Last Wednesday I began to write about the serious global sleep crisis we’re facing. Attention to this crisis has increased with the Nobel Prize for medicine being awarded this year to three medical researchers who identified the genes that control circadian rhythms, an internal body clock that keeps plants and animals, including humans, synchronized with the earth’s revolving around the sun each day.
The 24-hour cycle programs us to have peaks and dips for body temperature, blood pressure, the production of certain hormones and the functioning of many of our vital systems. Crucial here is the sleep we get, sleepiness and alertness being functions as well of the circadian rhythm. Sleep allows the body to perform maintenance and tune-up work and if we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies fail to function properly and, in the long run, there are even increased risks for all kinds of illnesses from obesity and diabetes to cancer and Alzheimer’s.
The sleep crisis has worsened with modern societies because of the way the circadian rhythm is disrupted. There are the longer work and school days, with so much take-home work. Technologies have abolished the night with artificial light, and our waking hours are prolonged with television, phones and tablets, not just because we work (and play) with them but because they emit a blue light that induces more wakefulness.
Urbanization aggravates our sleep problems, with greater population densities that result in your hearing your neighbors’ karaoke, snoring, and other stuff that go bumping in the night. Then there’s urban sprawl and long commuting times that mean having to wake up extra early to leave, and getting home extra late.
Besides the reduced time for sleep, the quality suffers too, with many interruptions. Imagine too people trying to make up for the lack of sleep by catnapping in the traffic, or at school and work.
Also keep in mind the variations in the circadian rhythms of individuals. I wrote in my last column about adolescents’ internal clocks tending to be different from adults, so they tend to keep awake until midnight.
There’s genetics too at work, with entire families suffering from delayed sleep phase disorder, where rhythms are longer than 24 hours so they end up with longer cycles of sleepiness and alertness that don’t conform with the rest of society.
We also have chronotypes, so-called day and night persons, whose rhythms will be different, the night persons being more alert at night.
Let’s get to the advice now for sleeping better, which you’ll find all over the Internet but do be careful about the source of advice. There’s also too much pushing of medicines as a false solution, so do check with health professionals and be sure you don’t get a prescription-happy physician.
The advice on sleeping is not just for work and studying but also for our personal lives. There are studies showing that people in a troubled marriage are less likely to solve their problems if the couple are chronically lacking sleep (in a vicious cycle, because of the marriage problems). The lack of sleep means poorer brain function so arguments become pointless, and hostile.
The same thing happens between parents and their children —parents tend to nag their children when they have a hard time waking up in the morning, but that’s the worst time for the sermons. You need to time the counselling to times when they are more alert and to work together to find ways to cut back on sleeplessness.
Now to the basic advice. The most crucial is preparing the bedroom for a good night’s sleep by dimming the lights, and this includes the sleep-disrupting blue light of television, cellphones and tablets. Conversely, when you wake up, help to jog your body into wakefulness by allowing bright lights, especially sunlight, to stream into the room.
One piece of advice that I find especially useful is this: don’t sleep in on weekends and holidays. The temptation is to just sleep through Sunday morning but this actually disrupts your circadian rhythm and you get into problems on Monday, and maybe the rest of the week.
If you’ve been truly sleep-deprived for several days, your body will “collect” on the sleep debt and get you sleeping a bit longer, but only a bit, and in one “dose.”
Here’s advice for hurdling the college admissions exams, including some 100,000 students who will be taking the UP exams this weekend: don’t bother staying up reviewing the night before the exam. When there’s extra work to finish at the office, or to prepare for an exam, the research shows that an all-night review can be problematic because this disrupts the body clock the next day, ironically when you most need to be alert to present your work, or take the exam. Not only will you be lacking the alertness, you might find that all the stuff you’ve memorized is lost because the brain didn’t get the sleep needed to clear its storage space.
I know this will sound strange but besides paying attention to personal sleep habits, we will need organizations and institutions to integrate a sleep factor into work and study.
Here are a few examples:
Short naps of 10 to 20 minutes can be useful as a quick recharge, especially during the noon break, but few offices allow this.
In schools, advisers should help a student to recognize their chronotypes so “owls” shouldn’t register for 7:30 a.m. classes, especially if they live in Laguna and attend school in Quezon City.
With the UAAP season going full blast, I’m thinking of our athletes. Coaches can get the help of psychologists and HR (human resources) people to figure out the chronotypes of their athletes. “Owl” athletes may not do as well for morning competitions so don’t send them into the court unless absolutely necessary. Think chronotypes too with athletic practice, which tend to be late afternoons and even evenings, and that can be problematic for day person athletes, especially if they’ve had a long day with classes.
The world is actually “biased” toward a vanishing “early to bed, early to rise” routine, appropriate for hunting, fishing and agriculture societies. Today, societies operate 24/7, forcing people into “late to bed, early to rise” routines… or worse, for people alternating between day and “graveyard” shifts, no sleep at all for extended periods.
Human relations departments need to be able to advise management on handling special needs around sleep, which will translate not just into greater productivity but maybe happier offices with less fights among the sleep-deprived.
We might want to be kinder too in our daily encounters, such as when we have to deal with inefficiency and/or crankiness with waiters, hospital staff, students, maybe even gently asking if they’ve been getting enough sleep.
One simple question: just how much sleep do we need? The median seems to be around 8, but it varies by age groups. Look up the information on the website of the National Sleep Foundation. But don’t stay up all night feasting on all the practical information they have.
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