We used to worry about not having enough sex – now it’s lack of sleep that’s keeping us awake at night. Karen Kay looks at what’s going on (or not) in our bedrooms.
Where once the question, ‘Are you getting enough?’ related to our sex lives, we’re now desperately comparing rather different night-time habits with our friends, colleagues and family. Search ‘sleep’ in Apple’s app store and the sheer volume of software that comes up offers a tangible measure of our current obsession with getting some shuteye. From helping us to nod off and monitoring our slumber to measuring its quality, there’s an app for just about every sleep-related issue. Type ‘sleep’ into Google and it throws up more than 900 million results – confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a subject that’s front of mind for many of us.
‘Sleeplessness is a growing problem,’ says sleep physiologist Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder and clinical director of the Sleep School in London, which has recently launched an online course to help individuals combat insomnia. ‘Our evolving lifestyle has largely contrived to create this. We are working longer, getting home later and struggling to switch off because of the deluge of digital technology around us.’
Society’s addiction to smartphones and screens may be partly to blame for the hyper-stimulated state that can lead to many of us struggling to relax. A combination of the constant interaction and the rapid responses required ensures we are in a permanent state of high alert. However, there’s another reason to cut down screen time before bedtime: the short-wavelength artificial ‘blue’ light emitted by most of the devices we use in daily life confuses the brain by replicating exposure to sunlight. This triggers the body to stop producing melatonin, which is the hormone that prompts natural internal preparations for sleep. Consequently, it’s harder to drift off when we do go to bed, even when we’re exhausted.
Dr Meadows cites a relatively new phenomenon known as ‘social jet lag’, which echoes the symptoms traditionally suffered when travelling across different time zones. ‘In the past five years or so, we have seen classic indicators such as fatigue, nausea, irrational behaviour and insomnia in individuals who haven’t been abroad. Typical jet lag, defined as the confusion that arises between your internal biological time and the external, environmental time, is being replicated by people who have erratic lifestyles, without the daily routine that was the norm for previous generations. By eating less regularly, working flexible “shifts” and exposing ourselves to different kinds of natural and synthetic light at different times, we are wreaking havoc with our circadian rhythm [our natural body clock], which is vital to our physical and mental wellbeing.’
Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Breus, an American sleep disorder specialist known as The Sleep Doctor, says the problem has been bubbling away for some years, but has been exacerbated by the arrival of the digital era and major changes in lifestyle in developed countries. ‘We have been facing a sleep crisis ever since the invention of the lightbulb. When we were more of an agrarian society we would wake when the sun came up and go to bed when it went down. Once we could work, instead of sleep, at night, we saw a dramatic decrease in total sleep time. I think we are finally starting to see people pay attention to this, but the biggest issue is that sleep is not a priority for most people, so everything else takes a place ahead in line.’
We all know what it’s like to suffer a poor night’s sleep: on a basic level, you ‘get out of bed the wrong side’ in the morning, and can be moody and struggle to focus for the rest of the day. If that becomes the norm, it can affect your ability to function normally, making everyday life challenging, and affecting relationships with your family and colleagues.But what if, for you, like thousands of women, that shut-eye is elusive? Meg Mathews, 51, the former wife of rock star Noel Gallagher and notorious party girl, has recently experienced sleepless nights of a different kind during menopause. ‘A couple of years ago, I was running on empty, feeling like I lived every day with no petrol in the tank,’ she recalls. ‘I felt tired, anxious and irritable, I was lacking in self-esteem and all over the place emotionally. I just put it down to the sheer exhaustion of being a working mum.’
Donald Trump, who claims to exist on three to four hours’ slumber, is ‘showing classic signs of sleep deprivation’, such as an inability to focus, bad decision-making and impulsiveness says Dr Guy Meadows, sleep physiologist.
With many of us having children later and pursuing more demanding careers than our mother’s generation, often supporting ageing parents, too, the menopause can come as a shock, with sleep deprivation being a major symptom for many women.
‘At first, I had night sweats,’ recalls Meg. ‘I’d wake in the early hours, drenched through and have to change my pyjamas and bedlinen. When I tried to get back to sleep, I’d end up lying awake feeling frustrated, angry and anxious, and then it becomes a Catch-22 situation. The hormonal changes mean your oestrogen levels drop and that, I have since discovered, can cause anxiety, but at the time I couldn’t understand why I was so fretful and unable to sleep. It left me feeling overwhelmed by everyday life, struggling to do even the simplest things I’d always taken for granted.’
Meg now runs a website, megsmenopause.com, devoted to opening the conversation about the symptoms of the menopause and supporting women through this challenging time in their lives.
She says she has found numerous ways to improve her shut-eye, such as HRT, magnesium supplements, warm milk before bed and ensuring she cuts out caffeine after lunch and avoids alcohol in the evenings – ‘lots of women drink wine in the evenings to give them some relief at the end of a stressful day, but an overactive liver can really hinder sleep.
‘Since it happened to me, I’ve discovered perimenopause- and menopause-related insomnia is incredibly common in women in their 40s and 50s,’ she explains. ‘Of all my girlfriends going through the menopause, and the women I’ve talked to as a result of starting the website, lack of sleep is the most challenging element.’
Dr Meadows adds: ‘We know that nocturnal sleep – rather than a daytime nap – is essential for mental, emotional and physical wellbeing and our daily performance. Consistent sleep deprivation increases the risk of anxiety and depression and that can perpetuate sleeplessness, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break.’
There is a physiological explanation for the frazzled mental state that accompanies sleepless nights. ‘A longterm lack of sleep leads to an accumulated build-up of neurotoxins that act on the nervous system – even increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,’ continues Dr Meadows.
Research has also shown that those who suffer from prolonged lack of sleep are prone to increased blood pressure, a higher risk of cancer and heart problems. Insufficient sleep can mean not only a heightened predisposition to obesity, as we crave high-fat, high-sugar foods in a bid to boost energy levels, but scientists have also found that the ability to process glucose drops dramatically with extended periods of reduced sleep. One study, in which healthy adults were asked to sleep for only four hours a night for six nights, saw the participants’ glucose tolerance reduced by an average of 40 per cent, potentially making them insulin-resistant and pushing them towards a pre-diabetic state.
Aside from the significant health risks, there are wider social, economic and cultural implications at play if we normalise sleep deprivation and ignore the warning signs of its consequences. While once those who existed on small amounts of sleep were fêted as dynamic, higher achievers – Margaret Thatcher famously claimed to need just four hours’ kip a night – we are now questioning the behaviour of those who suggest they can function normally on so little.
Neurologist Chris Winter, author of The Sleep Solution, says Donald Trump, who also claims to exist on three to four hours’ slumber, is ‘showing many classic signs of sleep deprivation’, such as an inability to focus, bad decision-making and impulsiveness.
In fact, an increasing awareness of the ramifications of chronic sleeplessness is leading to extensive scientific studies into the subject and a new corporate consciousness of the fiscal value of quality slumber.
A recent paper in the American Journal of Neuroscience reported that chronic sleep deprivation in mice could lead to cellular degeneration, which can result in limited cognitive performance. In a study, mice were kept awake for around seven extra hours for five consecutive days, having been given a range of objects to play with to keep them stimulated. The experiment demonstrated that the brain cells (microglia) that remove toxins and clear debris began to ‘eat away’ small fragments of the synapses, which are the vital neurotransmitters that allow brain cells to communicate with each other.
Neuroscientist Chiara Cirelli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Sleep and Consciousness, who conducted the study, explained at the time, ‘I don’t think we know of any cognition function that isn’t affected by sleep deprivation.’
So, with the proven consequence of too little sleep being diminished cognitive function, what does that mean for humankind as a whole? A 2016 report by management consultancy McKinsey & Company, titled The Organizational Cost of Insufficient Sleep, suggested it will have a profound effect on wider society.
‘Research has shown that sleep-deprived brains lose the ability to make accurate judgments,’ wrote Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm. ‘That, in turn, can lead to irrational and unjustified claims such as “I do not need sleep” or “I’m doing fine with just a couple of hours of sleep.”’
In fact, say the authors, ‘sleep deficiencies impair the performance of corporate executives, notably by undermining important forms of leadership behaviour, and can thereby hurt financial performance’.
It may also impinge on the ability to innovate and develop new products. An increasing number of high-profile business people are confidently citing sleep as a critical factor in their ongoing success. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos claims he needs at least eight hours a night: ‘For me that’s the needed amount to feel energised and excited.’ While Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says he ‘used to work all night in the office, but it’s been quite a while since I lived on catnaps. I like to get seven hours of sleep a night because that’s what I need to stay sharp and creative and upbeat.’
Contemporary business thinking sees companies putting wellbeing and sleep health at the forefront of their employees’ welfare. At Google’s California and London offices, staff can take nap breaks in high-tech sleep pods by MetroNaps, designed to cosset them in an optimum reclining resting position, free from external stimulus with optional relaxing music to help you drift off. Some corporates now hire sleep consultants and a few even provide financial bonuses to those who record optimum sleep levels on monitoring devices. It sounds like the ultimate care package, but it makes sound business sense.
‘Sleep is the most powerful health-providing thing we can do,’ concludes Dr Meadows. ‘Establishing a good routine and creating an environment where we can enjoy quality sleep is vital to us as individuals and as a race.’
HOW TO GET A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
- Avoid caffeine for several hours before bedtime. A cup of coffee (or tea or cola) can have a stimulating effect and stop you dropping off.
- Skip the nightcap – alcohol may make you feel tired but it can disrupt sleep patterns by reducing the cycle of restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. And, as alcohol is a diuretic, frequent trips to the bathroom may prevent a good night’s sleep.
- Switch off tablets and TVs at least one hour before bedtime. The light emitted from electronic devices suppresses melatonin, the hormone that controls our body clock. Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.
- Regulate your body clock by sticking to a sleep schedule. Avoid sleeping in, even at the weekend. People who exercise regularly sleep better at night and feel less tired during the day, although it’s recommended to try to finish workouts at least three hours before bedtime.
- If you are too hot or too cold you may have trouble sleeping. In general, bedroom temperature should be between 15C and 19C. Warming your body with a bath or shower can help induce sleep when there’s enough time to cool off afterwards.
*Research commissioned by The Sleep Council in 2013 for the Great British Bedtime Report