By Tom Allon
I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It is a topic many complain about and discuss occasionally with friends and family, but it still remains a very mysterious topic to most people around the world.
After air, water, and food, sleep is probably the most essential thing in our lives to ensure our health and daily functioning. It bears repeating that almost all humans spend one third of their lives (25-30 years!) sleeping.
So why do we still know so little about this time when our brains and our bodies seem to turn off? What role does sleep play in our overall health? What role do dreams play in our psychological well being?
When I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory psychology class and the professor spent a lot of time teaching about sleep and its important relationship to our waking lives. He also assigned us to read a book by a famous Stanford sleep researcher, Dr. William Dement, called “Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep.” Out of the hundreds of books I read in college, that one still stands out as groundbreaking and ahead of its time.
There are more than 80 diagnosed “sleep disorders” according to the American Institute of Sleep, and many of them can only be diagnosed in sleep laboratories where patients are wired up to electrodes all night to monitor their sleep and brain waves. The two best-known disorders are sleep apnea (constricting of breathing airwaves that leads to frequent arousals each night) and restless leg syndrome (an involuntary jerking of the leg which awakens those who suffer from it and their bedmates).
But sleep and its discontents is a much more multi-faceted problem and it seems to get worse each year despite the technological and medical progress we are making. In fact, technology has recently been discovered to be a new and onerous impediment to good sleep: the more “blue light” one is exposed to in the hours before sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep and this exposure to computer devices also negatively impacts the quality of one’s sleep.
Teenagers today, many of whom desperately need at least eight to nine hours of quality sleep each night, are tethered to their phones in bed, making our kids weary and less productive. Technology, the great advance of the late 20th century, which is supposed to make our lives better and easier, is actually in some ways an impediment to a healthier, quieter life.
In addition to technology, the major advances in pharmaceutical drugs of the 20th century may also be a counterproductive element in our desire to lead healthier, better-rested lives. Rather than seek natural and behavioral fixes to our sleep problems, a growing percentage of Americans are resorting to quick fixes in pills. These may help in the short-term, but they can have significantly deleterious effects in the medium- to long-term. Chronic dependence, memory impairment, and other negative side effects are now being discovered in recent research about sleep medications.
More than 70 million Americans have chronic sleep problems and almost half get less than the recommended amount of sleep, according to a recent Gallup survey. The amount of money spent each year on sleep-related products—including specialized mattresses, white noise machines, apps that monitor your sleep and a wide range of prescription and over-the-counter medications—is almost $24 billion and growing.
What can we do to deal with this growing public health problem? First of all, we have to stop looking at sleep as a sign of weakness and prizing those who work so hard that they are chronically sleep-deprived. We have to recognize that our teenagers need more sleep, and simple fixes like starting their school day later will go a long way to help alleviate the problem. We must begin to educate people on the many ways they can help themselves get better nights of sleep through nutrition, sleep hygiene (no technology or television in the bedroom) and common sense approaches such as no food just before going to bed, no caffeine for at least eight hours before sleep time, and keeping a regular sleep schedule even on weekends.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to hit the sack.
Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, is a recovering insomniac and a former Republican and Liberal Party–backed candidate for mayor. Reach him at tallo