks their brain into thinking it needs to stay awake. Kids who sleep with at least one electronic device in the bedroom, including a TV, suffer the equivalent of an hour less of sleep, and lower quality sleep overall, compared to other kids. Where homework has to be done with such devices, manage that last timeframe of homework before bed as the tech-free stage. Parents must limit the use of technology in their children’s bedrooms, and set a good example by doing the same, as the science about technology and sleep applies to adults as well.
A fascinating and highly readable new book has been published by a professor of medicine at Yale, Meir Kryger, entitled, “The Mystery of Sleep.” Although a third of our lives is spent in bed, he shows how little is known about the purpose and function of sleep. He describes some of the newly discovered and vitally important things that happen in sleep, such as hormonal changes that repair tissue and build up the immune system. And he delves far into the puzzling rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, when the brain, among other things, consolidates our memories.
Dr. Kryger also shows how not sleeping enough, or disrupted sleep can cause impaired performance that can harm others, witness cars, trains and other machinery driven by sleepy people. He discusses sleep disorders such as the scourges of insomnia as well as sleep apnea (the most common disorder), and REM problems where people react so badly to dreams that they hurt sleep partners. The disorder of decades of terrible dreams during sleep, endured by victims of PTSD, continues as perhaps the harshest sleep disorder of all, and to this day is virtually impossible to treat.
The cogent warning of Dr. Kryger’s tome is simple but apparently beyond the reach of too many of us: we have to make sleep a priority far more than we do. He tells us from his own research that it is the leading advice that is ignored by patients. Sleep deprivation, whether voluntarily or from these disorders, is connected to heart disease, high blood pressure and issues with mood, metabolism and cognition. Clearly, if you improve sleep, you improve many other aspects of life.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is a vital indicator of overall health. The state of our sleep health presents an enduring question for our entire life. For adults, seven to nine hours is necessary, according to the most updated research. For a listing of needed hours for all age groups see the “Sleep Health” research paper, log onto see the foundation’s website.
And it doesn’t stop with the quantity of hours. Reflect on these 10 new, and not so new, sleep rules relating directly to the quality of our sleep:
1. Turn in and wake up THE SAME TIME every day, including weekends and days off;
2. Get into a regular routine before bed, such as calming music, bath, yoga, meditation;
3. Avoid daytime naps, or if you have to, limit them to NO MORE THAN 20 MINUTES;
4. Finish all eating at least two hours before a REGULAR bedtime;
5. Avoid caffeine farther ahead of bedtime, mindful that our metabolism can play tricks with this drug, sometimes taking effect hours after we consume it; it blocks sleep-inducing hormones, and a 2001 study finds that 43 percent of Americans are in the grips of a vicious cycle, where they “very likely” use caffeinated beverages to combat daytime sleepiness;
6. Smoking should stop altogether, as it is a MAJOR INHIBITOR of sleep;
7. Avoid alcohol close to bedtime, as it can lead to disrupted sleep later at night;
8. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex;
9. Create a sleep environment that is dark, quiet, cool and with a comfortable mattress and pillows;
10. Exercise greatly improves sleep – a 2013 study posted on sleep.org finds that vigorous exercisers report the best sleep, and that less time sitting strongly associates with better sleep and health (sitting is the new smoking).
So would the world be a better place if we made sleep a priority? A study published last year in HealthDay, headed by Paul Macey of the UCLA School of Nursing, connected poor sleep, and disorders that cause it such as apnea, with chemical changes in the brain, in turn significantly impacting mood. Stress and depression top the list. Imagine much more civil work places and home environments, calmer reasoning and decision-making, clearer thinking and fewer medications, better drivers, courteous public interaction – the list goes on. Certainly getting there will be hard for many of us, but regularly better sleep can make a noticeable difference.