Modern life is not conducive to good sleep. Whether it’s the mental implications of a heavy workload and mounting stress or the physical impact of bright screens and flashing chargers, there’s no denying that we, as a nation, just aren’t sleeping as well as we used to.
Every year, more than 10 million sleeping pill prescriptions are written in the UK, at a cost of £50 million to the NHS. According to the Sleep Council’s Great British Bedtime Report, a third of the population now get by on five to six hours of sleep a night, and 70 percent sleep for less than seven hours. Almost half of Brits say that stress or worry keeps them awake at night.
Changes to the way we eat and drink (read: more coffee, more fast food and soaring sugar intakes) also have an effect on the quality of shuteye we’re getting. Nearly eight million people have used alcohol to help them get to sleep at night, while just under seven million self-medicate with over-the-counter products. And while we all know that the way we live is detrimental to our sleep, and consequently our health, it can be an almost impossible cycle to break.
The first obstacle is the work-life balance (or lack thereof) we face every day. Spending long days in an office away from natural light, for example, can impact your daytime wakefulness and make your brain sleepy. Then bright lights at night – especially from hours spent in front of the TV or computer screen – can suppress your body’s production of melatonin and make it harder to sleep.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin production is controlled by light exposure, so your brain should secrete more in the evening, when it’s dark, to make you sleepy, and less during the day when it’s light and you want to stay awake and alert. Messing with this natural rhythm means sleep isn’t quite so easy to come by (and it’s harder to stay alert during the day), and keeping our brains on a healthy schedule is much tougher than it once was during our caveman days.
Professor Jason Ellis, Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research and lecturer in Psychology explains, ‘There are two main reasons people are reporting poor sleep more than ever. One is a change in work patterns. With our 24-hour society comes the ability to work all hours, so we rarely shut off fully, and we now have a large proportion of the UK population doing shift work, which can be really disruptive to our sleep. Stress is a big issue as it either prevents us from falling asleep or wakes us up in the night.’ How we cope with these patterns only makes matters worse. ‘Believe it or not, there’s more out there to keep us awake and alert than there is to help us sleep, such as coffee and caffeine pills,’ says Jason.
We’re also guilty of not making a good night’s sleep our priority. ‘As a society, we tend to regard sleep as something of a luxury, and with the increasing demands on our time, sleep is usually one of the first things we sacrifice. Another problem is our environment – not only do we see technology increasingly being introduced into the bedroom, which can physically and psychologically prevent sleep by making us more alert, but our sleep environments are now more prone to disruption through noise and temperature.
‘Things really started to change with the invention of the lightbulb. This was a turning point in our sleep history in terms of the widespread capacity to be up, and responsive, at all hours. That said, we are seeing increasing numbers of people with sleep problems year on year. This is partly due to our lifestyles and partly due to people seeking help for their sleep problems.’
So is a lack of sleep really that bad? Sure, you’re likely to spend the next day feeling tired and fuzzy, but the further implications to our health are something we push to the back of our minds. And we really shouldn’t, considering depression is one of the most common serious side effects. Jason says, ‘If we don’t get enough sleep it tends to impact our functioning in the day. We tend to be more moody and irritable and our performance also tends to suffer. The reason for this is that we need good quality sleep for both mental and physical functioning and without it we can become prone to illness in the longer term. We know that sleep is the main period throughout the day for both rejuvenation and protection. Without sleep, our immune system tends to suffer in its ability to repair from the stress and strains of our daily lives. We also know that during sleep we tend to consolidate memory, so without sleep, our ability to recall information becomes limited.’
Andrew Waters of Palatine Beds agrees. ‘In April 2012, health and productivity firm Vielife published the worrying statistics that one in three British workers are not getting enough sleep. There is a direct correlation between chronic lack of sleep and poor productivity at work – with workers suffering from poor concentration, reduced cognitive function and reaction time. Research has also proven that your ability to assimilate new information and remember details is affected by poor sleep, as is your creativity.’
We know it’s an issue, and one with a clear solution. Just sleep more. We know what you’re thinking – it’s easier said than done. We asked Jason how to achieve those lucrative eight hours. ‘In terms of getting off to sleep, one great way to help is to prevent nocturnal rumination. Keep a diary of everything you’ve done today and everything you have to do tomorrow, and do it about an hour to two hours before bedtime (essentially putting the day to bed before you go to bed). This will help clear out the mind ready for sleep.
‘For good sleep quality, there are several things that can be done. Primarily, you need to make time for sleep. Despite the temptation to sacrifice sleep to accomplish other things, set yourself a sleep-wake schedule (time to bed and time to wake) and stick to it. A regular sleep schedule is really important to getting good quality sleep.’
In 2015, our resolution isn’t just to get more sleep, it’s to change our attitude towards it. It’s time to banish our mounting stress, endless to-do lists and buzzing mobile phones from the bedroom – once and for all.