Are we getting enough sleep?

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I’ve just read this fascinating book about sleep. You may remember that my own issues with depression are massively tied up with sleep (lack, or excess thereof), and that I’ve been trying some new tricks to conquer my sleep demons. However, all of that is working on that assumption that we need around 8hrs a night to keep on an even keel. The research discussed in this book suggests that it is no surprise I’m still tired and messed up all the time, because actually, I am being short changed. As is everyone else who works on the same assumption.

It’s all Edison’s fault apparently. The workaholic inventor deplored anything which shortened the amount of time available for work, especially “unproductive sleep” and so wanted to invent a way to reduce the time spent in the land of nod. Enter: the electric lightbulb. Of course for millions of years, our ancestors had their daily schedules dictated to them by the celestial wanderings of the sun. Nightfall was a dangerous time when the risk of accident, injury or attack increased, so to was wiser to stay indoors by the fire and rest. Of course there’s some work that can be done by the light of the fire, candle, oil or gas lamp. But it wasn’t that great for the eyes, and it was expensive too, so for the most part, we used the darkness for sleeping. Would it surprise you if I told you that as recently as 100 years ago, the average amount of sleep for an adult was about 9 hours a night? Now, in our shining bright electric world, where we have conquered darkness with the flick of a switch, it is closer to 1.5 hours.

But, most of us have grown up feeling quite happy and refreshed if and when we get our eight hours. Haven’t we? Surely Edison was right – we don’t need the extra hours, and after all, we can sleep when we’re dead, can’t we? Coren illustrates that even people who count themselves as good sleepers can benefit from bringing their average daily shut eye up closer to the 10 hours enjoyed by our chimpanzee relatives – in terms of improved performance, attention, mood etc. and yet our modern world makes it harder and harder to get appropriate rest. Shift work, long commutes, 24 hour living, getting by on little or no sleep is seen as an admirable skill, and we regularly ask people in scarily responsible roles to push their eyelid muscles to the limit by working longer and longer shifts. Surgeons, pilots, train drivers, truck drivers, soldiers… No damage they could do if overtired eh? In fact, when you realise that human fatigue played a key role in accidents like Chernobyl, three mile island, the challenger space shuttle disaster, you might start to think we’ve got something very wrong.

Knowing the interaction between sleep and mood, I wonder if we can’t also blame the explosion in mental health problems on Mr Edison’s workaholism. Apparently, despite his insistence he only slept four hours a night, he frequently also had two three hour naps in the day. But they didn’t count apparently. Other famous non-sleepers also fail to hold up under close inspection. The fact is, sometimes if we’re really tired, We nod off without realising. Even for seconds at a time, drifting off in a meeting, or realising that half way down the page we haven’t taken in a word we’ve read. Micro sleeps – our brain grabbing as much restorative time as it can.

So how do we go about getting 10 hours sleep? I don’t know about you but I’m only home for about 12 hours on a night, so it doesn’t leave much time for cooking, eating, housework, washing, dressing, let alone leisure or exercise. The good news is that it is as effective if you maybe have your eight hours on a night, but then catch a nap in the afternoon. Still hard to achieve when working full time, but a snooze on the train home or at lunchtime might be doable. Ideally, sometime on the 1pm – 4pm slot would work well with the dips in our circadian rhythm (the real reason the post lunch slot is so hard to stay awake through)- but again, I’m not sure many work places are set up to let us have a siesta. But maybe they should think about it. The benefits in terms of increased productivity, reduced errors, sick leave and improved morale might make it worth their while.

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